#17: How do I stop being “nice” and start standing up to racism at work?

Dear Ally (Skills Teacher),

I am a socially awkward, queer fat white woman working at a government agency in Canada. I would like some advice about what to do as a bystander when my white colleagues of any gender are engaging in subtle (or not so subtle) racist behaviour against my women of color colleagues. I especially need help because we’ve all worked together for years and years, and this stuff has been going on the whole time, and I’ve been too socially awkward and/or chicken to say anything.

Part of my hesitation is that I’m aware that “white saviours” and “nice white ladies” are super not-helpful, and also that sticking your nose into other people’s business is considered super-rude in Canadian culture, and the stereotype is true—we are pretty uptight about politeness.

—Conflicted in Canada

What you are describing will sound familiar to a lot of people. You have been relentlessly trained to “be nice” your entire life, but you also want to fight injustice. Now you realize that fighting injustice sometimes means rebelling against your training to “be nice,” but when you try to do that, you end up frozen in inaction and fear. “Be nice—OR ELSE BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN TO YOU” is so thoroughly engraved into your brain that you would rather support racism at work than not “be nice.”

If you want to reverse the lifelong training that is paralyzing you, you will need help. Since this advice blog is aimed at people with more privilege and power than average, I’m going to suggest things that cost money and take lots of time. Starting with: therapy!

My first recommendation is to find a therapist (Canadian version) (US version) and tell them you want to work on building your assertiveness and getting more comfortable with conflict. You deserve a queer-friendly and fat-friendly therapist who will not hassle you about your own marginalized identities, so ask any potential therapist about their approach to these two areas up front, before you schedule your first meeting. View this as your first assertiveness practice—it’s with someone you will never have to talk to again, so it is perfect. Be willing to pay a little more money to get the therapist that is right for you, if that is necessary.

More than likely you’ll need to work through some unpleasant personal history that carved the “be nice—OR ELSE” grooves so deeply into your brain. You may find that you start to stand up for yourself more often as you learn to stand up against racism. Or you may find that you have less power in your workplace than you think and that your fears are well-justified, in which case your therapist can help you find other ways to act as an ally in your life. In any case, you should come out of the other side of therapy a happier and less conflicted person who is acting more in concert with their values.

Another option is attending assertiveness training of some kind. I’m certain that some assertiveness training is misogynist racist authoritarian trash, so do your due diligence first. You may even want to push (more assertiveness practice!) for your employer to offer assertiveness training for you and your colleagues as a group. You’ll get less pushback on your changed behavior if everyone has just gone to a class on assertiveness and recognizes that you’re doing the thing everyone watched the video on last week.

Books and blogs on assertiveness can be helpful but probably won’t be enough on their own. The Captain Awkward blog has lots of posts with scripts on how to be more assertive, but you’ll probably need another human poking and prodding you to try some of these scripts in real life. You can look for a group for people to practice assertiveness skills with; e.g., Meetup has a lot of results for “assertiveness.” Or you can find friends or colleagues who would also like to practice assertiveness, or are already assertive and would enjoy helping you practice.

All of these options are difficult and scary for most people in your situation. My advice is that when you’re waffling on making that phone call to a new therapist or procrastinating on leaving for your meetup, remember your values and your motivation: you believe in racial justice, and you want to be a force for fighting against racism, not another person silently reinforcing and benefiting from racism. This is about who you are and what you stand for, and that’s worth experiencing some discomfort and fear. And remember, whatever you are going through, it probably isn’t as bad as being the target of racism.

“White saviors” and “nice white ladies”

Four statues of women looking down from above
CC BY-SA Doug Orleans https://flic.kr/p/azkwWq

The impression I get from your letter is that you are unlikely to be either a “white savior” or a “nice white lady.” It seems more likely that focusing on those fears is a method of avoiding your deeper fear of not being nice. Can you make mistakes when trying to fight racism? Yes. Does your letter suggest that you have the narcissistic or authoritarian tendencies that underpin these specific mistakes? Not as far as I can tell. I’ll go ahead and explain what these concepts are, because they are important and real problems, but I suggest talking to your new therapist about these fears to get a better idea of how reasonable they are for you specifically.

White savior” refers to a white person who wants to “save” or “rescue” people of color whom they look down on as too foolish, child-like, or uneducated to know what to do for themselves. The reality, of course, is almost always that white people have systematically oppressed the people of color in question and have taken away the power and resources they were using to take care of themselves. Rather than seeking to transfer power and resources back to the control of people of color, a white savior wants to keep ownership of those resources to control and manipulate people of color in ways that feed the ego of the white savior. “Nice white lady” is a gendered form of white saviorism where white women take on traditional low-conflict “helper” roles such as teacher, social worker, or volunteer, but otherwise preserve the sense of superiority and other aspects of white saviorism.

Here is the main question to keep asking yourself: do your actions start from the base assumption that people of color are autonomous individuals worthy of respect, or are your actions based on the underlying idea that they are ignorant, childish, self-destructive, or otherwise lesser-than? Or you can look at your actions themselves: You are unlikely to be a white savior if you are following leaders of color, listening to what people of color say, taking on less rewarding and riskier work, redirecting credit to the people of color who taught you what to do, giving money and support to people of color without trying to control what they do with it, and apologizing when you learn you have made a mistake.

Ally skill: Invest in professional help

When internal barriers are blocking you from taking action to fight oppression, and you aren’t making progress on your own, consider paying a professional to help you identify and overcome your internal barriers. This includes therapists, career counselors, many kinds of coaches, and similar professionals. You can also attend formal training, read books, join support groups, and otherwise find support and help for overcoming internal barriers to fighting oppression. If paying for these things feels like a financial stretch, think carefully about what your priorities are and see if you are willing to re-allocate your money and time to help you fight oppression better. When you bump up against barriers, you’re allowed to ask for (and pay for) professional help.

