Allyship: How to Become a Better Ally
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been all too aware of the evolution of meaningful discussions about an uncomfortable topic for some of us: The Dominant Culture’s Privilege in not only the United States but the rest of the “Enlightened” world.
I was moved after reading this article in the Harvard Business Review “Be a Better Ally”.
The “topics” of “How to Become a Better Ally” reveal some of the imbalances of the recent challenges for example some of us experienced during the Coronavirus pandemic that constrained some individuals even in influential places — that is, the white men and women of the “Dominant Culture” who overwhelm positions of authority across open and confidential businesses and establishments — that they should push ahead and evolve; toward creating more different, fair, and comprehensive establishments.
For too long, leaders from majority groups have helped preserve the status quo, that favors them by relegating diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) endeavors to Human Resources as opposed to utilizing their own ability to impact change.
Becoming a better ally means being well informed. And to be well informed, you need to actively commit to both learning on your own and asking others thoughtful questions. We at Morris + D’Angelo view allyship as an essential component to becoming collaborators, accomplices, and coconspirators who fight injustice and promote equity in the workplace through supportive personal relationships and public acts of sponsorship and advocacy.
Change begins with individual leaders’ taking responsibility and ownership of their own attitudes and behaviors. There are various ways of doing this.
How do we start?
Start by proactively educating yourself and doing your homework about other identities and lived experiences. Seek out well-sourced content, perhaps even researching mainstream organizations that educate the public on specific topics.
The more you learn, the more you’ll be able to act with confidence as an ally to people who are in marginalized groups due to their race, gender, religion, or other dimensions of identity.
When you decide to talk to others about the obstacles they’ve faced, start by requesting their permission. If it’s granted, approach with humility and a learning mindset. Good questions might include:
- Be curious about the things people of color or people from marginalized groups and cultures in your business or organization find most challenging day-to-day—things that you might not notice. Would you feel comfortable sharing some of what you encounter?
- If there was one thing you wish your white male colleagues would do more to improve the experience of women/people of color (marginalized groups), what would it be?
- If there was one thing we could stop doing every day, what would it be?
- If you were giving me advice on how to really show up as a colleague to make the workplace fair and welcoming, what would you say?
Recognize that members of an underrepresented group won’t all have the same experiences—especially if they’re from different cohorts. To be a great question-asker, it’s important never to assume that someone is an expert on every element of their identity—or that they’re willing to share their thoughts and feelings with you.
And, don’t generalize from the stories of one or two colleagues. Talk to many and be attuned to their unique experiences and intersectional identities. Pay attention to how marginalized groups in your organization experience meetings and other gatherings, and stay alert to inequities and disparities.
Transform your perspective as a leader. You might find that once you put on this lens, you can’t take it off. The world will look different from now on.
Be that as it may, it’s important to understand that privilege is a resource that can be deployed for good
Own Your Privilege
Being an ally requires perceiving the benefits, open doors, assets, and power you’ve consequently been blessed with as a member of the Dominant Culture (white male or female) while others have been clearly or subtly denied. This can be painful and difficult in light of the fact that it frequently implies conceding that you haven’t entirely earned your own success. Be that as it may, it’s important to understand that privilege is a resource that can be deployed for good.
Purposely look for input from minimized groups, but recognize the power dynamics at play. For instance, when these marginalized groups are approached to offer guidance to their white colleagues when they themselves are not in secure positions, this request may inadvertently add invisible labor and stress.
It’s advisable that you establish or have trusting relationships with those people from marginalized groups (especially those disadvantaged in multiple ways) instead of forcing your dominance that will in turn give you unvarnished feedback about your workplace conduct so that you may receive their comments as a gift.
Become a Confidant
Make yourself available, listen genuinely, and try to empathize with and validate their experiences. Be the “One” who always makes time to listen and offer encouragement from your leadership.
“As an organization with a commitment to equality and inclusion, we should take our colleague’s concerns seriously. We should deal with this immediately rather than wait for a more convenient time.”
Bring Diversity to the Table
Those in positions of authority and status might use a “pull” approach: In meetings, ask very specific questions of people whose contributions and expertise are often overlooked or devalued so that those in “power” don’t dominate the conversation.
