5 Easy Ways to Be A Better Ally
The world is full of well-meaning people of privilege who don’t seem to know how best to serve their underrepresented colleagues as a strong ally. Often times, it’s often this well-intentioned behavior that ends up doing more harm than good by either whitewashing or erasing the experience of the disenfranchised person. This post is a quick primer on how to be a good ally to your female, minority, lgbtq+, and disabled colleagues and fellow citizens of this great planet.
(1) Educate yourself.
Make a conscious effort to learn about the particular challenges that your underrepresented colleagues face, not only in the workplace but in their day-to-day lives. One way to build empathy for those people is to learn as much as you can about the challenges they face, the terminologies they use, and the ways that your own actions and the systems that you benefit from contribute to their oppression. Do research. If you seek them out, you’ll find a lot of people writing and talking about these topics today. Consciously expand your networks. Start following people on social networks, like Twitter, that talk about diversity topics. Start following people who don’t look or experience the world like you, who are doing great things in their respective work fields. You’ll find that the more you change the homogeny of your network, the more your world view will expand.
(2) Acknowledge your privilege.
There are things about navigating society as a person of color, as a female, as a non-binary person, as an lbgtq+ person, as a disabled person, that you cannot possibly understand (even if you, yourself, experience your own kinds of disadvantage). For example, as a woman, I experience my own forms of discrimination, oppression, and bias. However, as someone who presents as straight, white, able-bodied, and cisgendered, I can never fully understand the discrimination and other challenges that people of color, non-binary and lgbtq+ people, or disabled people experience. It’s even more difficult for people who experience an intersection of two or more of these characteristics. A woman of color will always face more bias than I will as a white-presenting woman. (I say “white-presenting” because I am actually Asian American, but looking at me, most people – especially white people – wouldn’t know it. My actual genetic makeup doesn’t really matter. Bias occurs only in people’s perceptions.) By acknowledging your place of privilege, you tell the people around you that you see them and acknowledge that your success is not only a result of your hard work and luck. If we do not acknowledge the lack of barriers for those of us with privileged characteristics, we choose to consciously ignore and erase the biases and systemic obstacles that make it harder for our allies to succeed.
Speaking of which…
(3) Ensure your underrepresented colleagues are seen and heard.
When coming from a place of privilege, the most powerful method of allyship is to use your platform to lift up your underrepresented colleagues. When they do good work, make sure they get credit. Make sure they have a chance to speak in meetings, especially when someone else speaks over them. When an opportunity arises to gain exposure for their work, make sure they are credited – or even better, that they are able to present the work themselves.
(4) Stop talking and listen.
“Not all men…” (or equally, “not all white people”) is a common refrain women (and people of color) hear when talking about the challenges that are uniquely experienced by underrepresented groups. Here’s a revolutionary idea for those people: it’s not about you. If you want to be an ally, you need to realize that there are times you will be uncomfortable recognizing that not all of your success was built entirely out of your own hard work. It is uncomfortable to acknowledge that you’ve had help along the way that others have not – even if that help was simply a lack of barriers to your success. Privilege is believing that your discomfort is more important than the discomfort of disenfranchised people. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to listen. Don’t try to analyze it. Don’t try to justify it. Just listen and be empathetic. Save your introspection for your alone time.
(5) Shut down locker room talk and other bad behavior in the moment when you observe it.
Becoming an accomplice is the next step in proactive allyship. This means putting your own skin in the game. It means that even when there aren’t women or people of color around, you shut down discriminatory or offensive talk, including jokes, sexual comments, etc. – basically anything that undermines the humanity of your colleagues. I recently read a blog post (I can’t find it now — if anyone knows, please leave it in the comments and I’m happy to credit the author) about using the phrase “we don’t do that here” to shut down these types of behaviors. It doesn’t leave the conversation open for negotiation. It is not a commentary on morality. It’s not a debate about whether diversity is good or bad. It is simply a statement of fact. We don’t do that here. That’s not acceptable in our culture. We don’t do that here. End.
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