Featured image CC BY Hey Paul Studios https://flic.kr/p/fea2KK

Learn about microallyship

We’ve almost worked our way through the backlog of questions for Dear Ally Skills Teacher! We are now switching to a “when we feel like it” posting schedule.

In the meantime, here is another ally skills resource for you: “Microallyship: micro servicing your team’s culture” by Neha Batra (@nerdneha). Neha shared the slides for a short presentation she wrote about “simple, small, micro tasks you can do daily to be a better ally for your peers.” She summarizes them as:

  1. Amplify
  2. Attribute
  3. Volunteer
  4. Educate
  5. Ask

Read more about microallyship here.

#16: How do I correct sexist language without scaring my report?

Dear Ally (Skills Teacher),

I’m a white man in a leadership position at a tech company. My team is unusually diverse and we talk about diversity fairly often.

A few months back one of the men on my team used the phrase ‘girls’ when describing young women (in their early twenties) who work as professional engineers. I interrupted him and said “you mean ‘women’?”—at which he chuckled and admitted that that’s what he meant. This happened in a one-on-one meeting where the authority structure was unavoidable: I was his manager and he was my report.

He told me recently that that interaction scared him and that he no longer trusts me as much. He’s scared of saying something wrong and being shamed. What can I do to build trust while taking issues of gender seriously?

—Mindful Manager

This letter sat in my inbox for a while because it made me SO MAD when I first read it. I hope it made you mad when it happened to you!

Your report may be doing this for several different reasons which range from annoying to infuriating. But it’s my job to explain what might be going on and what an ally action might look like in each of these situations. I apologize in advance for using stronger language than I usually do!

Potential reasons

Here are the top reasons why your report might be complaining to you about being scared:

  1. He has an anxiety issue which he hasn’t addressed (annoying).
  2. He values protecting himself from criticism more than he values equity and respect for women (maddening).
  3. He is using the “Reverse Victim and Offender” part of DARVO and co-opting the position of victim (infuriating!).

I’m discounting the possibility that you’re a volatile micromanaging boss who frequently unfairly criticizes your reports for several reasons: your report trusts you enough to say he is scared, your report is saying that this specific incident is what made him afraid, and your actual response was brief, light-hearted, and contained nothing that could be interpreted as a threat.

Stop searching for excuses for badly behaved men

Before we go into more detail, I want to echo Captain Awkward’s plea to stop searching quite so thoroughly for unlikely explanations which reduce or remove moral responsibility whenever a man (especially a white man) behaves like a jerk. In most cases, a man acting like a jerk is suffering from entitlement and a lack of consequences due to his privilege, not an obscure psychological problem or disorder.

Anxiety issue

A cute small fox looks worried
CC BY-SA mliu92 https://flic.kr/p/9Zo3eS

Let’s deal with the most unlikely but positive option first: your report has a specific, career-limiting anxiety problem that has a disproportionate negative impact on his women co-workers. I’m assuming your report doesn’t, in general, have extreme sensitivity to small, everyday corrections, or you would have mentioned that. Under this theory, he’s only sensitive to corrections when the implication is that he’s sexist. If this is an actual anxiety issue, this will seem like a strange aberration in the overall pattern of his behavior as a thoughtful, considerate person. If, however, this behavior fits into an overall pattern of rudeness or jerkiness or lack of consideration for others, then this is unlikely to be the explanation.

If this is the case, then your report needs to take responsibility for working with a mental health professional to overcome this specific anxiety trigger. He and you need to view this as his problem and one that he needs to put a lot of time and effort into fixing, as soon as possible. Reasonable workplace accommodations look like helping him get in contact with the company’s EAP (Employee Assistance Program) through which he can find a mental health professional, designing a plan for continuing to work while making progress on this problem, and giving him feedback on his progress. Reasonable accommodations do not look like what he is asking for, which is for his boss and co-workers to never correct his sexist language and allow his co-workers to absorb the burden of sexism. After all, what if his co-workers have anxiety triggered by sexist language? Given the prevalence of trauma related to sexism, this is far more likely to be true than not.

Self-image more important than gender equity

A mirror on a wall flanked by lights
CC BY Chris Hawes https://flic.kr/p/2ahDXa4

The second option is more likely: he views protecting his self-image as more important than avoiding demeaning or belittling women as a class. Give the choice of, “I used sexist language unintentionally and while it hurts to have my boss correct me, I’m glad I’m learning to sound less sexist,” and “I’m not the problem, my overly critical boss is the problem and I will confront him over that,” he chooses the second explanation and course of action. As a side note, the fact that he told you he was scared of being shamed tells me that he views you as an empathetic and kind person who would likely be swayed by an appeal to your own self-image as a thoughtful and considerate manager.

This suggests that your report has limited empathy for others (at least for women) and limited self-insight. They are asking you to extend them a level of empathy and consideration that they are unwilling to extend to their women coworkers, who have to put up with far worse than having their sexist language mildly corrected.

We are currently seeing this pattern play out on a monthly basis when powerful American writers, comedians, and pundits complain about being held to this confusing new standard of “speaking respectfully about those less powerful than themselves,” which they often describe as “political correctness” or “cancel culture.” For some reason New York Times columnists are especially prone to this behavior; Bret Stephens, Bari Weiss, and David Brooks have written impassioned defenses of the right to be a jerk without suffering any consequences for it.

This is one of those situations where I recommend taking the request for empathy and turning it around on the requestor. “I know it’s embarrassing and unpleasant when people point out that the language you’re used to using is reinforcing sexism. But can you imagine how much more difficult it is to be the person on the receiving end of sexist language? It must really be terrible to hear coworkers refer to you by the same words they use for children, every day. Can you imagine how hard that is, how demeaning? Wow, I don’t know if I could handle being called ‘boy’ even once a day, even though I’m a white man and I know no one is questioning my competence because of my race or gender.” Of course, this may not work, in which case you may need to go to the second technique, “Your hurt feelings aren’t as important as upholding our company culture, which is welcoming and supportive of women.”

