5 Things You Can Do to Be a Better Ally to People of Color

Recognize: It's not about you right now.


I’ve spent almost ten years working in predominately White workspaces, but it wasn’t until last year that I had an experience that worried me. I participated in a 360 review, where I received anonymous feedback from members of my team at various levels. The negative feedback section included items that didn’t seem to jive—I was listed as intimidating, too opinionated, and not able to relate to my peers except in 1-on-1 settings. In short, I was viewed as a scary, angry Black woman by my peers and the managers in my department, and felt both saddened and shocked by that realization. I shared this experience—and my realization that no matter how others may view me, I wouldn’t let it detract me or diminish my success—with APW. I was excited to do so, because I value the opinions of the APW community and appreciate the supportive community here. Imagine my surprise to read comments that were anything but supportive. Several commenters questioned if I was reading too much into the situation, or if I was making it about race when there was another explanation for the feedback I received. While many of the comments were supportive and encouraging, the ones questioning my recollection and view of the situation felt like a slap in the face.

When you’re one of the few people of color in your work space, the last thing you want to do is see racism in every situation. In fact, you go out of your way to try to explain away every offensive comment, or misguided interaction. You want spend your time in the office producing great work, not worrying that you’re viewed differently because of your race. You also want to be successful, liked, and respected by your team, and so you give your colleagues the benefit of the doubt in most situations. In fact, sometimes the act of balancing your professionalism with your identity as both a woman and a person of color can be overwhelming.

As a Black woman in a predominately White company, the feeling of being different is constantly with me. What I don’t usually feel is the commonality I share with them. Almost everyone I work with has at least one college degree, and college experiences often come up in conversations. To me, it’s an innocuous topic, but to someone without a formal education, it could be an example of me viewing the world through the lens of educated privilege.

Own your privilege

When privilege is talked about, it’s often discussed as a static, all-or-nothing thing that you either have or you don’t. But privilege doesn’t work that way. Most of us here operate with some level of privilege, but to varying degrees. And it’s often hard to acknowledge exactly which privileges we have, and how they impact the way we think and view society.

Because I love the personal stories and broad experiences that are shared on APW, I was eager to share my story with the community. I imagined a thoughtful conversation, full of commiseration and stories of similar experiences. Several of the early comments outright accused of seeing racism when none was there, and that I received the negative feedback because I’m a woman, or maybe the feedback was valid and I needed to improve. My first thought was, “They don’t get it, because they’ve never had to get it.” I could feel the privilege oozing from those comments, in the incredulous tone and the skepticism. APW is a feminist community and the discussions around gender politics are enlightened and progressive. But some of us in this community are blind to our racial privilege, and the part that intersectionality plays as well. Intersectionality is a theory that describes how forms of discrimination overlap and interact, magnifying their effect. For example, I am both black and a woman—there is no separating my race from my gender, and I do not experience racial or gender discrimination in a vacuum, separate from each other.

How to walk the walk

It would be nice to say that we all recognize our privileges, but that’s not realistic. We all have a privilege that we are blind to, and that prevents us from being a good ally. How can we learn to be supportive allies? Here are some places to start:

START WITH LISTENING AND ACKNOWLEDGING FEELINGS. Even if you disagree with a person’s assessment or viewpoint, it’s important to allow that person to be heard. Don’t just hear their words, or gloss over them. Truly listen and comprehend what they are saying. Also acknowledge their feelings, whether they are hurt, angry, sad, etc.

ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR PRIVILEGE AND HOW IT MAY AFFECT YOUR VIEW OF THE SITUATION. We all have some type of privilege, whether it’s racial, gender, class, able bodied-ness, etc. One of the hallmarks of privilege is that it can blind us from the struggles of those who do not share our privileges. The point is to let folks who experience issues that you don’t actually teach you something. Think outside yourself, listen to their perspective, and check your impulse to explain away their issues.

RECOGNIZE THIS MOMENT IS NOT ABOUT YOU, IT’S ABOUT YOU SUPPORTING THAT PERSON. This person isn’t looking to you to provide a justification or explanation of the event; they are looking for support and empathy. This moment is also not about your comfort, and you may hear some things that make you uncomfortable.

STAND UP TO BIGOTS. It’s not enough to simply call yourself an ally, or listen to oppressed voices. It’s not the sole responsibility of women or people of color to call out bigotry—we all own it. You have to do the work, and that means calling folks to the carpet when they make insensitive or bigoted remarks. This goes for your grandma who still uses slurs at Sunday dinner, or that college friend who makes insensitive posts on Facebook.

EDUCATE YOURSELF. There are numerous books/blogs/articles and other resources available to help you learn, not just about current issues, but also about history and cultures. Recently, I joined a diversity book club, and our first read was Dear White America by Tim Wise. Several book club members noted that this book helped them open their eyes to issues faced by people of color, and made it relatable for them. The book club is also a safe space for all members to ask questions without fear of anger or offending someone. There may be similar resources available in your community, or try having an open dialogue with a friend. This is not an invitation to walk up to the first person of color you see and ask the random question that’s been on your mind, but instead to have an honest conversation in a safe space (remembering points one and two above).

Hey allies, let’s get in formation

As an ally to people of color, you may have multiple opportunities each day to show your support and advocate. In your office, you can try techniques like getting to know your coworkers’ personal lives and finding commonality with them, or attending events hosted by your company’s Employee Resource/Affinity groups. When you’re online, don’t just ignore or skip over offensive comments/posts, especially from those you know personally. Be brave and call out their insensitive comments. If you see a post from a person of color that you agree with, be vocal with your support. Challenge others to learn, just as you have. If you don’t have many, or any, interactions with people of color in your day, take a moment to stop and think about that. Consider the privilege you have to go about your day and only see people who look like you. Now think about how it would feel, if you went through your day and you never saw anyone who looked like you. Feel the isolation, the loneliness, the stress that would bring you. Now think about ways that you can change that, and what role you can play to make that a reality.

During this past Black History Month, I attended a company event, where our VP of diversity and inclusion gave remarks. She told the group that diversity and inclusion is not a spectator sport, it’s a full-contact sport, and that we all have a duty to get in the game. We all must fully participate, and do the hard work, if we intend to create a progressive environment. That holds true both in the workplace and in places like the APW community.

While I was hurt by the uncaring comments I received, they were drowned out by the overwhelmingly supportive and encouraging comments. I choose to see the good in the this community, just as I choose to see the good in others who may view me differently in the office, and I hope that time and perspective will help people more fully understand their particular privilege.

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