The power, privilege and responsibility of a white-presenting person like me

Eva McCloskey, managing director of the Academy of Interactive & Visual Arts, discusses how she's benefited from presenting as a white woman at work, and how if everyone in positions of power used their privilege and access for good, we might finally see some real, meaningful shifts.

A constant for me during the ups and downs of Covid-19 has been daily virtual workouts with the trainers at my longtime gym who kept me strong and healthy during my roller derby days and pregnancy.

On my 40th birthday a few weeks back, big celebratory plans canceled because of coronavirus, I decided to join their Friday night dance party to raise money for the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. Not what I had planned, but I couldn’t have scripted a better night. We laughed. We moved. We sweated. And we raised $95k through individual and matching donations.

It felt so good. I am a person of color, I’m Latinx, but how many people know that about me? As one of the very few white-presenting students in public school growing up in inner-city Boston, I have had a unique view of hardship and privilege.

While I grew up with two white parents, my biological father is Dominican. My sister is brown, as are her kids. My son is not. With aunts who are Black and brown, one grandfather who is white and one who is Black, I danced to show my son that celebrating diversity to drive inclusion is a mission he, like me, must always embrace.

I’m keenly aware of the benefits presenting as white brought to me growing up and throughout my career. Especially because I left my working-class home at 16 to chart my own course. Imagine a person of color landing a job in advertising without a college degree? Pretty impossible. But, I did. I didn’t go to college. Smart, tenacious, but allergic to authority, I lived on my own, went to a public pilot school by day, and worked for an answering service at night.

Right out of high school I got a job as a receptionist at John Hancock Financial in Boston. It was based in a building I had long passed and wondered what you had to do to make it to the top of that architectural wonder. My nurse mom and school bus driver/musician dad could not provide corporate counseling. But I quickly learned.

I had a lot of opportunities early on. Despite the fishnet stockings, nose ring, and a few tattoos, I continued to advance. If I was a Black person, I am sure I would have had a different experience. I certainly would have had to present in a more buttoned-up way and left my free expression at the door. Conformity, for sure, would be part of the cost of entry.

I performed well so I didn’t have to change. I was lucky because my bosses were all about the work and getting stuff done. And, I looked white. At 21, I was in Salt Lake City, helping to write speeches delivered by really important people, and meeting cool athletes and celebrities at the 2002 Winter Olympics.

While in Utah, I wrote a release for some friends who were leaving Arnold Worldwide and starting their own digital agency. By the time I returned and with Nike as a client, I became The Barbarian Group’s first employee. The founders were different, determined to do something different, and were open to me and my perspective. The lessons learned during my tenure at John Hancock helped me secure fame for the digital production company and the founders and contributed to its meteoric rise.

Advertising was filled with people who didn’t come from where I came from. On top of all the complexities I struggled with around race, there were class issues as well. And, there wasn’t another woman in the building when I started at Barbarian. I had my own bathroom for months. My bosses, to this day, have always been white men.

So, I danced on my birthday, for the women who have babies of color and are fearful for their future every day. I danced for the women of color who have been unable to have opportunities like I’ve had. I swayed against injustice and ended the night with a bit more hope. For my diverse circle of friends, and people I don’t know personally but know they’re in desperate need of allies.

Upping my commitment to be a better ally personally and professionally is nearly all-consuming these days. Having grown up in the ad industry, which has rightly taken a beating for its lack of diversity, I’m dedicated to helping lead the change.

I’m keenly aware that I’ve taken advantage of the system, both directly and indirectly. I’ve benefited from presenting as an attractive white woman. So, I danced for all the women who haven’t been as fortunate as me. I danced with ferocity and intention to change the landscape for those coming next, like my niece and nephew, and rising stars in agency land. I’m taking my responsibility to be the conduit of change seriously. We all must if we want to create systematic changes.

Diversifying the Academy of Interactive & Visual Arts and the members responsible for judging work from the organization’s multiple award shows is where I can make a difference now. And I’m trying. It’s been my mission from jumping off – it’s table stakes for me. If everyone in positions of power uses their privilege and access for good, we might finally see some real, meaningful shifts.

I so hope so.

Eva McCloskey is managing director of the Academy of Interactive & Visual Arts

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