Reverse victim and offender

In my opinion, the most likely option is that your report is cynically and deliberately trying to manipulate you by co-opting the position of victim: the victim of your cruel and unwarranted reminder not to call his women co-workers literal children!!! He knows that you strive hard to be fair and considerate, especially to marginalized people, so he is trying to establish himself as the underdog and the person most deserving of empathy. He hopes that you believe that only a man who was truly downtrodden and powerless would admit to his boss that he was scared! He’s willing to take the ego hit of admitting to behavior incompatible with his vision of masculinity if it allows him to continue getting away with misogyny without consequences.

Often, people working to fight systemic oppression don’t know how to respond when someone powerful or privileged co-opts the language of oppression and uses it to create cognitive dissonance in their brains. “But I don’t want to… scare anyone. I always say to believe victims, and this person is telling me they are… a victim… so I have to… believe them. I would never body-shame anyone, so can I justify… vocabulary-shaming someone?” (Note wherever your internal monologue pauses—that’s a place where a less verbal part of brain is screaming that what you are saying makes no sense!)

The key to getting out of this mental trap is to put the incident in the context of systemic oppression and power structures. In this case, the systemic oppression is misogyny, and the person making the claim has male privilege. Their claim is that, as a person possessing male privilege, being mildly corrected in private by their manager for language that reinforces systemic misogyny is an outrageous and out-of-proportion punishment, which awards them the position of victim. When framed this way, hopefully this claim looks ridiculous on its face.

The power dynamic here is more equivocal; while you are his manager, he also clearly views you as a compassionate and considerate manager who is reluctant to use his power and who can be easily manipulated and controlled by him. My guess is that he views you as a weak and foolish manager and is not truly afraid of you at all.

For more information on how to detect and deal with people attempting to reverse victim and offender, read the sections on “DARVO” and “Judging competing claims of marginalization” in “How to Respond to Code of Conduct Reports,” a free book written by Mary Gardiner and me.

Ally skill: Include the context of privilege and power when making decisions

When making decisions, be sure to include the full context of any relevant systems of privilege and power. Acting as an ally doesn’t mean treating all people the same way all the time; it means fighting against systems of oppression and the abuse of power, which means treating people differently based on their relative power and privilege. Positions that seem “equal” if you only look at what is happening in the moment are often in reality extremely unequal once you include factors like sexism, racism, a teacher-student relationship, or a significant difference in age between the people involved. Be especially aware of people who try to intentionally manipulate you by co-opting the language and position of a marginalized group (“You’re shaming me,” “I’m the victim,” “I’m socially anxious,” etc.) when they are not actually a part of that marginalized group.

#15: What term should I use when talking about people who have disabilities?

This week’s question is an amalgam of several different questions:

Dear Ally (Skills Teacher),

Can you tell me once and for all what the proper term is to use when talking about people who have disabilities? I see “people with disabilities,” “disabled people,” and “differently abled” most often. Whatever I pick, half the time someone pops up and tells me I’m using the wrong term. I don’t have a disability myself.

—Lost in Language

I hear your frustration! All you’re trying to do is be supportive and talk about the oppression facing disabled people, but no matter what term you use, someone is going to “correct” you eventually. When the language for a marginalized group is in flux, this is a common experience. The language around disabled people is definitely in flux right now, with a lot of people talking about the options and experimenting with new ideas. This comes back to a question we’ve addressed before: what do I do when members of a marginalized group disagree with each other?

My general advice for what to do in this situation is:

  • Do your research and understand what the different positions are
  • Make a personal decision based on your own values
  • When compatible with your values, respect the request of individual marginalized people
  • Correct others only when intervention is worthwhile

The rest of this column will go into more detail on each of these points.

My personal take: I say “disabled people”

I’ll say up front that I am a disabled person, and I personally prefer the term “disabled person,” I’ll tolerate “person with disabilities,” and I’ll actively correct people who say “differently abled.” If another disabled person asks me to use “person with disabilities” for them specifically, I’ll do that because I don’t disagree with it enough to override their personal preference. You may end up with a different opinion after reading the rest of this column and doing the recommended work.

Do your research

If members of a marginalized group are arguing about which term to use, find out why people are arguing for each option. For example, here is a summary of the top arguments for and against each proposed term for disabled people:

Term Arguments for Arguments against
Disabled people Acknowledges centrality of disability to a person’s identity, advocated mainly by disabled people Emphasizes disability over person, potentially reinforcing dehumanization of disabled people
People with disabilities Uses person-first language to emphasize humanity of person Frames disability as incidental or always unwanted
Differently abled Avoids passing judgment on disability Downplays the effect of disability on a person’s life, advocated mainly by non-disabled people

This table draws heavily from “The Geek’s Guide to Disability” by Annalee Flower Horne, which is worth reading carefully in its entirety.

Make a decision based on your values

Now that you’ve researched the question and listened to arguments from different marginalized people, spend some time to make a decision based on your values. While many values are shared between people with different opinions on the topic, it’s often the prioritization of those values relative to each other that results in different decisions. For example, I prioritize directly acknowledging how strongly my disability shapes my life and respecting the wishes of many disabled people over avoiding the possibility of reinforcing dehumanization of disabled people.

One point I’ve found useful, especially for groups I’m not part of, is to pay attention to which term members of that marginalized group prefer (the “self-advocates”), and which term is preferred by an advocacy group consisting mainly of people who aren’t part of the group. A good example of this is in the autism advocacy community, consisting of many different factions. Two of those factions are people who are on the autism spectrum who like being autistic and don’t want their autism removed, and neurotypical people who are parents of people on the autism spectrum and want their children to be “cured” of autism. Currently, the majority of self-advocates in the autism community appear to prefer the term “Autistic people,” so I use that instead of the term often preferred by neurotypical people, “people with autism.”

