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Ally. It’s a word that’s front and center and at the heart of the recent protests, sparked by the murder of yet another unarmed black man at the hands of police officers in the US. What makes this different than protests in the past is that people of all different races and cities across the world are coming together to denounce the racial injustice that continues to plague the black community in particular.
The recent protests and outrage have rightfully sparked conversations not just on policing and the criminal justice system but have also forced us to reexamine what systemic racism looks like in many areas of our lives, including education, public health and the workplace. Many of my colleagues have had questions regarding how to be a part of the change, how to create safer spaces for their colleagues and how to be an ally.
What Is an Ally
There are varying definitions of what an ally means. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary:
Ally: One that is associated with another as a helper; a person or group that provides assistance and support in an ongoing effort, activity, or struggle and specifically, such association with members of a marginalized or mistreated group to which one does not belong.
Being an ally is more than just acknowledging your privilege and that there’s an uneven playing field. It’s about helping to even the playing field — pulling each other up. As Robert Ingersoll once said, “We rise by lifting others.”
So, what can you do to be a proactive ally in the workplace?
Seek to Learn and Understand
Systemic racism in the workplace often masquerades behind veils of professionalism. You cannot fully be an ally in the fight against systemic racism until you’re fully versed on what you’re up against. There are many credible books, articles, magazines, newspapers and other media to enlighten you on systemic racism and oppression in the world and the workplace. You must be willing to educate yourself on such things, so that when you see your colleagues facing indirect or direct barriers, you can recognize the situation.
You cannot fight what you do not know. Here are some popular books to get you started: “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” by Robin DiAngelo; “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi; and “A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America” by Ronald Takaki. Also, take advantage of upcoming learning sessions for Juneteenth, a nationally celebrated holiday that commemorates the ending of slavery for black people across the US. These types of events and learning sessions can help you gain perspectives from historical context to show how history still affects us today.
Use Your Voice and Be an Advocate
Once you understand the situations your coworkers might be dealing with, in order to be an effective ally, you must be willing to advocate for change. For example, if you notice that Brenda, a timid black colleague on your team who always has amazing ideas is always getting talked over by other coworkers in meetings, try interjecting on her behalf. You could simply say, “Hey everyone, Brenda has a really amazing idea, so I think we should give her the floor and allow her to share her thoughts.” By interjecting on her behalf, you’re giving her space and the opportunity that she was being denied before.
If the last five hires in your department have all been white men, advocate for a more diverse pool of candidates for your next open headcount.
Also, praise your colleagues for their efforts every time you get the chance. For example, at Genesys we have an internal collaboration workspace where we can praise our peers for accomplishments big and small. We should not miss these opportunities to show our supervisors and leadership the accomplishments of others.
Take Action Against Bias
Black women have been taught that kinky, coiled, natural hair isn’t professional in the workplace. But I have never shied away from showing my natural afro in between protective hairstyles. I once had a white female coworker make a derogatory remark regarding my natural hair, and two white coworkers intervened. They went to management on my behalf who subsequently took it to HR. That’s intervention. If you see or hear anyone making implicit or subtle, racially insensitive remarks toward coworkers, intervene.
Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are employee-led groups that create inclusive work environments by bringing together people of the same characteristics, cause or goals. Joining an ERG is a great opportunity for allyship because it provides a hands-on experience for you to create programs at your company that will improve the culture for everyone. ERGs focusing on activities can create and advocate to include diversity in recruitment efforts, unconscious bias training, speaking panels, community service and so much more.
As you begin to explore allyship, be sure you understand your role. Because what you’re seeing right now in the United States, no matter your stance on the delivery, are people who are tired of mediocrity, the status quo and going along to get along. And while we appreciate the solidarity on platforms like social media, expression without action is just an expression.
Be willing to be proactive, not reactive, so we can create not just a better workspace, but a better world for us all.
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