Are there right and wrong ways to be an ally?
We all know the ally who steps in for the wrong reasons. They’re virtue signaling; they’re cookie seeking. They want the gold star. So we ask people to pause and say, “Would I be engaged in this behavior even if nobody knew what I was doing?”
Next, am I informed enough to act? Am I informed not just about what happened between the source and the affected person, but with regard to the group in question? If I want to be an ally to the transgender community, I’d better know something about gender identity. If you’re going to be their ally, it’s not their job to educate you. You need to be a bit resourceful. It’s oftentimes no more than a Google search. But if it takes reading a book or watching a documentary, you’re either invested in this project or you’re not. You may need to put in some work.
Important question for allies: Am I helping the affected person as they want to be helped? Could my intervention be received as unhelpful, embarrassing or patronizing? And should I seek permission or guidance?
The affected person may not want to be helped as you would wish to be helped. So rather than following the golden rule of helping somebody as you would wish to be helped, adopt what we call the platinum rule, of helping the other person as they would wish to be helped.
Let’s say a colleague of yours walks in late for a meeting and the source says, “Oh, I see you’re on Latino time or Hispanic time.” You think that’s problematic, and you decide to intervene. So you say, “That comment trades in an ethnic stereotype. I would ask you to retire it and not make that comment again and to apologize to the affected person.” Whereas the affected person might be thinking, “Thanks, but no thanks. I have an agenda to get through for this meeting, and now you’ve completely blown up any possibility that we’ll get through that agenda because you’ve derailed us into this D&I conversation.”
We suggest that you approach the affected person offline and say, “I saw that. I thought it was unfortunate. I would love to be your ally and help.” Even if they say no, that is still a win because you have now outed yourself to them as an ally. Six months from now, they can remember that you noticed and cared in that moment, and say, “I need you now.”
When you’re a team leader, you may see behavior so egregious that you have to intervene. By all means, do so. But please intervene in your own voice. Rather than dragging the affected person into it, say, “As someone who’s invested in inclusive culture, I would ask that you rethink that comment.”
One of my favorite questions is, “Am I maximizing my effectiveness by thinking of systemic solutions?” Again, I have an example that doesn’t necessarily reflect well on me. In my Constitutional Law class, I did a self-audit and noticed I was calling on men more than women. This is totally unacceptable to me as somebody who wanted to be an ally to women.
I tried to do better. For about three, four, five classes, I did. But as soon as I got tired or stressed or even excited about the material, I would fall back into my old ways. Psychologists have discussed this effect, saying that dealing with unconscious bias is like stretching a rubber band. When you stretch it, you can sort of change your behavior. But once you let go of it, the band snaps back into place. Economist Iris Bohnet takes on this problem in her book What Works: Gender Equality By Design. Her recommendation is to put in a systemic response when you’re aware of the bias that prevents you from going back to the default. In my case, that meant I couldn’t rely on myself. So I enlisted the help of my assistant to send me a randomized call list for each class before I started it. No matter how tired or stressed or excited about the material I got, I had the call list. That took care of the bias.
We often impute negative intent to people quickly based on negative impact. Make sure you’re driving a wedge between intent and impact. Don’t say, “You had negative intent.” Rather, say, “I can testify that the impact it’s had on me was X, Y, Z.” This is not only a more principled approach, it’s more accurate.
The most controversial piece of the allyship model is the argument that you should seek to be an ally to the source of non-inclusive behavior. But if you don’t want to be canceled when you make a mistake, then you might want to think about forgiveness and generosity.
Nicole Reboe is Brunswick’s Global Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Head of US Recruitment, She is based in New York.
Illustrations: (top) Lincoln Agnew; (chart) Peter Hoey.