Respect the requests of individual people

I recommend respecting the request of any individual marginalized person to use a different term to refer to them specifically as long as it is minimally acceptable. It’s a little more work, but it’s about the same amount of work as remembering whether a person wants to be addressed by their title and last name (“Dr. Doe”) or their first name (“Jane”) or a nickname (“Jazzy J”).

Correct others only when intervention is worthwhile

Once you’ve done your research and picked a term, it’s not actually your job to correct everyone using a different term. In my case, I will generally interrupt and correct people every time I’m in a position to do so when people use a racial slur, but I’m unlikely to correct “person with disabilities,” and I’ll never ask someone else to capitalize “Autistic person.” My questions when making this decision include:

A sculpture in the shape of a question mark
CC BY-SA Alexander Henning Drachmann https://flic.kr/p/uUA4G
  • Who is being harmed and how much?
  • Who is listening?
  • What effect will letting this go have?
  • What is my relationship with this person?
  • What is their likely reaction?
  • What else could I spend this time and energy on?
  • Is this person a member of the group they are talking about?

In general, I do not “correct” members of marginalized groups using different terms for their own group. First, they may be engaged in reclaiming that word by using it in a context which creates positive associations with that word, the way that many LGBTQIA+ people have done with the word “queer.” Second, it’s rare that a system of oppression is significantly dependent on reinforcement by members of the group being marginalized. If you are not disabled, I don’t recommend correcting the term a disabled person uses when they are talking about disabled people, even if it is something that seems clearly derogatory to you (such as “cripple,” a word currently being reclaimed by some disabled people).

Ally skill: Focus on changing people with more privilege and power

When looking for opportunities to fight oppression, focus more on changing the actions of people with more privilege and power. For example, when a powerful person uses a racial slur against another group, it is important and effective to push back on that (if you can do so safely). When someone who is a member of a marginalized racial or ethnic group uses a slur against their own group, it is probably not a wise use of your time to push back on that if you aren’t part of that group yourself. Often, people who want to act as allies end up focusing on changing the behavior of less powerful and more marginalized people because it is easier and safer than confronting people with more power. Fight this tendency and focus your efforts on people with more privilege and power.

Featured image CC BY-SA by Luc Viatour

#14: How do I talk to people who are against allyship as a concept?

Dear Ally (Skills Teacher),

I am a cis-gender, heterosexual, white, male, working in academia (pursuing a PhD in Computer Science at a US University) so I am very aware of my privilege. I’m a huge advocate for ally work as I myself struggled immensely in the early phase of my doctoral studies and through that came to learn more about the challenges others faced generally due to identity, privilege, power, and more. Computer science is particularly bad historically, so I’ve put a lot of effort into taking time to listen, being an advocate or voice for others, and try to push for changes which support equity in my lab, in my department, and in the university.

I recently was challenged by a colleague who identifies as a member of an underrepresented minority. They agree with me that equity is important to fight for, but that someone like myself who has privilege shouldn’t be the one fighting. Effectively they seem to be against allies. How do I talk with them?

—Troubled Ally

Wow! Speaking as a woman who used to be in computer science and actively advocated for women in computer science, all I ever wanted was for the men I worked with to speak up and take action so I could get a break sometimes. Thank you for stepping up and doing this work!

You don’t say why your colleague objects to people like you acting as an ally, so I will lay out a few reasons why, in my experience, marginalized people object to allyship. If they are objecting to ineffective or counterproductive forms of allyship, you may be able to come to an agreement in support of positive forms of allyship. But if they are against the concept of allyship as a whole, you may have to continue to do ally work without their personal approval.

Allyship theory

For me, this is the main idea behind acting as an ally:

If I am benefiting from systemic oppression, I have the responsibility and the power to take action to end that oppression.

I wrote an entire talk on all the logical reasons behind why allyship is so important (short version: we’ll make progress fighting oppression much faster that way), but that’s the moral underpinnings of it for me.

There are plenty of criticisms of the concept of allyship, and we will talk about several of them in the rest of this column.

Ally vs. accomplice

My favorite criticism of allyship is that it doesn’t go far enough—that people with relative privilege should risk more and be more disruptive of systemic oppression than what usually falls under the description of allyship. This is often described as “moving from ally to accomplice,” which intentionally invokes the connotation of risky law-breaking with the word “accomplice.” My personal goal is to help make allyship seem boring, blasé, beginner stuff that everyone should be doing, so I support challenging people to level up from ally to accomplice.

This probably isn’t your colleague’s criticism, but it is one way to approach an argument over the merits of allyship. If they say, “I think allyship is a waste of time,” you can say “I agree, allyship doesn’t go far enough! We need accomplices, people willing to put their bodies and their rights on the line for justice.” Then you can have an argument about how far people should go to fight oppression against groups they aren’t part of.

False allyship

It’s possible your colleague has criticisms of people doing allyship in counterproductive ways—that is, people who want to be allies think they are fighting oppression, but they are actually reinforcing and strengthening oppression. Some examples of allyship gone wrong:

  • “Allies” taking leadership positions better occupied by marginalized people
  • “Allies” talking over or failing to listen to marginalized people
  • “Allies” centering the conversation on themselves and their feelings
  • “Allies” using respectability politics, the tone argument, or other silencing tactics
  • “Allies” taking money, credit, publicity, etc. that should go to marginalized people
  • “Allies” acting in patronizing or paternalistic ways
  • “Allies” using their allyship as a cover for abuse or exploitation

It’s possible that your colleague’s experience of allyship is dominated by false allyship of this type, and they would rather do all the work themselves than see their cause constantly dragged backward by well-meaning but incompetent “help” (or, in all too many cases, deliberate abuse and harm). In this case, if you ask them why they object to allyship, they will give you examples of false allyship that reinforce systemic oppression instead of fighting it. If so, you can have a discussion about what effective allyship looks like, and how you are avoiding falling into the trap of false allyship (if you are—take the time to review your work as an ally and see if you’re doing any of these things).

