The Work Starts with You: 3 Habits True Allies Practice

June 11, 2020

The Work Starts with You: 3 Habits True Allies Practice

Around the world, we’re seeing people respond to centuries of systemic oppression and racism, echoing the calls of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.  You may want to express your solidarity with your Black colleagues and share the impact you are feeling but you're not sure what to say.  My first advice is to pause. 

Let’s acknowledge that it can be intimidating and anxiety-inducing to think about how you can support your colleagues and more broadly support efforts to create a more equitable workplace and society.

The impulse to respond immediately in a moment like this one, when the conversation about race and injustice is acutely felt and observed all around us, is compelling.  It is important to act. But, it is equally important to ensure that you are doing the work that’s necessary to engage in allyship with an inclusive mindset. One that balances your desire to act with your commitment to deep reflection and how you leverage your privilege on behalf of others. 

Be mindful that your Black colleagues may be receiving an outpour of outreach right now. Oftentimes, it can feel like a natural and caring response to share the profound impact you've experienced in response to recent events. But in doing so, your colleague may feel like they need to take care of you at a time when they are holding their own grief and pain. 

In reality, you’re likely not the first person who has approached them in this way, and that can feel like an additional burden they need to carry. This is especially true if you don’t have an existing personal relationship with someone. It can be particularly off-putting if you reach out to a colleague to talk about race or bias when you don’t have the right foundation between the two of you for that conversation. We need to ensure that they are getting support, not giving it. 

When you focus on developing an inclusive mindset, one that is brave, humble, and dedicated, you increase your capacity as an ally. You build the skills and confidence to make a lasting impact on Black people in the workplace and beyond. So what does that look like in practice? What are the best ways to show your support for justice, equity, and inclusion? 

1.  Be brave

The first step is to be brave. This stuff is hard. People have a lot of anxiety about saying the wrong thing.  But if we are going to work together against unjust systems, we have to take risks. If you’re feeling anxiety and discomfort that's a sign of growth and progress in your allyship journey.

In teaching Intergroup Communication with Dr. Hazel Markus at Stanford University over the past five years, we noticed that people with privileged identities learn the most when they experience discomfort. We call this phenomenon constructive discomfort. What this means is that your willingness to be brave and make mistakes (and you will make mistakes) is essential to this learning opportunity. We talk about bravery as one of the foundational elements of this journey.  Lean into the discomfort you feel in learning and talking about these topics. Take your education into your own hands with the resources available on LinkedIn Learning, as well as the many books and articles written to help people be better allies. 

Learn more about bias in Confronting Bias: Thriving Across Our Differences by Verna Myers and Arianna Huffington and Unconscious Bias by Stacey Gordon.

2.  Be humble

I can't give you a list of things that will prevent you from making mistakes. What I can do is show you how to recover when you make a mistake. Because it’s not 'if', it's 'when'.

Practice staying humble and curious about cultural differences. Recognize we all grew up in different cultures and environments and therefore we have biases in favor of what is familiar to us and sometimes in opposition to what is different or unfamiliar. Bias is the water, not the shark. We all have bias and therefore, bias is part of the world we live in. The question is not if we are biased, but in what ways we are biased. Commit to looking for your own bias and the biases in your workplace that you have the power to reduce.

That means not getting defensive if something you say offends someone—even if that wasn’t your intention. Think about how hard and uncomfortable it is to give someone feedback, especially when they are taking a risk in doing so. So when someone works up the courage to give you feedback, be humble enough to view it as a gift.

How to respond with humility when you make a mistake:

If you offend someone try a response like: I really appreciate that you shared that with me. Would you be willing to talk to me more about it? The answer to that question might be no, especially right now.  Be aware and sensitive to the fact that people are feeling really overwhelmed. Your willingness to accept that answer and seek out other resources that will help you learn is a critical act of allyship.

Remember, if you're brave, you are going to make a mistake, but you need to be humble and accountable for acknowledging any needed improvements in that area. 

Learn more about how to have culturally sensitive conversations: Skills for Inclusive Conversations by Mary-Frances Winters, Communicating about Culturally Sensitive Issues by Daisy Lovelace.

3. Be dedicated

Being dedicated is what makes the inclusive mindset work. There is no substitute for willingness—to keep looking for bias, to keep trying when you say the wrong thing, or to keep learning even when the Black Lives Matter movement isn’t the #1 news story. 

Being an effective ally is not a box or skill set that you can simply check off. It is more like creativity or efficiency—a skill you can continuously improve. Being dedicated means incorporating the principles of an inclusive mindset into all of the work that you do, not just in the “diversity” conversations. 

We are all a work in progress.  Once we recognize that practicing allyship requires skill, we can also see that, like any skill, it requires dedication, intention, and continuous practice and learning.  Doing the internal work to explore your own identity can go a long way in your personal allyship journey. There is a mental and emotional component to allyship that, while challenging at times, is worth it. The toll on your Black colleagues is high, and if you really want to support them, you should expect that support will require some sacrifices on your part as well. 

Remain committed to honoring the needs of your Black colleagues beyond the moment that we are currently in. If you don’t have a person of color on your team, notice that and commit to being an advocate for change. Whatever situation you find yourself in, the best thing you can do right now is invest in being an ally that is brave, humble, and dedicated.

Keep learning and growing with Free Courses to Help You Become a Stronger Ally and Have Inclusive Conversations through the rest of the year. Are you and HR professional looking to rollout your a diversity and inclusion program at your organization? Watch Dereca Blackmon's course, Rolling out a DIBs Training Program in Your Company.