What Does Allyship Require?

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” – Lilla Watson, Indigenous Australian artist and activist

As a woman in tech, I’ve been asked for advice on how to be a good ally and how to help make a more inclusive tech community. My response typically starts with some reiteration of the fact that as a white, able-bodied, young, upper-middle class, cis, hetero woman, I benefit from basically every other sort of privilege that there is. I have by no means written the book on how to be an ally as I am getting an education on that all the time.

I believe that there are a few things that you must do to be a truly good ally to the friends who need you. This does not represent all of what goes into good allyship; but I do not believe you can be a good ally without doing these things.

Allies listen. This means being quiet and making space for their friends to talk about the pain and problems that they experience at the hands of hierarchical social structures. Listen, internalize, and empathize.

Allies amplify others. By definition, they have privilege and platforms, and they cede their platform to amplify the voices of those who have to work hardest to be heard. This means not only inviting others to “lean in” the table; it
means sometimes leaning back yourself.

Allies are humble, not defensive, when faced with their mistakes. They make mistakes all the time and recognize it does not make them bad people. What is bad is to become defensive when someone, often the hurt person, tries to tell you why what you said or did was harmful. Understand you are not perfect but listen to what others say and internalize it to be better.

Allies contemplate their own behavior and evaluate their own biases. They think through the implications of their actions – sometimes beforehand, and sometimes
when it’s too late, when trying to determine whether corrections or apologies should be made. They don’t simply wait for instructions or corrections; they take on some of the mental labor of policing their own actions.

Allies apologize, and apologize well. When they make a mistake, they take ownership of it. They do not say things like “I am sorry your feelings were hurt.” They recognize that intent is different from impact, and that, just as I must apologize if I step on your foot with no intent, so must I apologize if I harm you with my comments or actions, however overt, subconscious, or micro- they may be.

Allies call attention to harmful behavior, especially by their own friends and family. Taking apart the ideas that reinforce social hierarchies starts at home, folks.

Allies “weaponize” the privilege they have for the benefit of marginalized people. They use the resources that they have – money, hiring power, networking capital, an audience, authority over company policy, indeed their social power
as men, white people, etc. – to not only support marginalized people but to dismantle the structures that enforce normativity of any kind in their community (structures like white supremacy and patriarchy as examples).

Allyship requires that you put yourself to the hazard. It demands your speech, your attention, your social standing, and definitely your time, money, and work. It requires you be open-eyed to the ways you fail at it and the benefits you gain from social power structures so that you can help work to take them apart.

The crucial thing to understand about being an ally: it is not optional.

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