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  • Writer's pictureSavania China

Allyship - How to do it well

Being an ally means you are tuned into the lived experiences of people who are different from you. If you are white, that means black and brown and minority people. If you are a man, it means women, if heterosexual it means those who are not, and so forth and so on.

What does that mean in reality?

It means you must always have your antenna up and be ready and prepared to:

​Engage Listen Empathise Observe Acknowledge Challenge Educate



Be part of the conversation and general discourse about race, diversity, and inclusion. And engage in cultures and activities that are outside what you consider "normal". Eat food from different cultures, go to restaurants with different themes, listen to different music.

Make friends and engage with colleagues from different backgrounds.

Disclaimer: if you are white, you don't need to have a token black friend.

The key: The key to engaging is making sure it's not tokenism. It has to be real. Find something you really like or can get into. It's ok to not like things. No one likes all things from their culture, and you don't have to. But be genuine and intentional.


Really listen to the stories and lived experiences of those different from you. Black people, and other marginalised people, use many platforms to share their experiences. Look for and listen to those powerful testimonies. In the workplace allow your non-privileged colleagues to speak. If you are in a position of power give them a platform to speak freely and be an active listener. You will learn a lot by just listening without questioning and without juxtaposing their reality with your own beliefs and lived experiences. Just listen. And listen more.


​Most people think empathy is natural, that you either have it or you don't. Wrong. Empathy can be learned. It's hard to put yourself in someone's shoes and feel what they feel, so try to go to extremes. For example if you are white you may find it difficult to empathise with how a black man feels when he is called the n-word. Imagining someone calling you the n-word will not produce the same visceral reaction, if any. Instead imagine someone calling you something related to a characteristic about yourself with which you are sensitive. If you are sensitive about your weight, imagine someone calling you "fatty" or "bones" or whatever derogatory term. Another effective way to empathise is to imagine yourself as the perpetrator.

Try calling a colleague the n word in your head, imagine being the police officer shooting an unarmed black kid or having your knee on a handcuffed black man while he screams he can't breathe. That revulsion you feel from just reading the above is empathy. Learn it and practice it.


We can't all jump in and engage easily. It is natural to be hesitant and shy. But you can observe. That's right, you listen and observe. But the most important observation is observing yourself. Note how you and people similar to you treat those who are different. You must be very international because unconscious bias goes unnoticed because we are not particularly tuned to it. In a work environment, tune in to how people respond to a person of colour when they speak or contribute. The more you are international about observing and noting things the more you will be tuned in to biases and little things like micro-aggressions.


​Observing and noting the little things helps you to acknowledge the existence of bias and how different people are treated. This is hugely important. A lot of people simply don't acknowledge the existence of bias or racism or discrimination because they themselves are not racist or discriminatory. Just because you don't see, do, experience, or hear about something doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Acknowledging is an important step in taking action. Most importantly, acknowledge publicly. That's right; have it on record you have noticed or learned or observed or heard about it. Doing so publicly will spur you to action. For example, if you are a leader and you say publicly that you have noticed that employees of colour are not getting bonuses, everyone would expect some action to follow that acknowledgement. You should also acknowledge your own biases and shortcomings. Acknowledge to your friends and family how you reacted to something or treated someone and that it was not OK.


This is a big one and perhaps the most difficult and unsettling element of being and ally, and by deduction an important aspect of being an ally. You must be prepared to challenge actions, behaviours, attitudes, and language that is unhelpful and damaging. That means challenging anyone anywhere whenever you notice such behaviour, actions, and language. It means challenging people in your "in" group, people who may "not get it". You risk making yourself unpopular and seeming (in the eyes of those people) unhinged or fussy or a snowflake or whatever other words or terms people use to describe those who share divergent views. But that risk is the price you pay for being any ally. Challenging is important because it helps others realise or even acknowledge something they may have never acknowledged. Challenging multiplies the impact of allyship. It is hard and uncomfortable. The alternative - saying nothing - is much easier. Here is some further help on how to challenge effectively. When you challenge, don't be confrontational or personal. But don't be surprised if people get offended no matter how politely you challenge them. Challenge to educate not to criticise or chastise.


When you challenge you must do so in a way that also educates. But when I say "educate" I really mean "share". Challenging without educating or sharing will likely be construed as criticism. But you should not limit opportunities to educate others to challenge incidents. Use every opportunity you get to educate others about bias, racism, and discrimination. The best form of education is when you share your experiences, observations, realisations, things you have learned. You should never educate from the position of superiority or thinking you know more or better than the other person. Assume you know different. They know something you don't and you have insight they may not have. So share your observations and experiences with others. Challenge and explain why you are challenging. And if you are a person of colour or a person belonging to other disadvantaged groups, make it your responsibility to educate those who display bias or ignorance about those issues. Don't be forceful or antagonistic but bring things to their attention. And be firm if you must because these issues are important and the consequences of ignorance can be dire.


Learning and educating yourself about race, diversity, and inclusion is the key that holds it all together. Of course, your learning must not be only theoretical. Learn and do. Do all the things we have already covered, learn, and then learn some more. Books are a great way to learn. And there are many books and a lot of content out there about these issues. Read, attend classes and workshops, and follow thought leaders on those topics.

The more you learn the more you are able to do all the above. Through learning you engage and listen. Then you can acknowledge and empathise. Learning gives you the tools to challenge effectively and to educate others.


That all seem like a lot to do, but it's not. Those actions tend to go hand in hand. When you engage, you have the opportunity to observe and learn. And when you learn you can listen and engage. Acknowledging and empathising will strengthen your resolve and ability to challenge and educate. And all of it revolves around learning. To be an effective ally, learn and do. And most importantly, habituate. The more you do the above the more they become second nature. So go ahead and become the ally you would want by your side if the shoe was on the other side.


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