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What Does it Really Mean to be an Ally?

Posted by: Dr. Nika White on Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Instagram posts. Facebook stories. LinkedIn updates. We see a lot of #Ally posts these days.

But, what do the words “being an ally” really mean?

As businesses, politicians, organizations, and people in general move towards becoming more diverse and inclusive, I ask — what are you doing to take share your advocacy and your allyship?

What is being an “ally”?

A lot of people will consider or call themselves an ally today in the pursuit of D&I and the world in general. 

I believe we need to take a step back and help people to understand the true definition of allyship. What does “being an ally” really look like if you’re delivering?

Allyship is a process just like “inclusion” is a process.

I like to define allyship as:

  • A process where you are building relationships upon trust, consistency, and accountability with those marginalized identities you seek to support and empower.

I also like The Corporate Sister’s definition:

  • “An ally is any individual involved in the promotion and advancement of an inclusive culture through positive and intentional action.” ~ The Corporate Sister

If you’re a true ally — you’re not just someone who has the sentiment of “I believe that equality, justice, dignity and respect should be provided to this group of people or identity…”

But you stand in solidarity with those marginalized people.

And that simple shift looks quite different. And provides a much greater impact.

I’m also of the persuasion that the people you are being an ally for should be the ones giving you the label. It doesn’t work to just say “I am an ally” but your actions and impact must make those groups say “Yes, that person IS an ally.”

We want to see more actual allyship in this world versus performative allyship (or Ally Theater) which is “talking the talk of allyship” but not actually “walking the walk.”

How to be more intentional as an ally:

I’m not trying to minimize or judge the importance of allies. They are so important and appreciated, but it’s the way that an ally operates that is vital.

If someone of a marginalized identity can say that XYZ person (or you) is an ally, they see that that person has sacrificed something—whether it’s using their voice, , challenging the status quo, volunteering, or using their personal privilege in a public space. They truly see that person is an advocate.

As an ally — what you’re really doing is acting FOR others in pursuit of helping to end whatever type of oppression exists. People do that sometimes by educating others, being a voice for others, being a sponsor for others, and being a mentor for others.

As an ally — you are leveraging your power, influence, and privilege to be able to help someone else overcome some of the hurdles or barriers that exist because of their situation or oppression (whatever that may mean in their unique circumstance).

Here are a few ways to be more intentional about the work of allyship:

  • Seek out marginalized voices and perspectives to gain a better cultural competence. By truly learning more about different cultures and experiences, this can lead people to take inventory of their lives and see how they can potentially change the situation for someone else.
  • Don’t just talk the work. Do the work. Again, no performative allyship, but real allyship. A step in the right direction is to simply be proactive and intentional in regards to actively learning the experience of other people’s lives.
  • Confront racism/bigotry and do it with a high-level of intolerance. True allyship is not being wishy-washy. It’s being really clear about where you sit. An important point — so many people are fearful of being an ally because they see it as a risk to their image and they may lose some supporters of their own - but again this is about a work of solidarity.
  • As a community or business, have a high compass for social consciousness. A lot of organizations of influence should continue to speak out about inequities and injustices. When you have a large volume of those high-level brands and leaders that speak out against injustice - it carries influence.
  • Give up time and money to support those organizations and nonprofits that do this work. Organizations that have a position of financial capital and can provide for different communities should give up time and money to support those organizations and nonprofits who don’t have as deep of a well to do their work effectively.
  • Be vocal and call out inequities and poor behavior. As Isaac Sabat, assistant professor of organizational psychology at Texas A&M University, states at CNN, “Research shows that confronting bad behavior in the moment — responding to someone's insensitive remark, say, or calling attention to the lack of representation in the room — can be more effective when it comes from an ally”
  • Do the internal allyship work, not just external. This one is so important. Many people and brands do an “external show” of allyship work without putting in the hard internal work. You need to take time to examine your internal policies and cultures to ensure that they are completely supported and committed to driving out inequities. The natural intricacies of business and bureaucracy can make internal allyship and D&I trickier to implement, so you must make a strong, conscious effort to do the work.

Don’t do Performative Allyship - walk the talk:

As this Forbes article with Sheree Atcheson states, “To be allies, words and action must be in sync.”

Earlier, I mentioned, “Performative Allyship” — the practice of “talking a big talk” but not actually backing it up. Performative Allyship exists as an occasional public performance instead of continuous, well-informed labor.

We need to make sure that if we’re talking about being a true ally, it’s not just for PR purposes but to really allow people to hold you accountable.

Here’s a simple example of a community ‘walking the talk’.

Last week, a colleague of mine in Arizona saw a sign (below) and emailed it to me. It was a giant interstate sign on US84 heading into town. I don’t know much of ins-and-outs of the community’s work, but with this sign, they are definitely “hanging it out there” for the world to see.

I actually liked the sentiment of it.

I know it’s just a sign, and whether it’s in practice or not — this is a good thought — because to get to that sign, they have to do the mental process of knowing that people are going to scrutinize or call them out and hold them accountable.

They had to have done some internal work.

The real test will be to see if they’re delivering upon it. Typically when organizations/businesses put it out there — they know they’ll be held to scrutiny.

To me, part of the strategy behind something like this is to not only communicate what you strive for, but to give people license to hold you accountable to it. So you can’t just perform, but you have to “live it”.  And I don’t think people are too willing to do that unless they are ready to actually be held accountable. 

How can you be more intentional as an ally?

With that simple sign, it’s sending a very intentional message that you are a community/organization that is continuously practicing that role as an ally. And doing it in a well-informed way.

Solidarity means you are being active in helping to facilitate a change. I think that’s the important difference between performative allyship and true allyship.

I personally like to challenge people - if you consider yourself an ally - how can you stand in solidarity for those individuals? What can you do  to amplify both your internal and external work to support those marginalized voices and communities?

Feel free to share your thoughts and observations in the comments below! And share this article with someone you think might find value from it.




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