11 Tips for Being an Ally

Often the most ardent spokespeople for valuing diversity and creating equity in our systems also possess a determination that is rooted in wanting to help “those disenfranchised people”, or “that marginalized group.” The assumption is that “those ____ people” (fill in the blank: Black, Asian, Gay, differently abled, etc.) need “our” help. With all of the best intentions, this perspective—and often the associated “advocacy”—is not the real work of allies. It may make us feel like we are.

Think about the last time you were in a meeting and witnessed a person’s contributions being overlooked by those in power at the table. Or listened on as colleagues belittled a colleague who is different from you and them. Or saw a social media post from one of your “friends” that was clearly meant to put down members of another group or with different life experiences. Then you, because the comments or behaviors are inconsistent with your values, go directly to the person or group that was the target of the offense and quietly express your support for them. Though this may be important for your conscience, it is not what allies do. Allies speak up. 

Allies are people who are deeply invested in ending oppression in all forms, not on behalf of another group but side by side with them. They know that members or target groups are not waiting for the approval of the non-target groups to be seen, heard, and recognized. Allies are comfortable with their own cultural identities, including the areas of privilege. They know that privilege is unearned and gives them unfair access to certain groups, perspectives, and resources. Rather than their privilege being a badge of shame, it is an opportunity for creating inroads, educating, and building bridges. Allies also know that the work of ending oppression cannot be left solely to the oppressed. White people cannot expect brown and black people alone to end racism. Men cannot expect women to end sexism. People who are part of the L,G,B,T,Q communities cannot end homophobia. Children alone cannot end child abuse. Understanding the dynamics of power, and that power is present in every human interaction, allows allies to fully engage their privilege without shame. 

Most people have areas of privilege. Straight people have privilege in a world that is filled with homophobia. White people have privilege in a world filled with racism and racist acts. Finally, well-off people have privilege in a world that is deeply divided by socio-economic status. Able-bodied people have privilege in a world that judges and is difficult to navigate while differently abled. Adults have privilege in a world that minimizes the voices and contributions of young people. Christians have privilege in the U.S., a country that celebrates major Christian holidays and integrates religious dogma even into systems and structures that purport to be secular, and where people who are of different faiths are often ostracized. Managers and people with formal leadership roles have privilege in your organizations where the vast majority of employees do not have formal power. The list goes on and on. 

Do not let reflections on your areas of privilege devolve into feeling guilt. Guilt is a terrible drain on energy, and our world needs all the energetic and committed allies it can get. A more useful way to think about your privilege might be gleaned from how I approach this topic with my son (he’s 9). What I say to him is, “Privilege is something to be proud of, and to use to help people. Having privilege is like a superpower, like Spider-Man. And with great power comes great responsibility. That’s our work, to be responsible with our privilege.” 

Allies do something. Just being committed is not enough. Sitting quietly on the sidelines and cheering for your favorite political candidate or posting to Facebook is not the work of allies. Allies move the agenda, our shared agenda, forward because it is in all of our best interest.

If you want ideas about what you can begin doing now, below are 11 Tips for Being an Ally

  1. Allies do their own work - Get comfortable with the dimensions of your identity, your culture, and the lenses that inform your worldview. Do not assume that you’re not “ethnic enough” or “don’t have a culture”. We have all been acculturated over the course of our lives, and only a person who is comfortable with their own cultural identity can be an equal partner in taking a stand against oppression. 

  2. Make your values known - Share openly with people your desire to eliminate oppression in all its form. Talk affirmatively about groups that are different from your own, to yourself and others. 

  3. Seek proximity - Spend time with people who have different life experiences or world views from you. Getting to know people at deeper levels places them (and hopefully other people like them) into a “familiar” category in your brain. This minimizes the automatic negative and/or fear response that triggers (naturally, and in all humans) when we encounter something or someone quite different from our previous experiences. 

  4. Model the behavior - Share experiences from your own life and upbringing. Being an ally isn’t just about giving support or friendship or understanding. It’s also about giving of yourself, being willing to be vulnerable is a wonderful way to demonstrate your intentions with actions. 

  5. Create the space - Invite others to share their experiences with you, when and to the extent they feel comfortable. Each person is unique, so avoid making assumptions about how open a person will be with you. Also, the work of being an ally is “in the service” of ending oppression, not conditionally connected to you receiving recognition, reciprocity or even thanks from members of target groups. 

  6. Believe them - If someone tells you something that is inconsistent with your own experience, rather than try to rationalize it, just listen. Believe that another experience, even one that includes pain on behalf of someone for whom you care, is real. This sounds a little simplistic, but it is one of the most important elements of being an ally. Let me give an example, I have been in sessions where a Latina woman spoke about living in a neighborhood for many years and never being invited to the block party that everyone else in her cul-de-sac attends every year. She shared with our group how that made her feel, from the perspective of a racial minority within that community (and the group with which she was sharing). Other members of the group were aghast by her story and interrupted her to offer explanations about a misunderstanding, lost invitations, etc. Though their intentions were to offer comfort, the real work of allies is to listen. To believe. 

  7. Speak up - If you see or hear something that is derogatory about another culture, say something.
  8. Question your own thoughts and behaviors, without feeling guilty or ashamed - We have all internalized negative messages about other groups. Your work is to examine these long-held messages and decide whether or not they still have a place within your current value system. 

  9. Create mechanisms for assessing your own progress - Keep a journal, or enlist the support of a learning partner to set and monitor achievement toward your goals. Goals can be: Invite a person from a different race to my home for dinner, read a book about a culture that is significantly different from my own, or learn to speak another language. You and your learning partner can discuss your reflections on these activities, insights you gained, and additional questions that surfaced for you as a result of your experience. 

  10. Give yourself, and others, the benefit of the doubt - We are all learning, all the time. This is a learning journey, and we need space to practice, try, make mistakes, and be given alternatives without judgment. 

  11. Be patient - This is ongoing work and not a check-the-box activity. I have committed myself for years to the continuous personal work of reflecting, challenging (myself), acting courageously (which has sometimes cost me relationships, including clients), and learning, with and from people who are in target and non-target groups. Every day I am given a bit of feedback about what I could do or say differently, and how I came across in a way that was perhaps not what I intended. My answer, in every case, and in the service of my own values, is “thank you.” Then I incorporate it, make the appropriate adjustment, and keep going—imperfectly quite often, but with passion. 

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DeEtta Jones & Associates (DJA) guides leaders and organizations on a journey that builds capacity, strengthens innovation, and increases organizational performance by creating a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive environment.

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