Ten Ways to Be an Effective Ally: A guide for white and non-Black people of color
As so many people take steps towards racial justice, I’m often asked how to be an effective ally. Where should one begin? Joining the fight for racial equity and justice may seem daunting if you fear making a mistake. While understandable, change can’t happen unless we step out of our comfort zones of complacency. It’s easy to let others take the reins and sit back, but this is the time for collective action. I’ve compiled ten ways to be an effective ally both inside and outside of the workplace. While this is by no means a comprehensive guide, these are a few simple yet powerful actions we can all take, no matter our location or occupation.
1. Become comfortable with the uncomfortable.
By its nature, racism is uncomfortable to talk about. It is uncomfortable to hear about because, when listening, you have to accept that you have the privilege to learn about it, rather than to experience it. Remember that being the one to share stories about racism is not easy. Listen to the voices that have been oppressed, and listen to understand, not to speak about your own struggles. If during a conversation you become defensive, ask yourself, “Why? What feeling am I trying to avoid right now?” If it is guilt, take the time to reflect on that, no matter how it makes you feel.
2. Self-reflect. Do it honestly, not through rose-colored glasses.
A lot of us feel guilty about the actions that we could have taken, or things we could have said to stand up for someone else. We all make mistakes. Recognize the mistakes you have made that may have perpetuated the system that has oppressed BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and other marginalized groups. Whether it was in a workplace meeting or on social media, ask yourself if you have unconsciously stifled voices around you. Before you can take action steps to make the workplace a safer place for everyone, make sure to ask yourself what you can do better. We can all make changes to be more effective allies.
3. Assume responsibility and take real individual action.
After reflecting, do not ask your Black friends what to do or what certain phrases mean. It is not their responsibility to take the emotional and mental burden of educating you on a problem that affects us all. While Black people are hurt the most, it is not their job to teach us anti-racism. Take the time to assume responsibility and do research.
With a simple search on Google asking “what can I do to help BLM,” you can find an abundance of resources. Ask yourself, “what can I do to make change?” For some examples, if you are able, protesting, donating, and signing petitions online is an excellent way to help change the oppressive system.
Another way to be actively anti-racist is to utilize your presence on social media and educate your colleagues and friends. You may have noticed a trend of Black Lives Matter posts on social media, and there is a good reason for them. If you are afraid of posting on social media because of being too “political,” I urge you to reflect upon that. First, the murder of Black lives is not a political issue, it is a human rights issue. Second, if you’re scared about what people around you may think, those are most likely the same type of people the world is trying to educate and sharing what you know is a wonderful first step. Ask yourself what you are able to do, then go out and do it.
4. Educate yourself and share what you’ve learned with people.
Although I touched on this above, I think it is important to note that educating yourself is an important part of the journey. We are all still learning and will continue to do so. Find books by Black authors about racism in America like “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Well-Read Black Girl” by Glory Edim, and “Medical Apartheid” by Harriet A. Washington. If you listen to podcasts while running or on long drives, listen to “Code Switch,” “Seeing White,” “Still Processing,” and so many others on Spotify or the podcasts app on your phone. Whether it’s sending a text or tweeting about the latest movie you watched on Netflix with a Black director or posting artwork by Black artists, share what you’ve learned with the people around you. Change starts with you, and it is your responsibility to spread the information you have learned.
If you enjoy movies and T.V. shows, support Black directors that focus on the Black narrative, rather than movies about racial justice that feature the white savior. For example, rather than watching The Blind Side, The Help, or The Greenbook, I would encourage you to watch 13th directed by Ava DuVernay, LA 92 directed by T. J. Martin and Daniel Lindsay, and BlacKkKlansman directed by Spike Lee. These are just some of the many resources one can use to educate oneself about racism in America.
5. Amplify Black, Brown, and Underrepresented Voices by utilizing your power and privilege.
Activism is essential, but the way in which you participate is equally as important. If you are in a work meeting and your Black colleagues are speaking, amplify their voices, but do not speak for them. Similarly, do not speak over them. Allow them to share their opinions and experiences. As you become more conscious about when you speak in a meeting, you will begin to see the patterns of who talks the most, who talks over others, and whose voices are stifled time and time again. A simple application of amplifying Black voices in your personal life is to provide support for local Black businesses.
