So, you want to become an ally. Be aware that it will require you to suspend judgement and to get real about the systemic inequalities and injustices that have existed for millennia. Becoming an ally also requires diving into discomfort as you dig deep into your own privilege and what it has meant and continues to mean for women, people of color, and women of color.
Research clearly shows that women of color are a particularly marginalized group that will require your allyship. The role of an ally is to lighten the load through presence, nonjudgement, empathy, support, and action. If you still want to become an ally, as a woman of color I am happy to share with you some of the ways in which you can do so.
Get curious about the experiences of others that are different from your own. Compassionately ask women and people of color with genuine interest how they are feeling and how they are doing. You can do so in a way that does not create undue burden and place the load on them. Build systemic awareness by reading up on external factors that impact women and people of color on an individual level and develop a critical understanding of how people in positions of privilege may be impacting the lives of women and people of color every day. You can approach the situation by talking about what we are all seeing play out in the news on a daily basis and ask your peer or team member if they are open to discussing at that time and let them know you would truly like to seek to understand and support. Then….
Truly and deeply listen as women and people of color share with you how they often feel invisible, recount daily experiences of microaggressions, and tell their stories of having their well-earned accomplishments discounted and diminished by someone who felt they were more entitled to the acknowledgement, award, or promotion.
I recall an experience where I had worked very hard for and had earned a highly coveted management position only to have a white male colleague publicly remark, “I wonder what she had to do to get that job”, and then, “I wonder who she had to do to get the promotion”. The messages were heard loud and clear, “how dare you rise above your station”. “I am white and male, you are black and female, how dare you rise above me – mind your place”.
Even though you will likely never fully understand the experiences of women and people of color, if you are truly committed to becoming an ally, you will need to develop the emotional skill of empathy, with heart and humility. We have all heard the saying, “walk a mile in another’s shoes” when talking about empathy. Empathy is about perspective-taking and according to Brené Brown Ph.D., it is a vulnerable choice that, when coming from an authentic place, can forge powerful connections. Empathy as an ally involves being aware of and sensitive to the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of others whose shoes you have not walked in and whose shoes you will never walk in. Wholeheartedly welcome the opportunity to have a window into the world of another human being whose life experience, perspectives, and ideas may be very different from your own. And honor the struggles and the journey they have lived.
In demonstrating empathy, you will need to acknowledge the experiences being shared with you while you sit in your seat of discomfort and not make it about you. Get in touch with the uncomfortableness rising within you; feel it, taste it. I guarantee you this emotional experience of yours is only a fraction of what women and people of color feel as they face inequities, injustices, and discrimination in workplaces around the world daily.
Once you’ve learned to listen with an open heart and mind and offered an empathetic connection, when you hear of discrimination and prejudice due to sex or race do not question it, rationalize, minimize, attempt to explain away, dismiss, discount or deny the impact, instead – Believe.
Believe it when you witness and hear stories of women and people of color being persecuted in violent, visible ways and in more subtle, covert ways. Daily mental, emotional, and psychological assaults can become a heavy “cross to bear”. As an ally you will need to be attuned to and validate the daily impact of misogyny, stereotyping, and racial profiling for those who bear the brunt and accept that these experiences are happening to people in your life; it is real.
Becoming an ally is ultimately about action. It is about stepping in and stepping up. Becoming an ally requires unlearning and relearning. You will need to build an understanding of how your personal life supports and is supported by white privilege. It will be a journey of discomfort and only through discomfort will you effect the necessary change. Are you prepared to put in that effort?
a. Develop self-awareness
Start with yourself. Self-awareness for an ally inherently focuses on examining privilege in honest and vulnerable ways. Also, check in with yourself on your unconscious biases, stereotypes, and prejudices. Notice what is different for you from women and people of color. Become aware of the subliminal advantages you enjoy. For example, when you walk into a room you likely don’t think about your sex, your race, title, or status. You’ve probably been taught to own the room and cast a strong shadow. As a woman of color, I don’t have that luxury. I am very aware that when I walk into a room people see me as a Black woman first and often have preconceived ideas about who and what I should be, how I think and how I should speak.
b. Check your ego and privilege at the door
Remember, it is not the job of the women or people of color in your company to boost you up and make you feel comfortable. Once you shed your layer of privilege, only then will you be able to see clearly and create the space for authentic connection and partnership as an ally.
Instead of resting in your belief of superiority and correctness, invite new perspectives, raise up a diversity of voices at the table, and applaud and explore new ideas. Elevate, encourage, and fan the flame of new voices with views likely different from your own, that have potentially been stifled for far too long and have so much to offer.
c. Be a voice
We’ve all heard the phrase “see something, say something”. What does that mean? As an ally you will need to be prepared to no longer remain silent and speak up in the face of racist rhetoric, discriminatory behaviors and practices, and prejudices that keep women and people of color down. Exercising your voice as an ally means you’ll need to educate your colleagues, family members, and friends and challenge the injustices that may not be directly affecting them or you.
Once an ally, you can no longer remain unmoved and untouched by blatant inequities, injustices, and the impact of unconscious biases. Look inside yourself for what you have to offer women and people of color. One of my great mentors who was in a very senior leadership role, skillfully managed his own career climb and took the time to get to know me. He appreciated my contributions to the business based on my unique clinical background and believed in my leadership abilities. My mentor taught me about the industry, about strategy, leadership, and networking. He wanted to see me succeed while women in leadership roles took little interest and provided no support; they seemed to view me as competition.
My mentor was always honest, authentic, and fair. He leveraged my knowledge base and expertise, and shared my ideas at a very high level of the organization; always giving credit where it was due. My mentor never treated me as a subordinate. He treated me as someone with potential equal to his own and, because he had come before me, enthusiastically took on the role of nurturing the next in line. In large part, it is because of the care, interest, and teachings of this mentor that I am in the Vice President role that I hold today.
An ally is someone recognized as an active supporter of marginalized and disenfranchised groups that experience inequities, injustices, and discrimination based on characteristics that have deemed them “less than” in society. You can only imagine what its like to be persecuted or ignored based on the color of your skin, or because you were born a certain sex or gender.
Keep in mind that you are not the one to deem yourself an ally. However, through curiosity, listening, empathy, validating experiences of others, and taking right action you are more likely to be seen by women and people of color as a true ally. So, after reading this article ask yourself, do you still want to become an ally? If so, be honest with yourself about what is required and then take the next bold step toward action.
I invite you to continue the conversation with me as I facilitate a livecast on February 19th at 1pm EST where my guests will be Jonita Wilson and Khalilah Lyons, Diversity and Inclusion leaders with Discover Financial. I’m excited to have this time with them as they share their expertise and deep journey of diversity, equity, and inclusion work within their company over the past year.
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About the author
As a lifelong student of human behavior, a psychotherapist / family therapist turned organizational psychologist, Dr. Warren believes that a strong foundation of Emotional Intelligence (EI) builds great leaders, fosters employee engagement and creates great places to work. She has a wealth of knowledge and professional experience in the areas of collaboration, values-based leadership, coaching, and strategic business execution. Dr. Warren holds a Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology and a Professional Post-Graduate Certificate in Leadership. She currently holds the position of Vice President of Leadership Development at the Institute for Health and Human Potential. Subscribe to Cranla’s People Matters newsletter!