Life Relationships

How to Build Your Ally Skills

November 21, 2019
An activists's sign at a protest that supports women's rights, LGBTQ rights and black rights.
© Holly Clark / Stocksy United
Quick Read

Being an ally is a process, not a feeling

  • Becoming an ally is something you have to constantly work at. 
  • You’re only an ally if people from the communities you want to support say you are.
  • Ally skills look different for different groups of people.
  • Get familiar with intersectionality and your own privileges.
  • Be willing to be uncomfortable, and keep educating yourself.
  • Listen to what people from underrepresented communities say.

You hear the term ally thrown around a lot, especially in progressive cities like Seattle. But what does being an ally actually mean?

It’s easy to assume you’re an ally already. Maybe you cheer on the Pride Parade each year, support local minority-owned businesses and vote on initiatives to renovate beat-up old crosswalks so they’re safer for people with disabilities. 

But being an ally is more than just being a kind person. It means showing up and speaking up and doing things outside of your comfort zone. 

“There are real obstacles to speaking up and being a good ally that allies need to get better at appreciating and working on,” says Jonathan Kanter, a clinical psychologist and director of the Center for the Science of Social Connection at the University of Washington. 

All of us can benefit from learning how to build ally skills to truly support our neighbors, coworkers, friends and family who are from underrepresented groups. 

Understand that true allyship is a process

First, an important thing to note: Even though this article is presented as a list of steps to take to build your ally skills, the work doesn’t end here. Being an ally isn’t something you suddenly achieve after reaching a certain level of awareness.

“In my view, the title of ally can’t be self-proclaimed; it has to be earned and bestowed. It’s a process rather than a one-time achievement. It’s not a feeling, it is action,” says Danielle Ishem, director of workforce development at UW Medicine’s Center for Health Equity, Diversity & Inclusion.

She distinguishes truly allyship from what she calls “performative allyship,” which is when someone declares themselves an ally just because of their beliefs but doesn’t take the time or make the effort to do anything meaningful or risk any of their own privilege. 

“I work on this every single day,” Ishem says.

And if you want to show up for people from underrepresented groups, you need to recognize that being an ally is a lifelong commitment.

“I don’t know if I’m an ally,” Kanter says. “I just wake up each morning and try to act consistent with my values. Then I wake up the next morning and try again.”

Know that not all ally skills look the same

Another key point to realize when building ally skills it that some skills or things you learn about one community might not apply to others. 

Dr. Jason Deen, a UW Medicine cardiologist and director of the Indian Health Pathway at the University of Washington School of Medicine, sees this regularly in his work with indigenous communities. 

“The things you learn in one community are not transferable to others. You have to approach these folks with an air of humility and don’t assume things,” he says.

So keep in mind that, while all people from underrepresented groups experience discrimination, that discrimination doesn’t always look the same.

Recognize your own intersection of identities

We all have a unique group of identities each of us embodies; this is called intersectionality. It means that you can be part of a majority group in one aspect of your identity and part of a minority group in another. 

For example, someone could be white, cisgender, able-bodied and middle-class, but also be a lesbian and an immigrant. Or someone could be upper-class, born in this country, cisgender and straight, but also be a person of color who has a disability. 

“Intersectionality is important to keep in mind. Being disabled doesn’t mean you can’t be homophobic; being anti-racist doesn’t mean you can’t make racist comments,” Ishem says.

If you don’t embody a certain identity, there’s no way you can have firsthand experience of what it’s like to. Additionally, no two people who have similar identities have exactly the same experiences. 

Be willing to be uncomfortable

You know that famous quote about how change only happens outside of your comfort zone? That’s definitely true when it comes to allyship.

It’s impossible to fully hear someone else’s painful experiences, or even take constructive feedback about your own biases, if you aren’t willing to let yourself feel uncomfortable and engage with those feelings. 

If you’re part of a majority group, chances are you haven’t had to deal with this kind of discomfort on a regular basis; maybe that’s why it feels so distressing. But for people from minority groups, they don’t have a choice whether or not to deal with it; it’s part of their everyday.

Acknowledge your privilege(s)

The term ‘privilege’ sometimes upsets people because it conjures ideas of wealth and high social standing, which they might not have. 

In terms of allyship, however, privilege refers to the higher status and benefits granted to you by society based off of some aspect of your identity. White people are privileged because they can go through life without having to think about race; black people don’t have that privilege.

Examine your different identities to note which ones give you a pass in life (like being white, being male or both) that other people aren’t given. While worthwhile, it isn’t an easy task, Kanter explains.

“There’s decades of research that shows it’s always easier to criticize and attribute responsibility to others and harder to attribute it to ourselves. That’s just human nature,” he says.

He suggests identifying the daily choices we make that keep us in our safe spaces, and how we could be more courageous and disrupt that process. And recognize when you have a choice to do this, whereas someone else might not.

Rather than dwelling on privilege in a negative way or feeling guilty about it, try to channel it into meaningful actions that serve an equitable purpose.

