How to be a responsible ally
As an ally, at the risk of “making it awkward”, you do need to call out such behavior and address the language. Words matter.
Being an ally is all about taking a stand against oppression or social injustice and speaking out against any such practices, wherever you might see them. You stand with the marginalized/oppressed/ignored communities and you work closely with them to build a more just world, one where they receive all the same benefits and treatment that folks belonging to the majoritarian population take for granted….
How to do allyship right
While you might start the ally journey from a good place, there are a few things to keep in mind so that you don’t do more harm than good.
Do not drown out or take the space of the people you are an ally to.
This means that at no point can you be louder or out-speak someone from the community. As an ally, your job is to make space for, talk about and bring attention to the struggles of a community. Not to try and be their voice.
You’re an ally, you don’t necessarily know best.
You as an ally, by definition, do not have the same lived experience of what it means to be from the community you’re supporting. This means that, when in doubt, defer to someone who has those experiences to speak for you.
How to do allyship right.
You’re not entitled to be taught or shown take the responsibility to educate yourself.
As an ally, you have a responsibility to educate yourself about the struggles that a community is going through. You can do this by reading up, listening to members of the community as they share their experiences and making yourself aware of the environment and the culture that you live in, be it social or workplace. The onus is on you to learn and ask educated questions about the struggle.
Recognize also, that as a member of a/the majority, you are in a better place to have a peer-to-peer conversation with someone who has shown bias or prejudice. For them to listen to an oppressed voice would be doing so from a filter of pre-existing bias. But you can, as an informed ally, get through to them, simply because they see you as one of them and not an ‘other’. Education, and educating, is key, always.
Do not try and speak for everyone.
Just like in life, there is no homogenous behavior in terms of thoughts, beliefs or even the reality of oppression and discrimination. The community doesn’t necessarily act and think as one. If you speak to any group of people, there very rarely is a unified thought or opinion on any subject matter. Similarly, people will give you different perspectives when it comes to their lived experiences, the struggles they faced or what they believe is important to prioritize...
It’s not about the credit you shouldn’t take credit for doing the right thing.
You should definitely be proud of being an ally. But you should never take focus away from the cause for personal benefit or aggrandizement. As in any journey, you’re building on the work of the people from the community and allies who’ve come before you and who've made what you’re doing possible. Never be so focussed on credit that you don’t recognise this and take the spotlight away from the cause
Remove your blinders Understand intersectionality
It’s unfortunate but I’ve seen people who are great allies in one space be completely oblivious to the struggles in another, at times completely denying that there might be problems. For instance, a feminist who is caste blind; religious sentiments overshadowing doing what’s right. People can be and most often, are, more than one identity. You can be gay, come from an economically underprivileged background and be Muslim. You cannot separate different facets of your identity and prioritize one over another. You can fight for LGBTQ rights, economic equity, and religious freedom all at once. As an ally, you can choose one cause if you so wish but don’t disparage others’ struggles.
This is the hardest part of it since you need to look at yourself, your life, your relationships, and your status to understand the privilege that you’ve been afforded either economically, socially, culturally, religiously or linguistically. This doesn’t mean you’re bad or evil for having it. It just means that most times, you’re a product of circumstance and birth. Instead, you are born into a religion, place, culture or economic situation, be it a majority or a minority.
It means you understand that as a person with privilege, you have access to opportunities that others might not have. For instance, when two people, one with English language fluency and one without, walk into a corporate office, who do you think has a better chance of landing a job, all else being equal?.
Listen, learn, validate, and understand.
This doesn’t mean you can’t question someone’s point of view, but it does mean that you must hear differing opinions that aren’t your own. You must listen, try to empathize and hear what the other person is saying. You might not necessarily always understand their views, but you must not dismiss them if you don’t.
Call out bad behavior, even if it’s uncomfortable.
How many times have you been in a room when someone made a sexist comment? -Talked about how they’re getting “raped” by work or called someone “gay” when they wanted to say “uncool”. 9 times out of 10 times, this is said as a joke or a throwaway comment, and this is supposed to make it okay. However, if you’ve been marginalized, sexually assaulted or been discriminated against for being gay, you’ll find these comments deeply hurtful and insensitive.
As an ally, at the risk of “making it awkward”, you do need to call out such behavior and address the language. Words matter. You don’t need to make it confrontational or public. You can always pull the person aside and tell them one-on-one why it’s inappropriate to use that language.
You might be told you can’t take a joke or that you’re being oversensitive but it’s important nonetheless. Also, it doesn’t put a person from the community on the spot to correct people and have a hard conversation that they might not want to have or are tired of having had countless times over.
Recognize biases both implicit and unconscious.
This takes a lot of work because very few people are aware of all the biases they might hold, either implicitly or as an outcome of their experiences. For instance, having lived in Saudi, an oppressive unwelcome culture, I’ve met a lot of people come back with an anti-Arab or anti-Muslim bias. However, you must check yourself and understand that your experiences do not in any way justify Islamophobia. The actions of a few cannot be extrapolated to every person in the community.
Other biases are even harder to address. For instance, affinity bias makes you prefer people who are more similar to you, either at the workplace or socially. Beauty bias means that you will either be positively or negatively inclined to someone based on your perception of what constitutes physical attractiveness.
Work to dismantle oppressive systems.
Either at home or at work, recognizes systems and practices that are oppressive and work to replace them with something more equitable. For instance, if you know men and women aren’t getting paid the same at your organization, work with HR and your leadership to correct this. At home, if you see that your family is focused on caste-affirming marriages,
have a conversation about why that happens and try to bring a change in understanding and behavior.
Having allies is critical to the success of most movements. And you can play an important role as one. If you are aware, you can be an incredible force for good.
About the Author: SrikantSuvvaru is the Diversity & Inclusion Champion at RBS India. If you have any questions w.r.t the article, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.