Philosophy · 25 March 2015 · Ian Malpass

Imperfect allies

Acting as an ally is hard, and mistakes are costly. This shouldn’t deter allies, but merely change how they approach their work.

As you learn about discrimination against a group you’re not part of, there comes a point at which (I hope) you want to help: you want to become an ally. An ally is a member of a privileged group who works to enable opportunity, access, and equality for members of a less-privileged class. Allies use their privilege, their advantages, to bring about change.

This is not without risk.

Potential allies often have concerns like:

These are good, valid concerns to have, and asking yourself questions like these is a really important step in thinking about what you should do and say.

As a member of a privileged group, one of your privileges is the ability to do nothing. You can’t say the wrong thing if you remain silent. For the most part you would not be judged poorly by society. There is no expectation that you would work as an ally: doing nothing is the norm, and doing something can be scary.

We have seen examples of ostensible allies being called out and criticised for their words and actions. It’s enough to give any potential ally pause.

Allyship requires moving into a position of unfamiliarity and care, and it requires taking some risk. But we must not let fear of this risk—the fear of imperfection—cause us to shy away from acting. The work is too important to shirk.

Melissa McEwan’s On The Fixed State Ally Model vs. Process Model Ally Work describes a good way to approach the problem. (Go and read it all, summarising it won’t do it justice.)

By viewing “being an ally” as an ongoing process, rather than as a point of identity, we give ourselves room to make mistakes. We are a work in progress. Criticism still stings, but it is no longer an assault on our identity. It is through our mistakes that we learn and grow and become better allies. Moreover, if someone takes the time to give you constructive criticism, it is in many ways a compliment: they believe you can do better, and have taken the risk of potentially angering or upsetting you to help you get there.

I’ve messed up (quite badly at times) in the past. Each time my self-identification as an ally took a major bashing. However, once I adopted McEwan’s “process model” mindset, these provided learning opportunities. I was more open to criticism, and less defensive. I still felt embarrassed and ashamed, but some good was coming of it. I’m better than I was; I can be better still.

So, a few general guidelines to help avoid the worst risks of doing harm. (Note that many of the examples here refer to gender-related discrimination, but most of it could apply to other disenfranchised groups too.)

Act with sound intentions

Think carefully. Are you doing this to make yourself look good, or to make the world a better place? Is it about you, or about the people you’re trying to help? Are you at risk of (even inadvertently) undermining? Are you being a concern troll? Are you acting because you think the person you’re helping is unable to help themselves, or because you want to help take some of the load?

Sound intentions alone aren’t enough, of course, and even well-meaning people may still blunder, but some self-reflection and thought goes a long way to avoiding many of the pitfalls that lie in wait for would-be allies.

Always be learning (and paying attention)

There are lots of resources for would-be allies. Educate yourself. Yes, there’s a lot to read and thinking about this stuff can be really hard, but not putting the effort in is exercising your privilege.

Moreover, this is an area of continued debate, and ideas are continually evolving. Keep actively paying attention to the discussions around you and learn from them too.

Don’t feel compelled to actively participate in the discussion—your voice as a member of the majority group is not always necessary. Listen and learn, rather than taking up space in the discussion. (If you do join in, especially on social media, do some research before asking questions—others have probably asked and received answers before—and pay attention to how you interact.)

Act small

The most notable examples of people being publicly lambasted for claiming allyship are speaking on a grand scale: CEOs at major conferences, authors in Op Ed pieces in major publications, etc. This is not the place where you start with allyship.

Start with personal interactions—supporting your colleagues, for example. Most of the boxes on the Tech Diversity Bingo card are about things you can do within the workplace, often within your team or department, but they can still have a massive positive impact.

Personal interactions are also a way to help build trust with the people you’re trying to help. This, alongside the process of sensitising other potential allies to the issues of diversity, helps you build a collective will and ability to tackle diversity issues on a larger scale.

Local, small-scale failures can still be harmful and horrible, but typically you have more of a support structure to help you fix the damage, and the scope of the harm will hopefully be limited.

Measure twice, cut once

This is not a “move fast and break things” endeavour. It’s OK to take a moment to think about what you’re about to do or say, rather than leaping into action. Send a considered email about the use of homophobic language in your office to senior managers, rather than starting a shouting match in hallway. Maybe you don’t stand up and shout “I OBJECT!” when a man interrupts a woman during a meeting. The woman may be about to correct him herself (in which case make your approval and support clear). Or you can talk to her afterwards to offer support in resolving the problem.

Once you get the hang of it, and you’re more used to the nuances of interaction that are happening around you, it’s probably easier to act in a more timely manner, but it’s OK to start slow—you can still be helpful.

Be a follower, not a leader

Sigel Phoenix’s On Being An Ally is another “read it all” post (and also touches on some of the Process-vs-Fixed-State issues from McEwan’s post) but one of the quotes that really stuck with me is

Being an ally involves something more radical than simply saying, I will work against my own privilege (and yes, that’s radical in itself). It also involves saying, The first step in combating my privilege will be stepping out of the position of power.

Make sure you’re there to lend support when needed. Following the guidance and lead of someone from the non-privileged group means that you’re more likely to stay on a constructive, helpful path.

Listen and believe

Listening and believing people from a non-privileged group is a vital skill for any ally, but it goes double for when what they’re saying is criticism of you. It is ridiculously difficult to avoid being defensive, but if someone says that you have harmed them in some way, you have harmed them. If someone says you’ve offended them, you’ve offended them. You have a duty of care to work out how you can make amends, and to learn from those mistakes, and defensiveness will not help with either of those.

Acting as an ally isn’t easy, but it seems to me to be unconscionable to choose to do anything else. Where there is discrimination and unfairness (which, in almost all cases, I benefit from) I need to work to level the playing field. I’m just going to start off using a shovel, rather than a bulldozer.

I have been fortunate to have had a number of people review this post, for which I am extremely thankful. Any mistakes that remain are my own….