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How to Be a Better Ally

The following article has been adapted from an extract taken from Demanding More.

What is allyship?

Allyship is the direct action of an ally and the specific work done by an ally to learn (or unlearn) the experiences of different communities whilst using their privilege to shift the dial for underrepresented and marginalized groups. 

Performative vs Actionable allyship

Performative allyship is rooted in only allowing for change that is comfortable or ‘accepted’ by the majority group. It isn’t about actually helping underrepresented communities. The focus is actually on the ally being rewarded and getting benefits from being ‘one of the good ones’ whilst doing the bare minimum. This involves:

  • Tone policing - "don't be too aggressive with your words. That's not very nice", disregards the hurt and emotion, only to accept a certain type of engagement that centres the perpetrator over the victim. A good example of this is how society talks about racism. Consider how many times you have heard about people calling out racism being told that they can't say something is racist etc, vs actually focusing on the racism being perpetuated. 

  • Palatable engagement - this is doing the bare minimum to appear caring and engaged. Performative allyship is rooted in self-service and getting praise for being an ally (the antithesis of true allyship). An example of this is in the global uproar after George Floyd' murder at the hands of the police in 2020, when many people and organizations spent one day posting a single black square on their social media accounts to 'stand in solidarity with the Black community', whilst using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. There are a number of things that aren't useful here:

    • Firstly, from a practical standpoint, using the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag with no actual content meant that useful posts with petition links and educational content were pushed down ‘explore’ pages, meaning they weren’t being found when they were most needed.

    • Secondly, posting a black square is all well and good but what else are you doing? Anti-Blackness is internalized deeply into our society and posting a black square doesn’t address that. Sure, showing solidarity in this way may have a point, but it is certainly not the start and finish of our work. If you post a square but don’t spend time learning about the history that has brought us to this moment, sign petitions, keep talking and educating your white and non-Black friends and family and donating (if you can), then you are being performative.

  • Personal attachment as a necessity - allyship and caring about other people should not require any direct or indirect connection. Do you need to know a gay person to care about gay rights? Do you need to have disabled people amongst your friends or family to care about disabled rights? Simply – no. We must understand that we should use our privilege for all people, regardless of whether their betterment directly benefits us (or the people we care about) or not. Because of this type of allyship, we have seen that most diversity and inclusion efforts have positively affected white, non-disabled, cisgendered, heterosexual, economically privileged women. Because white men in leadership can ultimately identify with white women more than any other minority group.

So, what does genuine empowering and impactful allyship look like?

Top tips on being a better ally

To be an ally, your words and action must be in sync. Words without actions are detrimental and work against changing an exclusive culture. If we say one thing, yet do another that directly contradicts this, then what are we doing other than being self-serving and causing further hurt and damage? Here are my top tips on being a better ally.

Recognize and actively seek out learning on systemic inequalities

We cannot understand how to be an ally if we don’t actually understand what we’re trying to address and readdress. It’s impossible to know where to go if you don’t know where you’ve been.

It’s also crucial to recognize the exclusions and exclusiveness that have happened that may not have actively affected you but have had detrimental effects on others.

If we want to care and make changes for the better, we must understand and accept what society has done previously. This might mean that you find out things that you are uncomfortable with, and that there are people you idolize that actually should have been held to account.

This is a journey and we must accept that everything we know will not have always been the entire story.

Realize the impact of micro-aggressions

Micro-aggressions are everyday actions, verbal and non-verbal whether intentional or unintentional, that are hostile or derogatory against a specific person or group because of their identity, race, gender, disability and so on.

Examples are the constant mispronunciation of someone’s name (which is non-Western), regularly confusing people of the same ethnicity, describing disabled people as ‘inspirational’, making assumptions about people’s preferences based on their sexuality, saying that someone seems very smart for a Black person, etc.

If these things do not happen to you, hearing that they do occur may seem like no big deal. But that assumption doesn’t take into account the regularity of these occurrences and how ‘small’ things have a big impact on people when they continually happen.

Death by a thousand cuts is a very real thing – if you had one of those small cuts and none after, you’d probably be ok, but when you have thousands of them, that is a different story.

Believe experiences of those who are underrepresented

There are things you will hear that will be shocking and almost impossible for you to comprehend. The reason for that is privilege and an ability to not have been affected in the same way.

Instead of immediately reacting (inwardly or outwardly) with "I can’t believe that", "There’s no way that happened", "You’re overreacting, it was just a comment" or "That doesn’t sound like something I’ve ever heard before", consider why this is your immediate reaction. Humans are multifaceted and have all different experiences – it’s highly unlikely that one person will have fully experienced every single issue, and that’s why listening is important.

Remember that there is a difference between listening to speak and listening to learn. When we are listening to speak, we’re simply allowing someone else to speak and not digesting what they’re saying, because we’re mentally preparing to say our rebuttal or to state something else that was relevant to the conversation prior. We’re not actually really listening. When we’re listening to learn, we are listening, digesting and analyzing what the person is saying before creating our own response. We’re also spending the time to listen, even when the statements may counteract our own beliefs. We need this kind of listening from allies to underrepresented groups.

Share growth opportunities

At certain points in our careers, we will start to get regular opportunities and new assignments because of our seniority levels. There are times when we know that there are people who could really benefit from these opportunities to grow, learn and develop. More often than not, these opportunities are allocated to people similar to us.

Now, if the majority of people in leadership are white, straight men, then who is more likely to get these new growth opportunities? And so, the cycle continues.

If you do this, a part of allyship will be actively spending time analyzing who you think of right away for opportunities and why. The ‘why’ is important – are there certain skills you always think of that you know person X has? Do you judge the person on previous experience or on potential? Are these people similar to you and, therefore, likely to create something similar to you in some way?

Now, think about the groups of people you may not be considering. That’s why this is a continuous conversation. People slip back into habits – it’s human nature. True allyship disrupts this, making sure that we regularly check the different exclusionary systemic processes we either feed into or benefit from.

Be proactive about supporting underrepresented people

Don’t wait for someone to reach out for help. Reach out to them and ask if you can help them.

Note if you see them struggling to speak up in meetings or be heard – proactively say to the room that you want to hear from them. If there is something happening in the world that you know will have affected them personally, reach out and offer your support. Help them get growth opportunities without them having to ask for your help.

Understand that you reaching out takes the burden off these people to always reach out for help.

Hold yourself (and those around you) accountable

Accountability is key. All words, no action makes for performative allyship.

We all mess up and somethings get things wrong, myself included. No one is perfect. With this in mind, we must have checks in place to catch us when we slip up and have a method of moving forward. We have to understand that when we slip up, even if unintentionally, it will and can still cause pain and hurt to other people. Remember, intention and impact are two very different things and, as allies, we must prioritize the impact on underrepresented people.

It’s very easy to jump headfirst straight into allyship, committing to doing lots and lots of things and then getting overwhelmed and doing nothing. Listen and watch for signs of performative allyship in yourself and others.

These are just a few ways you can stand up to be a better ally. In Demanding More there are more steps available and practical advice to help you move from understanding to action.