Other criticisms of allyship

We’ve talked about the main criticisms of allyship that have real merit if your goal is to fight systemic oppression. Now we will talk about the criticisms of allyship that support and reinforce systems of oppression.

The “bootstraps” argument

Shelves displaying dozens of different cowboy boots for sale
CC BY-SA Wesley Fryer https://flic.kr/p/5WriFx

The argument against allyship that I hear most often from marginalized people is a version of “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps”: that helping marginalized people fight oppression is patronizing or infantilizing them. The idea is that if we truly respected marginalized people, we would allow them to struggle and work against systemic oppression on their own, because we respect them enough to believe they are capable of overcoming these obstacles without help.

The key here is recognizing that these additional obstacles facing marginalized people are (a) unfair, (b) unnecessary. Forcing marginalized people to overcome higher barriers by themselves only harms marginalized people.

Proof of exceptionalism

Another way to look at this argument is that some marginalized people think that having more privileged people fighting oppression is a way of “lowering the bar” for marginalized people, when actually the bar has already been raised far higher for marginalized people. Allyship is about making the bar equal for everyone. Some marginalized people are proud of being able to pass this higher bar, but that’s not a good argument to keep the higher bar in place!

As a young woman in computer science, initially I was proud of being exceptional. I was used to taking on and accomplishing difficult tasks with little help from others and I saw overcoming sexism in computer science as just another task that proved my competence. But as I learned more about the systemic obstacles that faced marginalized people in computer science, I changed my mind. I decided I wanted equity and justice more than I wanted the distinction of being one a woman in computer science who overcame higher barriers than most men.

Weakening affinity groups

Another criticism of allyship is that it can weaken the cohesiveness and connections within marginalized groups, with the idea that it is best to rely on and build relationships with people who at least share the experience of being marginalized. As a member of many groups for women and non-binary people in computer science, I know firsthand the value and benefit of being part of these groups. My view is that groups for marginalized people work best when they support and help marginalized people to grow and strengthen their networks, rather than limit their connections or relationships.

How to talk about allyship

When talking about criticisms of allyship with others, I like to ask questions like:

  • “How is this different from telling people to ‘pull themselves up by their own bootstraps?'”
  • “Do you think mediocre people from this marginalized group should be as successful as mediocre people from the privileged group?”
  • “What does your ideal future look like, if you were able to stop this system of oppression?”
  • “If I am benefiting from a system of oppression, what actions should I take?”
  • “What if someone acted as an ally without doing the negative things you are describing?”
  • “Is it fair to ask one group of people to do all the work to make change while all the other group of people gets all the benefit of leaving things the way they are?”

However, if someone’s self-image is built on being the exception to the rule as a successful person from a marginalized group, it may be too difficult for them to rebuild their entire sense of worth and self in a short time. It took me many years to reconceptualize my own self-image as someone who was good at computer science, rather than a woman whose skill at computer science was proved by the relative rarity of other women in computer science. Your colleague may be in a similar place.

Ally skill: Focus on people who are open to changing their minds

A huge arena of people with a performer highlighted by spotlights
CC BY Richard Whitaker https://flic.kr/p/egtG24

My best advice to you is to not spend a lot of time trying to change your colleague’s mind if they seem determined to oppose allyship. People who have a firm opinion on a matter rarely change their minds; that’s why I advise people to “play to the audience” in the Ally Skills Workshop. Your colleague probably won’t change their mind, but other people at work may not have strong opinions about allyship one way or another. They are more likely to be swayed in favor of allyship by your example and explanations. Focus on learning how to explain allyship to them, and being a role model through your actions.

Featured image CC BY Oak Ridge National Laboratory https://flic.kr/p/qkgyvJ

#13: Can I do anything about my rude, sexist, racist boss?

Dear Ally (Skills Teacher),

I am a white, university-educated woman and I recently started a new job based in Europe.

The issue is my boss, who is a rude, sexist, racist white man. He is much older than me and is viewed in our industry as a merely strong-headed, kinda grumpy guy who achieved a lot of things.

I could live with the rudeness and the micromanagement or even the not-so-subtle sexism but I can’t stand the racism. This week he said that a white man was acting like an “n-word” (he used the actual word, obviously). !!! I was so shocked. We were alone and I just went silent and couldn’t think of anything so do or say! I got up and said I was going to take a break, and when I got back I couldn’t say anything about it. I know I was visibly angry but I couldn’t say anything. He hasn’t make any such comments since that incident, but I keep thinking about it. I am still on my trial period so am fireable without notice. I don’t know what to do. Can you please help me? What can I do?

—Can’t Quit Yet

I really feel for you, and for everyone who is under the power of this awful rude, sexist, racist boss! I picked your letter to respond to because it illustrates a common question I get: “How do I act as an ally (when I’m not actually in a position to act as an ally)?”

It’s true that you are a white person in Europe, and that your boss is engaging in anti-Black racism. But when you look at the whole picture, you aren’t in a position to act as an ally, because your boss has a lot of power over you. You need a job, and he controls whether you have that job. Even after your trial period is over, he can make your job miserable for you and, presumably, fire you with notice. In addition to the power he holds over your working environment, he is also older than you, he is a man and you’re a woman, and he is well-respected in your industry.

I can’t give you any advice on how to act as an ally because you aren’t in a position to act as an ally. If you were his boss, sure, yes, I’d have plenty of things to say! And you would not be writing to me because you would already have handled this. You’re writing to me because you feel like you should be doing something in this situation, and you feel guilty for “only” getting visibly angry and leaving the room. Let me say: this is a great reaction! This is very brave for someone who can be fired without notice! Your reaction may be why he hasn’t repeated the racist slur in front of you—yet. Here’s some more suggestions for subtle ways to push back when you’re not in a position of power.