Instead of buying books by Black authors on Amazon, look for local Black-owned bookstores to buy them from. If you are interested in food, art, or clothes find Black-owned restaurants, boutiques, or galleries and visit them (with a mask and proper safety precautions of course). Companies can also easily participate in this way by actively searching for partnerships with Black-owned businesses. Essentially, align your privilege, whether that be your social media platforms, your money, or your time with the values you hold.
6. Recognize and call out microaggressions…
In any setting, build awareness of what you say to others…and what other people say as well. Comments that play into stereotypes or comments that end in “… for a Black person,” such as “you speak so well for a Black person” are unacceptable. If one of your colleagues is being offensive, take them aside and explain to them what you are noticing and why it is wrong. As a fellow colleague or leader, take accusations of racism, sexism, and homophobia seriously by actively listening and seeking actions to correct this behavior. Do not let excuses like “Well, I don’t know if it is my place to speak up” run through your mind any longer. It is all of “our place” to make our work environment safer.
Recently, I heard an interesting analogy. If someone leaves trash and litter around the office, you have two choices: say, “oh well, it’s not on my desk ” and allow the trash to accumulate until the smell is unbearable…or you choose to pick up the trash, talk to the person who left it lying around, and make the environment more enjoyable for everyone. The second option is clearly more beneficial for everyone. We want people to change and feel comfortable to ask questions about their trajectory for growth. You don’t have to do this alone! Let us know if IBIS can help you.
7. … but replace cancel culture with counsel culture
Calling someone out is different from “cancel culture.” Cancel culture refers to the idea of withdrawing support from people that have committed racist acts, and thus, cancelling them. Instead of cancel culture, practice counsel culture. After you take someone aside, you should hold them accountable for the problematic thing that they said or done, which means giving them the space to grow from their mistakes, rather than “cancelling” them. Cancelling people rarely ever allows for growth, which is the ultimate goal.
Yet, once again, I would like to remind you that it is our responsibility as allies to educate others, but it is not the responsibility of Black Americans to have to tell us what to do and when to act. Thus, call people out, but do it in a way that educates them and allows for growth.
8. Don’t just be diverse, be inclusive
Diversifying your hires is simply a preliminary step towards being anti-racist. The next is to ensure a safe working environment, which IBIS can help you do. Learn about your company’s employee resource groups (ERGs) and advocate for their meetings. If your company doesn’t have ERGs, push for their creation and support mentoring. Ask for DEI training that is not simply to check a box, but to provide positive change in your company. IBIS can provide implicit bias trainings.
9. What can you do as a non-Black person of color?
To be clear, all the steps above apply to both white people and people of color as well. Non-Black people of color are affected by workplace racism as well, but can also still be racist. We need to support our colleagues of color in every way we can.
As an Indian immigrant, I wanted to use this specific section to dispel the myth of the model minority. The “myth of the model minority” was developed in the early 1960s by a white sociologist in order to reinforce the idea that if Asian people can progress in America, racism doesn’t exist, and Black people are just lazy. As Asians in America, we have reaped the benefits of the civil rights movement, but chosen to separate ourselves from it. It is our responsibility to dispel the myth of the model minority and critically evaluate the role we have played in perpetuating racism.
10. Do not allow yourself to be silent or indifferent in a month or six months.
Recognize that being an ally is an ongoing process. In order to avoid optical allyship or performative activism, remember that silence and complicity allows for structural racism to continue. Taking these steps is not something that you do in a week or a month and check it off your list. By posting on social media and watching documentaries, you are not suddenly anti-racist. It is a first step, and many subsequent ones need to follow. Being anti-racist is not a stagnant state, but rather an active one. You have to work on it every single day and commit yourself to the movement.
Because this is exactly that, a movement, not a moment. Change is not easy, but it is worth fighting for.
Shilpa Pherwani, the principal of IBIS and a leading expert in diversity and inclusion, has been guiding global organizations for over 16 years on leveraging diversity as a business advantage. An organizational psychologist by training, she partners with organizations to effect sustainable organizational change by conducting cultural assessments, developing comprehensive strategic diversity action plans, and designing compelling and interactive classroom-based and online training.