There's a four-letter word that gets a lot of love, that it's fine to say in front of kids, that we should nonetheless consider avoiding. I'm talking, of course, about ally. In using it, people who have some kind of privilege—a white person or a straight person or a cisgender person—can broadcast their status as a good person. In its popularity and cachet, ally is like year-round pumpkin spice.
For sure, ally allows people who mean well to signal good intentions. But it’s got real downsides—for one, it’s often the A train to a superhero complex—and there’s something better. Put aside ally and become an accomplice, say Willie Jackson, diversity, equity, and inclusion speaker, consultant, and facilitator at ReadySet, and Maurice Wilkins, global diversity and inclusion lead at Fastly, who present these ideas regularly at workshops around the country.
Why "ally" is weak...
Anyone remember the safety pin? After a wave of anti-immigrant violence following the Brexit vote in 2016, they became a popular statement of solidarity. But did wearing a safety pin actually do anything? Sure: It made white people feel better, said Christopher Keelty in the Huffington Post. And this is at heart the same issue with “ally.”
But ally is a good thing, you might be saying. I like being an ally! Here's the problem. People who identify as allies can get very attached to their self-image as good; identity is emphasized, rather than action. If someone “calls you out” or “calls you in,” i.e., brings to your attention words or actions that may have been insensitive, being so rooted in your good-person image may lead to intense emotion and a defensive response, say Jackson and Wilkins.
People who identify as allies can get very attached to their self-image as good; identity is emphasized, rather than action.
...and "accomplice" is strong
Think of being an accomplice as a set of practices, says Jackson: “It’s putting allyship into action. It's the form that your allyship takes.” If you focus on what you're doing versus who you are, “it's much easier psychologically to receive criticism with spaciousness, with compassion, with some grace, and to maybe thank someone for bringing an issue to your attention,” says Jackson. “Thinking in terms of actions as opposed to identity is more psychologically and emotionally sustainable.” Grounding your allyship in terms of what you're doing—being an accomplice—means that when someone brings a blind spot to your attention, you can receive it as a generous and welcome thing. And do better next time!
[Read also: Should D&I training be mandatory?]
How to be an accomplice at work
Here are some clear ways to put your values into practice.
Jackson recalls a while back when a friend was talking to a white male colleague about what it's like to be a Black woman working in tech. “The man basically said, ‘I don't know anything about being a black woman. What I know is money.’ And what he did was work with her on creating her financial portfolio, making sound investment decisions that helped her retire early and well.”
Mentoring can take many forms. “If you have something to offer, the ability to navigate certain conversations, the ability to approach somebody in a position of power and ask for money or know-how to negotiate on your behalf,” says Jackson, “then there's something vital that you can likely offer quickly, especially to somebody that doesn't look like you.”
For instance, recommend someone—someone who is not in the room, thus leveraging your own power or privilege—for a stretch assignment. Say, "I think they’re ready for this." Say, "I think you should consider so-and-so for this role. I've been working with them for a while, they have X-Y-Z skills, they may not know about this current project, but I think they're the right person."
Take interest in other people’s experiences and frame of reference. That doesn’t mean touch someone’s hair! Nor should it be “othering,” as in, “Why do you talk like that?” Jackson says that proximity to people unlike us reliably counteracts negative stereotypes because it humanizes the other. “Cultivate an internal posture of curiosity,” says Jackson, “and make space to look foolish in a conversation.” And intentionally creating space to celebrate expressions of other cultures helps to foster a sense of belonging, says Wilkins. Think of Nextplay, which creates networking events for Black and brown professionals in tech that emphasize culture and community.
[Read also: Be an #A11Y—why inclusive design is good design]
This can mean both objecting to something objectionable and advocating for others. When it comes to jokes, or dog-whistle language like “bad neighborhood,” says Jackson, “white people in white rooms need to have conversations with white folks about these things instead of relying on historically marginalized folks or women or people of color who bear the burden of education.” People need to speak up and say that certain jokes are not funny. It’s critical to introduce friction and say something like, "What do you mean by that, exactly?" If your all-white team is set to hire another white person, ask why—those closed-door conversations amount to true diversity-and-inclusion work; a single hire can have positive repercussions for generations—or reinforce the status quo.
In terms of advocating for another person: Make a recommendation for somebody for a job, for an opportunity. Offer somebody public praise. “Take inventory of the privilege that you hold,” says Jackson, “and stand up for somebody who doesn't have that same institutional or intersectional privilege in that context.”
Are you ready? Fold up that ally cape and introduce these skills into your tool kit.