What you can do

In this case, you have almost no power to change your boss’s behavior. I’m going to suggest that instead you focus on your own values and behavior, figure out what you do control, and make a plan going forward. Some things you might consider doing:

  • Set up a monthly donation to an anti-racist organization
  • Continue to be silent and leave the room when he makes racist comments
  • Keep detailed written notes about incidents like these (not on work-owned devices or systems)
  • Ask your boss not to use racist slurs in your presence (and accept the consequences)
  • Tell other people in your industry about this incident
  • Tell carefully selected coworkers about this incident
  • Post a review on Glassdoor or an anonymous workplace community app (if you trust it)
  • Look at the governance of your company and see if anyone has power over your boss
  • Start looking for another job
  • Decide you are okay with being fired and be honest about how you feel with your boss
  • Have a free initial consultation with an employment lawyer

I can’t tell you whether you should do any of these things because I don’t know the details of your situation. Professor Joan C. Williams, author of What Works for Women at Work, has more tips in this article on weighing the costs and benefits of speaking up about oppressive comments in the workplace. Please take the time to decide for yourself what is worth the risk for you, and what is not.

To be clear, the strongest source of power you have in this situation is the option to stop giving your labor to your racist boss. Anything you can do to improve your ability to do that (looking for new jobs, improving your skills, networking with other people in this industry, etc.) will increase your power.

Stay strong in your values

It may be that the best way to live up to your values is to continue working for a boss who uses racist slurs, while understanding that you are benefiting from systemic racism by having and exercising this option without being the direct target of racism yourself. That’s okay; what’s important is that you stop carrying the emotional weight of his actions (using racist slurs) and only carry the weight of your actions (compromising on your value of anti-racism because you need this job to live up to your other values, such as caring for your children or having a home to live in). We all live in an intersecting network of systems of oppression and each of us makes our own compromises. All we can do is be clear about what compromises we are making and what effect they have on the world.

My point is, in a situation like this, it is natural to be focused on your boss, and how you can get him to change his behavior. I’m suggesting that, because you have little power over your boss, you instead focus on yourself and what you control: your behavior and actions. Don’t feel responsible for his actions and beliefs and get clear with yourself about what your values are and how you want to act.

Whatever you do, please don’t back down on your value of anti-racism. Sometimes we deal with being forced to act against our values by changing our values. I’d much rather that you kept your values the same and continued to experience the cognitive dissonance of working for someone who is openly racist. Keep your value of anti-racism, and keep looking for ways to live more in concert with your values—you will find them!

A stick figure with two overlapping heads, each showing a different face
CC BY-SA Buster Benson https://flic.kr/p/R9ir2h

Ally skill: Be aware of your power and privilege

We can only act as allies when we are in a position of power or privilege in this situation. By becoming more aware of our own power and privilege, we both know when we can’t act as an ally, and notice more often when can act as an ally. You may have one element of power or privilege that seems relevant, such as being a particular race or gender, but if you look at the full picture of all the different systems of power and oppression, you might find that you aren’t in a position of power or privilege relative to the other people in a given situation. I recommend using my privilege and power identification exercise to identify both your own and other people’s power and privilege in a given situation.

Note that people often gain privilege and power as they grow older but may not internalize that change. People spend years thinking, “Well, I’m just an individual contributor,” or “I don’t have much money,” or “Nobody knows who I am.” Then when they become CEO, or gain a lot of wealth, or become influential and well-known, they continue to unconsciously act as though they did not have this power or privilege. Being thoughtful and conscious about your power and privilege can help you recognize when you can act as an ally more often.

#12: When should I hold the door for someone using a wheelchair?

Dear Ally (Skills Teacher),

I’m a woman with no disabilities living in a mid-sized city. Today while I was leaving the library, a woman using a wheelchair was entering. Someone else had pressed the automatic door opener several seconds ago, but the door was starting to close as she was going through. I held the door open briefly, as it was about to hit her chair. She yelled at me for holding the door, telling me that I thought that she was incompetent or stupid. I apologized and went on with my day.

I understand that folks with disabilities have many experiences of people treating them as less competent than abled people, and I do not want to contribute to that pattern if I can avoid it. For future reference, would it have been more polite to hold the door open, or to let it close on her? (If it helps, I do hold the door open for people with no apparent disabilities, particularly if they’re maneuvering something large like a stroller).

—To Hold or Not to Hold

Ah, door-holding, the ultimate advice column question! Door-holding hits all the classic advice column question points:

  • It can be motivated by both paternalism and politeness
  • It is a brief one-off interaction between strangers
  • It happens several times a day for many people
  • It involves real problems of accessibility and a small risk of actual physical harm
  • There’s no universally accepted rule for what to do
  • Every door-traversal carries a risk of being perceived as rude when you’re trying to be polite

Door-holding is a brief interaction between strangers in which you need to quickly size up the situation and guess at the right action. The problem, as you point out, is when you make your decision based on your internalized bias rather than based on the specific situation. This particular version involves a person without mobility disabilities and a person using a wheelchair, but it also plays out for men holding the door for women, younger adults holding the door for older people, people without burdens holding the door for people with burdens, and many other situations.

On a personal note, I thought door-holding was an unnecessary and meaningless ceremony until I visited a country with much older buildings and struggled to open several heavy old doors. Many doors used to be so heavy that a meaningful percentage of people could not open them by themselves!

General theory of door-holding

Here are my standards for ordinary, middle-of-the-road, polite but not patronizing door-holding in general: If you are already going through the door, and holding the door would help the other person more than it would inconvenience you, and you aren’t making assumptions about someone’s ability to open doors that aren’t warranted, and you do not expect any particular behavior in return, go ahead and hold that door. (Occasionally, I underestimate how long it will take for the person behind me to get to the door, at which point I apologize for making them hurry and make fun of myself for getting it wrong.)

