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  • Writer's pictureShannon Corda

How to Be a Better Ally

Updated: May 23, 2020

You’re cool, you’re hip. You’re woke. You know all the words to Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts.” (You're welcome for that earworm, by the way.)

If you’re patting yourself on the back like this, chances are you’re missing something.

1) Stop calling yourself one.

Instead, think of yourself as an “ally-in-training.” Allyship is a practice, not a destination or a title; it requires humility, silence, active listening, and respect.  In order to be a “good” ally, you must first strive to be a “better” ally. Maintaining it as a practice, meaning sometimes you will fail and there’s always room for growth, will result in you not needing describe yourself as an ally because other people will see it.

2) Sit down.

If a person with less privilege than you is trying to speak, let them speak. Stop speaking over them. If you’re in a meeting at work or in a friend group or in any other kind of social interaction with multiple people and you see someone not speaking up – allow them the option. Hey, maybe Susie would like to weigh in on this? And then shut up. Let Susie have an opinion, whether you agree with it or not. And if Susie smiles and says nah, I’m just listening, then respect that as well. Susie doesn’t owe anything to you or anyone else.

3) Check your privilege.

The term “privilege” has gotten to a point where it stirs up a lot of feelings in people.  People en mass are yelling, “I’m not privileged, I’ve struggled! I’ve had hardship!” And they have! These problems are real and they are valid. And someone pointing out your privilege does not change the validity of the problems that you have.

Let me paint a picture for you. I am a person with a lot of privilege. I am white, cisgender, middle class, Protestant, able-bodied, a college graduate, and a professional in my field (to name a few). All of these things mean that people make certain assumptions about me, and that I’ve gotten into the club. If I go to a store and ask a clerk for help, I am pretty confident that they will speak my native language and will understand me. My religious holidays are also government holidays, and are generally accepted by most people around me. No one questions if I have the “correct” genitalia when I go into a restroom assigned to women. And when I get pulled over for a speeding ticket, I am confident that the officer will probably not shoot me. I am able to move about in my community without harassment for my race, gender, or social status. What this does not mean is that I am immune to all harassment in my community – it means that I am free from harassment that specifically relates to these particular privileges.  

Now. I am also female, a survivor of sexual abuse, the child of divorced parents, and one of the millions of Americans saddled with crippling student loan debt. I have been targeted and deemed unfit, weak, and not enough more often than I would like. If I am alone at night and come across a man, I am much more likely to feel unsafe than I am if I come across another woman. (That’s not a jab at men so much as it is a reflection of statistics of violence against women.) While my particular field in mental health is generally female-dominated, I know that if I seek a new job in just about any other field I will make 33% less in my salary than my white male peers with the same qualifications. And I have spent more than an appropriate amount of money on pumpkin spice lattes. If that last statement made you cringe, then perfect, because it leads me to my next point --

4) Stop taking yourself so seriously.

Be willing to laugh at yourself. Stop trying to make it all the same, stop saying “reverse racism.” Again, do your research. Reverse racism is not a thing. No, the word “cracker” isn’t as offensive as the “n-word.” The fact that we don’t call it the c-word is a pretty good indicator. If you’re a masculine presenting person and someone says to you “I hate men,” recognize the hyperbole for what it is and the fact that this person is most likely not including you in their statement. (Remember, it’s possible they are including you. Take this as a moment for some self-reflection. Or you could just drop a “not all men” or “all lives matter” if you want to be 100% sure you’re included.)

5) Wave a flag.

Find small ways to indicate that you’re a safe person to others who don’t know. In my office I have a two small signs, smaller than postcards, taped to my desk – one displays a rainbow and states “safe space;” the other reads “Black lives matter.” They’re simple, they’re unobtrusive, they’re quiet. Many people don’t notice them, and very few people comment on them. But the people who need to see them, who need to know if I’m a safe person and if they can be real with me, these people see these signs. These people feel more comfortable testing the water with me. Another super easy thing you can do is identify your pronouns. In conversation this can be awkward at first, but at worst people will think you’re a little weird. It’s as easy as, “Hi! I’m Shannon and I use she/her pronouns.” You can also add your pronouns to your email signature. One single line on my email signature reads she, her, hers; this is among all of the other useless garbage that I have on there, from my ridiculous acronyms that only other professionals care about to the HIPAA disclosure at the end. It takes up such little space, and can have such a huge impact.

6) Believe people.

If a person of color relays a time when they were followed in a store or suspected of committing a crime, assume that they have nothing to gain by making up this story. Assume they’re telling the truth and listen actively and with empathy. If an LGBTQ person expresses concern that they were unfairly targeted at a business meeting, believe them. Accepting their truth does not require you to do anything but simply be there in that moment with them. Try it out.

7) Do your own research.

No one’s arguing that the constant evolution of language is overwhelming. From the alphabet soup that attempts to define sexuality to the ever-changing “politically correct” terms to the use of something as basic as pronouns – it’s different. It’s new. Change is scary for all of us, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who expects your language to be perfect (now I may ream you a new one for confusing their, there, and they’re, but that’s a whole separate blog post). Hear a new term that you don’t recognize? Instead of expecting other people to explain it to you, pull out that amazing little computer in your back pocket that we sometimes use as a phone and Google it. Or make a mental note to look it up later. Should you be lucky enough to have a person who is willing to spend emotional energy explaining things to you, always check first if this time is included. That consent is not a one time fits all kind of deal. A simple “do you have the emotional energy to explain what that means to me” is enough. Be prepared (and humble enough) to accept it if the answer is no.

Are you also an “ally-in-training”? Or perhaps a person who wants to include things that you wish allies would do? Drop me a comment and add to my list. I’d love to hear your feedback!

#stress #work

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