These days it seems like everyone wants to figure out how to become a better ally. While sharing a message in support of #BlackLivesMatter, attending Pride parades, or donating to charitable causes are all good starts, the reality is true allyship takes work—long-term, at times uncomfortable, but necessary work.
According to research from Lean In, more than 80 percent of white employees see themselves as allies to people of color at work, but only 45 percent of Black women and 55 percent of Latinx women agree that they have strong allies in the workplace. And only four in 10 white employees reported speaking out against racial discrimination at work.
What’s more, being an ally isn’t just about race. It’s about using your power or privilege to advocate for all underrepresented groups—including LGBTQ folks, those with disabilities, and anyone else with less power or status than you.
Ask yourself the following questions to help determine whether you’re actually an ally—and how you can become an even better one.
1. Do You Get Defensive When a Coworker Calls You Out?
Another way to put this, says Thyannda Mack, a Chicago-based DEI consultant and founder of Inclusive Resolutions: How do you respond to “ouch”? How do you react when somebody tells you that you have caused harm, or that you’re part of a system that is causing harm? It could be something relatively small, like making an insensitive comment, or something a lot bigger, like the fact that everyone you hire looks like you.
“If you’re getting upset in the moment, stop and listen, and genuinely thank the person for sharing with you. Then, take time to reflect and revisit the conversation when you are able to address it from a non-defensive place,” suggests Mack. “While it is natural to want to express how you feel about the feedback or your intent, that can come across as making it about you. Instead, try to understand the other person's perspective and acknowledge the harm your words or actions caused regardless of your intent.”
2. Are You Educating Yourself?
Are you working to learn about the challenges that underrepresented groups face, both now and throughout history? And just as important, are you doing so without leaning on someone from one of those groups to help you?
“A lot of time people who want to be allies go to the first marginalized person they know and ask them, what should I do? What should I read? Where should I go?” says Mack. “And that’s putting a responsibility and burden on the person who was already burdened.”
Instead, take the initiative to do your own research; there are plenty of books, podcasts, and other resources available that you can find with a quick Internet search. And once you do find resources, consider sharing them with other coworkers.
3. Are You Willing to Use Your Privilege to Help Others?
Learning is important, but do you show up for your colleagues in more concrete ways? For example, you can advocate for pay equity: A simple place to start is to be transparent about what you make (especially if you identify as a white man). This way, coworkers have hard data to understand if they’re being paid fairly.
Then, if you discover that there are discrepancies in salaries, are you willing to speak up for fairer compensation for your underpaid coworkers? Keep in mind that multiple privileged voices are better than one. “I also recommend approaching this as a group versus having one person who may be considered ‘difficult’ advocating for change,” she says.
4. Do You Amplify the Voices of Coworkers?
Structural racism in the workplace is a reality—and it can show up a lot during meetings, when coworkers from underrepresented groups may feel like their ideas are being stifled or overlooked. One easy way to help? Speak up and acknowledge a good suggestion or achievement.
And, as mentioned before, a group has more power than an individual—which is why the following tactic used by the women in the Obama White House was so powerful when dealing with sexism: “When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution—and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own,” according to Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin.
It’s also important to look around and consider who’s not in a meeting—and to suggest they be included or invite them (if you’re in a position to do so) the next time.
5. Do You Hold Your Colleagues Accountable?
Microaggressions (such as misgendering a co-worker) occur all too often in the workplace—and if you witness them happening, it’s easy to brush them off because they seem minor. But to the recipients, these everyday verbal or nonverbal (and at times unintentional) insults have a big impact.
If it makes sense to address it in the moment, go ahead and do so—such as using the correct pronoun if you notice someone using the wrong one, or gently saying “Hey, we don’t use that word here” if someone uses an offensive term. (It’s not about embarrassing the offender, but about creating a culture where people speak up.) If you can’t say anything on the spot, you could mention it later to your colleague, who may not realize the hurt they’re causing. (You could even say something like, “You may not have realized it when you said or did this, but…” and explain why whatever they said or did was inappropriate.)
6. Do You Acknowledge Your Unconscious Bias?
Unconscious, or implicit, biases are stereotypes or attitudes that people form outside of their own awareness. Everyone has them—but not everyone can or wants to admit it.
“Challenge yourself to ask yourself why you have bias—but don’t stop at the first ‘why?’ If you keep digging, you'll end up at some variation of supremacy, privilege, or fragility,” Mack says. “At that point, you have the opportunity to challenge yourself on that way of thinking and approach situations in a new way. After that, continue to repeat the process and assess.”
Try to identify ways that your unconscious biases may be creeping into your work life, and actively work against them. For example, if you’re in a position to assign projects to coworkers, recognize that in general, women—especially women of color—are more likely to be asked to do things like administrative tasks, while men get to work on more important jobs that help the bottom line. Can you find a way to divide up tasks more fairly?
7. Are You Consistently Taking Action?
Being an ally is not an item you can check off a to-do list. Rather, it requires ongoing action on your part—both at work and in your everyday life. “It’s about showing up over and over again,” says Rachel Thomas, CEO and co-founder of Lean In. “It’s not a moment—it’s a journey.”
Consider how you want to make an impact—whether it’s using your time, skill set, or wallet (or all three!)—to determine how you can invest in others. Can you be a mentor, or get involved in an employee resource group, for example?
Becoming an ally to your co-workers won’t happen overnight, and you may make mistakes along the way. In fact, you definitely will—and that’s OK. The truth is, even if you answered “yes” to each of these questions, there’s always room to improve. The important thing is that you’re willing to put in the work.