Wheelchair user-specific theory of door-holding

Some aspects of door-holding etiquette are specific to wheelchair users. While I agree with this advice to “open doors and hold them open as you would for anyone,” non-wheelchair users often don’t realize that they are holding doors differently for wheelchair users. This delightful short video from the Shepherd Center demonstrates some of the ways non-wheelchair users get in the way of wheelchair users when they open doors for them differently. The first scenario shows how to respond when a wheelchair user holds the door for a walking person: the walking person should go through the door, fully past the wheelchair user, and optionally reach back from behind the wheelchair user to hold the door in return (not using the “dreaded arm bridge” in which they lean over the wheelchair user—watch the video to see what this is).

A minor technical tip: sometimes it’s best to punch that automatic door opening button again instead of holding the door with your hand. The benefit is that you are definitely out of the way and not blocking the door with your body, it’s less work for you and therefore less of an imposition on the other person, it can be plausibly interpreted as you wanting the automatic door for yourself, and the other person can better predict how long the door will stay open.

It sounds like you were already walking through the door, in a different direction, and went out of your way to briefly hold the opposite door so it wouldn’t hit this person’s wheelchair. It’s hard to apply the standard of “Hold doors as you would for anyone” since this situation requires the risk of the door hitting them as it closes—something less likely to happen to a person walking without assistive devices. Were you in the “arm bridge” position—leaning over them to reach the door and invading their personal space? Were you blocking the way or crowding them? Did you jump or move quickly to be able to hold the door? In those situations, most wheelchair users would prefer that you didn’t hold the door, preferring a small bump to their wheelchair to having their space invaded, or risking running over someone’s toe, or having unnecessary attention drawn to them.

Perhaps you did absolutely nothing wrong and held the door according to all the best advice of the majority of wheelchair users. It’s still possible that the person you held the door for will be mad at you. Some wheelchair users in this situation will want you to hold the door (properly), some will want you not to hold the door, some will change their minds depending on the circumstances, and no one wears a sign saying which thing they prefer that day. For example, a wheelchair user with fibromyalgia might be extremely pleased to avoid a jarring impact that would exacerbate their pain. Another wheelchair user might engage in wheelchair sports and enjoys practicing dealing with objects slamming into their wheelchair (wheelchairs are generally pretty sturdy). Another wheelchair user might be especially frustrated by ableism or something else that day, and having a door held unnecessarily for them might be the last straw for their temper. You can try to guess which one of these categories a person is in by looking at their body language and their mobility device, but you’re not always going to guess correctly. And that’s okay! Making mistakes is an ordinary part of life.

Concrete arches spanning a waterway
CC BY-SA Mike Beaumont https://flic.kr/p/26EKJ22

How to be a better ally to wheelchair users

It makes sense to review wheelchair door-holding etiquette, but I’d like to put door-holding in a larger context of being a better ally to wheelchair users. What I hear wheelchair users complaining about when it comes to building access is:

  • People making a big fuss over holding the door for them
  • People standing in the way while holding the door for them
  • People invading their space while holding the door for them
  • People assuming wheelchair users aren’t able to open doors themselves
  • People touching wheelchair users without permission while holding doors
  • People grabbing or pushing their wheelchair without permission
  • People commenting on wheelchair users’ bodies or assistive devices
  • People blocking the wheelchair ramps with scooters or bikes or cars
  • Narrow paths, crowded elevators, or badge readers too far from the door
  • Non-functional automatic door buttons or platform lifts
  • Buildings where only some entrances are wheelchair accessible
  • No signs to accessible entrances posted at inaccessible entrances
  • Insufficient accessible parking spaces
  • Non-accessible buildings and public spaces

In addition to (properly) holding open doors for wheelchair users, you can also move e-scooters out of the wheelchair ramp area, ask for more bicycle racks next to the ramps, ask maintenance to install or fix broken automatic door openers, or donate to organizations that advocate for better accessibility laws. For example, as a conference organizer who hasn’t been a wheelchair user (yet), I learned that I had to test all the platform lifts providing wheelchair access around stairs in the venue, since the lifts are often broken, filled with stuff, or only operable with a key which most staff don’t know how to find. (It’s better to find a step-free venue that doesn’t require wheelchair users to use slow platform lifts to get between parts of the venue.)

Ally skill: Accept that mistakes are part of acting as an ally

When acting as an ally, the goal isn’t to make as few mistakes as possible; the goal is to do the most good that you are capable of achieving while taking care of yourself. The best way to not make mistakes is to do as little as possible and only act when you are 100% certain you are correct—which isn’t a very effective way of changing the world! It’s better to take action more often as long as you are doing more good than harm. In the Ally Skills Workshop, I advise people to “Apologize, correct yourself, and move on” when they make mistakes, and continually try to grow and improve their ally skills. If you are trying your best, listening when marginalized people speak, and continuing to grow, mistakes are part of the normal learning process. (Of course, if you know that you tend to be too cavalier and often harm people through carelessness or lack of forethought, you are probably already comfortable making mistakes and need to work more on other skills first.)

Featured image CC BY Conal Gallagher https://flic.kr/p/nbxZcB

 

#11: How do I choose which activist to trust?

Dear Ally (Skills Teacher),

I’m a feminist woman in tech, and I recently turned down an invitation to appear on a panel with another feminist activist. The reason I turned it down is that I don’t trust the other activist, don’t want to give them my social capital by appearing on the same panel, and I don’t want to end up arguing with them on a stage. I felt bad for the person who invited me, because from their perspective they invited two feminist activists with a great deal in common, one who refused to be on a panel with the other for reasons they couldn’t really understand. They had to pick which person to invite and didn’t know how to choose. And to be clear, I declined the invitation to try to make this situation less awkward.

My question is, what advice do you give to people when they are trying to decide which activist to trust in this situation? I’ve developed a gut feeling for who to trust over the years, but I don’t know how to explain it to other people.