Know that actions, not intentions, matter

No matter how good your intentions are, you will still sometimes say or do the wrong thing. And having good intentions alone doesn’t mean you’re being a good ally; what also matters is how your intentions impact others. 

This doesn’t mean you should give up trying to build ally skills because you inevitably will have good intentions that at some point fall through. Instead, recognize that sometimes what you do or say won’t come across the way you intended. Accept it, learn from your mistakes, apologize and move forward. 

Additionally, it’s important not to confuse good intentions with actual allyship. Remember, building ally skills involves action, not just beliefs. You can believe as many progressive things as you want, but that alone doesn’t make you an ally.

“There’s a well-earned distrust among people of color that many white people who claim good intentions and allyship won’t show up and speak up,” Kanter explains.

Try to find ways for your good intentions to show in the action you take to further social justice.

Understand historical injustices

It’s important to recognize that social injustice isn’t just about individual interactions; that is, being kinder to others isn’t alone going to solve inequity. 

Anyone who wants to be a better ally needs to understand the many historical injustices our society has allowed and enabled against people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities and people from other minority groups. 

For example, in the American Indian communities Deen works with, he sees a lot of historical mistrust and trauma among individuals who are used to people like them not being treated fairly by the healthcare system. 

This is crucial for him and the students he mentors to understand if they want to make healthcare more equitable for those communities.

Work to learn how the systems that have served you well — like the healthcare system, the education system and others — haven’t necessarily done the same for everyone. 

Educate yourself

While you need to learn what each community needs from people who are in that community — a white man can’t tell you what kind of support black men need, for example — you also shouldn’t expect someone from that community to educate you. It’s not their responsibility. 

If you have friends or coworkers who are part of an underrepresented group and are willing to discuss their experiences with you, that’s fine; but the discussion should always be on their terms. Don’t try to force someone to talk to you if they don’t want to.

“Your curiosity and desire to be in allyship is not an open door for you to place that burden on someone else to teach you,” Ishem says.

Instead, educate yourself. Google social justice terms you aren’t familiar with. Read books and articles written by minority writers. Watch interviews and videos on YouTube that feature diverse speakers talking about social justice, and consume media like TV and movies created by diverse artists. The internet and social media make it easy to learn about perspectives that are different from yours, so take advantage of that opportunity. 

Also, you need to recognize that the perspective of one person within a community doesn’t necessarily represent that entire community. Even people with similar backgrounds can have dramatically different lived experiences.

“I work with people who have similar backgrounds to my own, and it’s easy to assume we experience the world in similar ways. That isn’t always the case, and not everything that differentiates us is visible and not everything that unites us is visible,” Ishem says.

Listen to other people

If someone does decide to tell you about their experiences, the most important thing you can do is fully listen and believe them. 

“There’s an impulse among people who come from backgrounds of relative privilege, when listening to people of color or other people who experience discrimination, to be willing to believe some of it but not all of it. Like, ‘OK, I get how it can be this bad, but I don’t see how it can be that bad.’ I think we can do better at listening and understanding and be open to the possibility that it is true, it is that bad,” Kanter says.

Someone who confides in you isn’t looking for you to solve the problem; they just want someone who will hear what they’re saying and empathize.

Accept being called out — and calling others out

Anyone who wants to build ally skills in a serious way is going to have to get used to the fact that they will sometimes be called out. It’s an uncomfortable experience, sure, but it can actually be an opportunity to grow.

“If I get called out or if someone makes me aware of something I’ve said that’s culturally insensitive, then that’s a gift. I realize that they have stepped out of their comfort zone not knowing if I’m going to be receptive to that gift,” Ishem says.

The next time someone calls you out, put yourself in their shoes. It took courage for them to speak up. Recognize that the person is actually doing you a favor by helping you notice an area where you need to work on your ally skills more.

Also, try not to take it too personally. Being called out doesn’t mean you’re a terrible person, it just means you made a mistake. So learn from it.

There are many situations where you might need to call someone out. Maybe a friend made an insensitive comment. Maybe a colleague expressed disbelief that your work group needs an equity and diversity committee. Or maybe you’ve noticed a lack of representation at an organization you volunteer at. 

“It’s about the behavioral commitment and willingness to say or do something that will probably be perceived as socially inappropriate. The status quo in white people circles is to not call people out for these things,” Kanter says.

Also, don’t downplay the impact that calling someone out can have. It doesn’t have to be overly confrontational or mean: your goal is to point out someone else’s misstep and offer them a solution for correcting it. You’re actually doing them a favor by helping them recognize their own bias. 

Find ways to give back

When it comes to building ally skills in ways that will actually make a difference, the task can seem daunting. There are so many inequities that need to be addressed, after all, and so many nuances to each one. It can be hard to figure out where to start.

Deen suggests following your interests and your heart and working to give back to a community in whatever way makes the most sense to you. It doesn’t have to be major to make a difference.

“It’s being honest with knowing your own interests and buy-in for the issue, being knowledgeable about the problem and finding something that speaks to you, and becoming more involved in whichever piece you choose,” he suggests.

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