If we want to build diverse and inclusive communities in our personal lives and our workplaces, we sometimes need to make another person’s ‘business’ our own.
You hear a racist, sexist or transphobic comment. What do you do? Maybe you do nothing and think “It’s not my place. I’m not a person of colour/a woman/transgendered. It’s not my fight. I should mind my own business.”
If we want to build diverse and inclusive communities in our personal lives and our workplaces, we sometimes need to make another person’s ‘business’ our own. When we sit by and watch or listen to racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, homophobia or transphobia, we are helping to set the culture of what’s acceptable in our workplaces and communities. John Amaechi, a British-American psychologist and former NBA player gives the example of littering to explain. Littering is illegal, but clearly, it’s okay to litter, as everywhere we go there is litter. “The act of doing nothing is what tells everybody it’s okay.” (1) Being silent perpetuates the behaviour. The worst behaviour tolerated defines workplace and community cultures.
When a person, or group of people can’t live a normal decent life and aren’t treated fairly, we’re all affected—whether in the workplace or in our communities. We’re affected by what goes on around us. What people say and do influences the way we think. If we surround ourselves with people that stigmatize those who are different than themselves, it encourages aggression and distrust in us. (2) If instead we empathize, support and show compassion towards marginalized people, we not only increase our connectedness with them, we can also alter the way others around us think and behave too.
Being an ally is more difficult than saying you’re an ally. If we truly want to be allies, we need to get to know people, find out what they’re up against, and support them in their struggles. (3)
This article looks at ways you can begin your journey to allyship in your workplace and your community.
Just what is an ally?
An ally is any person who supports, empowers or stands up for another person or group of people, even though the ally is not a member of that group.3 Being an ally takes hard work and it’s a lifelong process. It’s not a “status” that can be reached. James Banks, a multicultural educator, says that living in a diverse society requires that we “know, care, and act.” In other words, we need to learn about people and understand their issues, care about people with our hearts, and take the action necessary to make sure that people are treated well and that justice is done. That is, basically, what an ally does. (3)
When thinking about your journey of allyship think about your own values and principles or your organization’s values. Do you value being treated fairly, with the right to rent an apartment, shop at your favourite store, eat at your favourite restaurant, apply for, and get a job you’re qualified for? Do you value the right to education and healthcare? If you value those things, doesn’t everyone have the right to them? Racism sexism, genderism, ageism, ableism, etc. go against what most people say they value. As John Amaechi states we must “stop the alignment of allyship with black people [or other marginalized people] as individuals and start the allyship with their own principles or their organization’s values. I do not require sisters nor a mother, nor a wife to be against sexism and misogyny…” (1) In other words, we don’t intervene because someone is Black, Asian, transgendered or disabled. We intervene because the behaviour goes against our values and we’re standing up for those values.
How can I practice being an ally?
Do your best to understand what it’s like to live with oppression. Take the time to educate yourself and then put that knowledge into action.
If you experience privilege because of one (or more) of your identities, there are many ways to practice being an ally.
- A person tells their coworkers that they’re no longer interested in listening to jokes that are homophobic.
- A person stands up for a colleague who prefers to use he/him pronouns.
- A person speaks up when a family member uses racist language. Correcting the language can help break the cycle of oppression. Silence allows it to continue.
- Attend an event in a marginalized community when invited; then listen, learn and show your support.
- Learn from your mistakes. We all make them. If you’re called out on something you’ve done, listen, apologize, learn and change your behaviour moving forward. Don’t get defensive.
- Don’t assume you’re an ally. State that you’re trying to be an ally. Because it’s not a status to achieve, but rather a lifelong process, labeling yourself as an ally is offensive.
- Don’t speak for others. It’s not your place to speak for marginalized people, but rather to create conditions in which marginalized people can speak for themselves.
- Don’t expect marginalized people to educate you. If you’re a person with privileged identities and you want to be a true ally, you have to do the homework. It’s your responsibility to engage in those uncomfortable emotions so that other people of colour, women or LGBTQ+ won’t have to have those conversations for you. (4)
What about in the workplace?
Studies have shown that racism in the workplace creates a lack of psychological safety for its employees, increases absenteeism and health issues, stifles creativity and can harm productivity. (5) Building diversity and inclusion programs, in addition to promoting allyship in the workplace, can help to dismantle discrimination against marginalized groups.
In the workplace, change comes from actions. If your workplace has nothing more than written policy, ask your manager or Human Resources representative how the organization is working to improve diversity and inclusion to represent the community. Allyship can play a role in building an inclusive and diverse workforce. (6) Training on allyship can motivate employees to be more effective at calling attention to bias, which can lead to a more inclusive environment for their colleagues.(7)
A lifelong journey
Remember that being an ally is a lifelong journey. To help you begin your journey, consider the following:
- learn about other cultures and histories,
- look at, and acknowledge your own privileges, prejudices and biases,
- establish authentic friendships with people from different groups,
- promote the leadership of people in groups that traditionally don’t take leadership roles, and
- work to change the polices or system-wide problems that could be the root causes of inequality.
Continue to stay engaged, and continue to get educated about the history and current issues facing marginalized communities. Stand up for your values. Care for one another. Learn and take action. These are steps towards your journey of becoming an ally.
Seek support if you feel overwhelmed or don’t know where to start.