As a cisgender, straight, white guy who does work in the DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) space, I get asked all the time about what it means to be an ally. People from majority groups who are genuinely interested in showing up for people from marginalized groups often want a list of do's and don'ts to guide them. While this is admirable, you don't need me (or anyone else) to provide you with a list. It's easy enough to do a Google search for "how to be an ally" and you'll get lots of good resources, like this, this, and this.
Don't get me wrong, the do's and don'ts in these articles are great, and if you follow them, you will for sure be a better ally. But without something deeper driving you, your allyship will be superficial – and the people you're trying to support will notice. On the other hand, if you want to affect lasting impact and improve people's lives, you have to do more than follow a checklist.
Without something deeper driving you, your allyship will be superficial – and the people you're trying to support will notice.
You see, here's the thing: being an ally is just as much about you as it is about those you’re trying to support. Being an ally is a commitment. You have to do the personal development work to understand your evolution of consciousness. You have to know your story, and be able to articulate why you care. If you are not willing to do this work for yourself, you will not be an effective ally for others. Being an ally requires that you go on a journey.
Jennifer Brown, Founder of Jennifer Brown Consulting, based out of New York City, says that as we go on our allyship journey, we will find ourselves somewhere on an ally continuum. The opportunity for each of us, then, is to move along the continuum with great intention and agility so that we can create a more equitable and inclusive world where everyone feels like they belong.
Ally Continuum Stage One: Apathetic
In this stage, we have no understanding of the issues, and we are not interested in learning. We do our own thing, and we often don't understand what all the fuss around equity and diversity is about. We may not be outwardly or aggressively racist, sexist, homophobic, or discriminatory toward other groups of people, but our thoughts, words, and actions demonstrate that we see the world through a narrow lens that doesn't include the vast array of lived experiences of people "not like us."
When we are in the apathetic stage of the ally continuum, we are tribal, preferring and seeking out the company and perspectives of people with whom we feel more comfortable. We are unaware of our conscious and unconscious biases (or indeed that we even have biases), and we believe that our norm is the norm.
Ally Continuum Stage Two: Aware
To move into the next stage of the ally continuum takes intentionality and humility. We have to educate ourselves on the issues, and move beyond the dominant-group fragility that prevents us from engaging in uncomfortable conversations. We have to listen to and validate other people's lived experiences without judgment or reaction. As Corey Ponder says in this Medium article, we have to avoid tactics that diminish others – such as tone policing, highlighting exceptions, or critiquing logic.
When we are in the aware stage of the ally continuum, we seek to fully understand, and we begin to remove our ego from the equation. We realize the dual nature of the work – developing ourselves so that we are aware of the support we can offer other people.
Ally Continuum Stage Three: Active
Moving through the ally continuum takes perseverance and dedication. You will "make mistakes" and come up against some uncomfortable truths about yourself, your deeply held views, and habits that you may have held for years or decades. With some awareness of the issues and empathy for the lived experiences of others, unlearning old habits is not that hard to do. Becoming active as an ally becomes more natural and comfortable.
When you are in the active stage of the ally continuum your default position is that there is room for everyone to succeed and thrive. You don't worry about zero-sum scenarios, and you realize that using your positional, political, or social power can be used for good – to uplift others who may not have the same access to opportunities. In the aware stage of the ally continuum, people view you as someone who "gets it," but you often need prompting from others to speak up or take action. More is required of you to be the most effective ally you can be.
Ally Continuum Stage Four: Advocate
When you are in stage four of the ally continuum, not only is your default position that there is room for everyone at the table, you are proactively making it happen every day. You see inequities and you do something about it. All the time. As Jennifer Brown says, an advocate is "committed, and you're routinely and proactively championing inclusion."
Because you have done your own personal development work, you understand that championing the success of others is not a threat to your own success. You do not feel threatened when other people advance, and you use your power to create policy and process changes for your team or department that are inherently more equitable and inclusive to everyone. You are establishing new norms and challenging the status quo. You do all this with purpose and drive. You are an advocate because you know that it is the right thing to do.
The ally continuum is a great guide to assess where you are on your allyship journey. What work have you done and what work do you still need to do? Be honest with yourself, and be willing to do what it takes to make progress. Be willing to change, be interested in other people on purpose, let go of your ego, and interrupt your tribalistic instincts. Reach out to other people (like me) for help.
Championing the success of others is not a threat to your own success.
To become a true ally, you must be able to articulate your transformation. What did you used to think? What have you learned? What do you think now? When you know and understand your story, and why you do what you do, you don’t need a list of do’s and don'ts on how to be an ally. It just becomes who you are and how you think. There are no inner conflicts or dilemmas because you are in complete alignment.
To become a true ally, you must intentionally put yourself in new situations so you can grow. You grow because you know that your personal growth will result in a better world where other people will feel like they belong and are valued.
Which is what a true ally wants in the first place.
So how do I contribute to improving this situation? The approach I’m following is to embrace the complexity of intersectional feminism, do what I can where I can, and be an ally for the rest.
We encourage you to share your thoughts on your favorite social platform.