Ally mistakes you don’t know you’re making

Over the last several years, we have seen an increase in white Americans pledging to become better allies to people of color in their social and professional spheres. Often, we will ask “what can we do?” to improve ourselves, but as author Latasha Morrison puts it in her book “Be The Bridge,” a posture of humility for white allies will set the stage for us to: 


“talk less and listen more, opening your heart to the voices of (people of color.) You will need to … study the hard truths of history without trying to explain them away. You’ll need to examine your own life and the lives of your ancestors so you can see whether you’ve participated in, perpetuated, or benefitted from systems of racism.”


And while we attempt to do all of the above, you can rest assured that we won’t get it perfect. If you aren’t making mistakes in your allyship, you probably aren’t trying hard enough as we willingly enter this realm of heightened emotion and history of conflict. Even when we try our best not to overstep and cause harm, we must admit that we have different experiences despite growing up in the same country, sometimes making us ignorant to the issues faced by people of color.  


We want to provide you with some areas of conversation that are potentially working against you. Tread lightly when conversations turn to:


Culture – For many of us, it wasn’t until we began intentionally working to become an ally that we learned there is such a thing as white culture. In our life experience, it was simply considered “the culture” because it was dominant. That’s understandable. But this position renders any practices outside white culture – from a logical perspective – wrong. We may not have intentionally looked down our noses at the rest of the world, yet we were pretty secure in the “rightness” of our vernacular, favorite music, food preferences, fashion, etc. Try to reframe these as your cultural preferences instead of concluding they are empirically the best.


Your responsibility – As with any student, learning requires the active participation of the actual student, right?  Similarly, as you become a student of allyship and learn how to avoid complicity in the racism of many of our institutions, educating yourself on the following is NOT your BIPOC friend’s responsibility. You need to critically look at: American history (all of it, not just the parts that make us look good), the criminal justice system, the ways white culture presumes dominance rather than just cultural attributes, and how you and your ancestors may have benefitted from institutions that provided an uneven playing field. Take control of your own education process, and if you must lean on others, don’t expect people of color to do the heavy lifting of bringing you up to speed. There are a host of BIPOC experts who have authored books, given TED Talks and appeared on podcasts, so utilize whichever learning method suits you best.


Authority figures – Take an inventory of those people who have influence in your life. Whose writings do you read? Who do you respect or admire in this world? Is there diversity in your list of role models? Are you actively opening yourself up to different perspectives and leadership styles? Have you considered finding a mentor who doesn’t share your same life experience? (This does sound contradictory to the “your responsibility” suggestions above, but it’s different when you are submitting yourself to the leadership of a BIPOC. It changes the power differential.) These are simple steps in your path to becoming a better ally: broaden the range of inputs in your life.


The rest of the world – Many of us have limited understanding about the rest of the world and think of America first. That’s natural for anyone who lives in any country. However, once you truly appreciate other cultures, you learn that there is still so much to learn.  As you relearn the real history of our nation, resist the temptation to elevate the United States as the best overall. It is, of course, an amazing nation, but we have warts and scars that have not healed well. Similarly, your path to allyship will help to “flatten the curve” of your global country ranking as you learn about the beauty of cultures outside our borders. 


Your Tears – We know it’s disheartening to learn of the horrible experiences of your friends who are people of color. We also know it’s frustrating and humiliating when someone suggests that you are operating from a position of privilege, or worse, racism. These are horrible feelings, especially if you haven’t sat in self reflection or considered your white privilege before, and it probably warrants tears. But please know that your BIPOC friends have endured much worse and have been expected to do so without any tears. They have had to be tough to get this far in a white majority culture. So if you cry out of sadness or regret or the knowledge that even though you hurt someone, you had the best intentions, it has the effect of prioritizing YOUR interests over theirs, which is a sad repeat of history. Lest you think you would never do such a thing, this happens so often that it’s referred to as “white tears” by communities of color.  If possible, save your tears for a time when you can mourn in private so you can express your feelings. 


Personal space – If you have ever been pregnant and had someone you aren’t close to reach out and touch your baby belly, you may have recognized that Americans have an issue with personal space. Well that includes not just one another’s flesh, but our hair as well. Most people of color can tell stories of white acquaintances who have reached out and touched their hair without asking. Even if you don’t consider that a rude practice in your culture, it’s a sign of lacking respect in theirs. Be safe, don’t touch anyone’s hair unless you have consent to do so. 


Your Support – Many people of color – when encouraged in a safe space – will confess that even their closest white colleagues have sold them out at some point in their professional lives. As with so many other things we do as white people, our actions may have unintended consequences. Consider everyday work situations where you may disagree with a colleague and remember that your work relationship is not the only factor at play here. There is a sordid history of racism that has been endured by Black Americans at the hands of white Americans, and while it may not seem relevant to you, it is still very much relevant to them and the institution you work for. Again, yours is not the most important opinion here, which is a really difficult thought pattern to extricate from your brain. When it comes to work situations, remember that your actions may be carrying the weight of history so your best intentions may have different meaning to someone else. Many of us have been raised to “not see color” so we don’t attribute a lack of agreement with a BIPOC colleague as indicative of a race issue. Just be aware that – given the highly charged environment we are living in – other people may have different interpretations of your disagreement. Striking the right balance is difficult and confusing, but it’s worth it to  bring more equity into the professional world. 


Above all, allies need to do exactly as Morrison suggests and wrap ourselves up in a cloak of humility so that when we step on someone’s toes – and in this work, we certainly will – we can adequately repair the relationship.