Allies learn to step out of the spotlight by, for example, asking a woman of color to lead a meeting or recommending that a person from an underrepresented group take their place in a high-visibility position or event.
See Something, Say Something
Always be alert and monitor your workplace for racist or sexist comments and behavior, and then be clear and decisive in shutting them down.
Don’t wait for marginalized people to react, as they’re often accused of “playing the race or gender card”—a tactic used to silence those speaking up specifically. When you witness discrimination, don’t approach later to offer sympathy. Give them your support at the moment.
Be on the lookout for “Gaslighting”: a psychological manipulation that creates doubt in victims of sexist or racist aggression, making them question their own recollection and/or sanity. This tactic is designed to invalidate someone’s experience.
Examples include comments like:
• “I’m sure he didn’t mean any harm by that. That’s just his way.”
• “You might be blowing this out of proportion.”
• “You’ll have to learn to be less sensitive.”
• “Can’t you take a joke?”
• “There are so many more important things to focus on right now.”
If you hear people, whether they are other white men or white women, say something along those lines, respond, “As an organization with a commitment to equality and inclusion, we should take our colleague’s concerns seriously. We should deal with this immediately rather than wait for a more convenient time.”
Finally, avoid common mistakes made by people who claim to be allies. Some people who claim to be antiracists think that they’re absolved of their biases and prejudices or do it to put themselves on a higher moral ground.
Being an ally is not about making yourself look good or feel better
Sponsor Marginalized Coworkers
Allies seek out talented protégés from entirely different racial and cultural backgrounds and become their vocal supporters. They get to know their colleagues’ strengths and weaknesses, help them develop as leaders, challenge and encourage them, and tout their abilities and achievements whenever new projects, stretch assignments, or promotions are discussed. They nominate these protégés on the basis of their potential, without expecting them to prove they can do a job in advance.
This might require that you invest some social capital on the line—a risk you as a sponsor should get more comfortable with. Finally, allies introduce protégés to key players in their own professional networks to open up an even broader set of opportunities for them.
Build a Community of Allies
Allies can do a lot to make their impact by joining or forming groups of colleagues interested in fighting racism and gender inequality. Look for like-minded people in all parts of your organization and other employee resource groups, and then grow your base. Focus your advocacy on evidence-based tactics that will drive small wins within your sphere of influence, and create opportunities to interact through networking, mentoring, and professional development events.
If you’re a senior leader, you should push for organizational change if needed. No matter where your organization is on its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) journey, you can champion and lend time and energy to designing and implementing antibias, recruitment, and leadership development initiatives that work.
We all have an opportunity—and a responsibility—to support change within our own businesses and organizations, which will ultimately benefit our organizations and society.
Becoming a better ally means being well informed. And to be well informed, you need to actively commit to both learning on your own and asking others thoughtful questions.
- Start by proactively educating yourself about other identities and lived experiences. Seek out well-sourced content, perhaps even researching mainstream organizations that educate the public on specific topics.
- The more you learn, the more you’ll be able to act with confidence as an ally to people who are in marginalized groups due to their race, gender, religion, or other dimensions of identity.
- Become a great question-asker, it’s important never to assume that someone is an expert on every element of their identity—or that they’re willing to share their thoughts and feelings with you.
- Only ask questions if it’s clear the person wants to bridge the gap between their experience and yours, or if they’re a close friend with whom you share a lot of trust.
- Think hard about what information you’re looking for and why. Ask with humility, listen carefully, and respect their privacy.
Even a modest effort to increase your knowledge will make you a more confident and effective “Ally” to the people you want to support. It will also help ensure that when you do have questions, you won’t be asking your conversation partner to educate you from square one. You’ll be asking for their perspective on something about which you’ve begun to educate yourself.
At Morris + D’Angelo, we believe in bridging the gap in understanding diversity and inclusion. The bottom line is that we all become rich and wealthier because of it.
Parts of this article are from an article in the Harvard Business Review by Tsedale M. Melaku, Angie Beeman, David G. Smith, and W. Brad Johnson “Be a Better Ally” and “How Much Do You Need to Know to Be an Ally?,” by Kenji Yoshino and David Glasgow.
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