In order for us to understand and discuss what it means to be an ally, we must first talk about what it isn’t. Before doing that, I’d like to address the elephant in the (virtual) room:
Being a good person doesn’t equate to being an ally.
One thing I love about my husband is that he is protective; he fights for those he cares about. If I have a bad day and am upset about something, he listens and then wants to go to battle for me. It’s something that many of us have with someone ̶ whether it’s a parent, significant other, child, friend, or family member. It’s a true gift, one where we know that no matter the situation, they fight for what is important to us. And those are a few traits of an ally that many of us can relate to: A listener. Unconditional solidarity. Someone ready to take on others‘ struggles as their own.
As a straight cisgender (someone whose gender identity matches my sex at birth) white woman, I strive to be an ally and I’d like to tell you why. To me, it’s important that all people can be their authentic self, that they live life to the fullest and have true equality and opportunity in this world. As easy as that is to type, the reality is that it’s far from the experiences of many. Unless someone lives in your reality, they won’t be able to truly understand what your experience is.
An ally is someone who listens to challenges and perspectives outside of their own. An ally is someone who educates themselves; who feels uncomfortable learning how they and their communities contribute to the challenges someone else experiences but keeps learning anyway. An ally is someone who will fight for a cause. An ally understands that the impact of a hurtful word or action is far greater than the intention behind it, regardless of how positive. An ally is a supporter who will use their privilege and influence to amplify voices that aren’t always heard. An ally is someone who will stand up, even when it’s not trending.
Will you make mistakes? Yes – we ALL do. Keep moving forward! It is important to listen, have dialogue, and hear and tell our stories.
We as humans like to live in comfort. We tend to surround ourselves with people like us and we don’t like to focus on the issues around us. It’s hard for so many to see how we’ve contributed to challenges for others. I’ve talked with people who want to look at one piece of information and declare themselves informed. I think this is sometimes because they don’t want to acknowledge the deeper issues as it can be emotionally-charged, very overwhelming or cause anxiety over what they feel may change. As allies, we need to do just that. We need to be able to dig deep and talk about sensitive issues to truly make a difference. Change only begins when we stop just being empathetic and start acting in ways that can effect change.
When you hear something related to specific groups or to Diversity & Inclusion – what is your immediate reaction? We all need to reflect on our responses and try to understand where they are coming from. Inclusion is that ALL people feel authentic at all times. That means you too. Change can start by reflecting on our responses and actions.
To truly create inclusion and develop diversity, we must reflect on what it does and doesn’t mean to be an ally.
- Adding qualifiers to your statements – for example, saying “I don’t have a problem with [enter demographic here] as long as they don’t get married, live in my neighborhood, work on my team, protest, etc.
- Posting a trending support statement on social media and walking away.
- Saying things to distract from the topic or focus at hand. For example, questioning why protests occur during a pandemic and expressing that the protests should wait.
- Expecting someone to educate you on their challenges. There are many resources, including blogs and videos, that you can find on your own.
- Listening to the experiences of your diverse friend groups when they compare your experiences to theirs and acting surprised and in disbelief rather than showing empathy.
- Singing certain words in songs or joking about stereotypes even if you’re friends with an underrepresented member of the community.
- Saying “I don’t see color” as it shows that you do not see the person, their challenges, or their differences which should be valued.
- Minimizing or disregarding a movement or cause by redirecting to something more generic. An example of this is saying “all lives matter” when someone is talking about the Black Lives Matter movement. That is like walking into a fundraiser for breast cancer research and saying, “all cancers matter.” Of course, they do. The goal is to shine a light on a specific situation to advance the cause.
- Assuming that you know what someone or a group needs to do. Unless you really ask questions and educate yourself, you don’t.
- Not challenging social norms. Even today in technology, companies are reviewing naming conventions to ensure they are bias free – terms such as whitelist/blacklist, master/slave, white paper, man-hours to name a few.
- Telling someone how to “fit in” vs being their authentic self.
- Being silent.
Being an ally is:
- being more than saying you are one.
- listening and educating yourself.
- using your voice and privilege for others in spaces where they don’t share the same privilege, even if uncomfortable.
- using your vote to help enact change for equality.
- standing up, uncovering biases, and speaking up against what you see.
- making calls, raising your hand, and getting involved.
Becoming an ally WILL make you uncomfortable, I promise you that. But I also promise it will be so worth it. You will grow and learn, and you – and our world – will be so much better because of it.