—Awkwardly Avoiding Activists

This question goes deeper into the problem I wrote about in a previous column, about how to decide which marginalized people to listen to when they disagree about how to fight oppression against their group. This is a more advanced version of the same problem: instead of marginalized people disagreeing, it is activists fighting marginalization who refuse to work with each other. When the two people involved are both respected leaders in the field, and you have to pick just one to work with, what do you do?

My recommendation is to look at the overall pattern of behavior of each activist over a period of several years, and choose to work with the activist who seems to be better at advancing the activist cause you care about. While this may result in some short-term conflict, over the long run it both reduces the amount of conflict you experience and more effectively furthers the activist cause in question.

Identifying abusive behavior

Let’s start with the obvious: you shouldn’t work with people who tend to behave in abusive ways. I’ve written a great deal about identifying abusive behavior of various sorts, along with my co-authors Mary Gardiner and Leigh Honeywell. This is a tough topic and far too large to cover in a single column, so I’ll just link to what we have written before:

The major problem with detecting people with a pattern of abusive behavior is that many of them are successful at manipulating and deceiving others. One form this takes is called DARVO: Deny, Accuse, Reverse Victim and Offender. For more on detecting this situation, read the sections on “DARVO” and “Distinguishing between good intent from bad intent” in “How to Respond to Code of Conduct Reports.”

People sometimes use “abusive” to describe people they just don’t get along with or had some conflict with. I tend to use the word “abusive” for a long-term pattern of similar abusive actions repeated over and over, such as repeatedly touching women without consent over a period of several years. I am much less concerned when about a grab-bag of different incidents which could be a collection of everyday mistakes interpreted in the most unflattering manner. The first situation is a pattern of behavior revealing an underlying belief (e.g., women don’t control their bodies); the second is a “blooper reel” of a regular person’s ordinary mistakes and misunderstandings.

When it comes to a “blooper reel,” the more well-known and famous an activist is, and the higher the expectations for their behavior, the longer the list of all the mistakes they ever made will grow. It’s important to distinguish between people sharing about a continuing pattern of abusive behavior to protect others, and people sharing a person’s every past error solely to harm someone they dislike. I am reminded of the Jewish tradition of discouraging lashon hara—literally, “evil tongue”—which asks people to only share negative (but true) information about a person when it is intended to help or improve matters, not purely to harm that person.

Two gray-green film reels with misspelled labels
CC BY Siaron James https://flic.kr/p/pxDCJk

What do effective activists look like?

Leaving aside the difficult task of detecting abusive people and master manipulators, here’s what I’ve noticed over more than 18 years of activism: I always regret working with activists who focus more on self-promotion or criticizing others than on praising and supporting others (especially those with less privilege or power than themselves). Don’t get me wrong—effective activism requires naming problems and calling out mistakes, and that requires some criticism. Self-promotion is also necessary, in order to build a platform and become more effective as an activist. What I am talking about is the proportion of time an activist spends on criticizing others and self-promotion, relative to the time they spend sharing solutions and promoting things that benefit others.

For example, when I look at an activist’s Twitter feed, I scroll down the last few hundred tweets and ask myself some questions: How often do they retweet calls to action which don’t benefit them directly? If they promote other people’s work, do they only promote a few people closely allied to them, or many different people? How often do they write their own tweet on the hot Twitter topic of the day, and how often do they retweet another, more qualified person’s take on it? How often did they give explicit credit by name to other people? Do they promote valuable but unpopular causes, or do they only support a cause when it becomes trendy? Do they ever “spend” their social capital, or do they only do things that grow their personal brand?

You can ask yourself these questions about an activist’s writing, talks, podcasts, video appearances, or other output. I pay particular attention to how often an activist gives credit by name to others. An especially positive sign is when an activist corrects others when they give the activist inappropriate credit. For example, when people complimented Craig Mazin, writer and producer of the Chernobyl TV series, for elements of the TV series he wasn’t primarily responsible for, he consistently gave credit by name to the people directly responsible.

Choosing an activist to work with

Back to the original question: when an activist tells me they can’t work with another activist, how do I decide which one to work with? I recommend looking at the overall pattern of each activist’s behavior over a period of years, and evaluating them on two factors: do they display a pattern of abusive behavior, and do they spend more time on self-promotion and criticism than on supporting and promoting others? How they behave with regard to this specific conflict can also be useful information. Are they scrupulous with the truth and careful to avoid exaggeration, or do they seem careless of the facts? Are they regretfully informing you about the decision they have made over their own behavior and the things they control, or are they threatening or coercing you in an authoritarian manner?

Be careful not to confuse someone informing you of the likely consequences of your behavior with someone making coercive threats; saying “When a conference invites a serial sexual predator to speak, many people will boycott the conference because they don’t want to enable sexual abuse,” is entirely different than “If you don’t do what I want, I will make a false accusation against you.” One is the natural consequence of your behavior, the other is coercion. (Sometimes threats and coercion come from desperation or fear; more often they come from a place of entitlement or sadism.)

Communicating your decision to others

To get back to your question about communicating your decision not to work with an activist to other people, I tend to say things like:

  • “Based on previous negative experiences with this person, I find it is not rewarding for me to work with them. I hope you can find other folks to do this!”
  • “Ethically, I can no longer give my social capital to this person because of [PATTERN OF BEHAVIOR], and here are five other people who have talked about experiencing the same pattern of behavior.”
  • “I can’t go into detail, but I am no longer willing to work with this person. I appreciate you reaching out to me! Let me know if we can work together on another project.”

One of the decisions I make early on is whether I’m just going to set my own boundaries, or if I will put any effort into explaining my decision. If the other activist has a specific repeated pattern of abusive behavior, I may put more effort in to sharing my reasons for not working them in an attempt to protect others, if I have energy and social capital to burn. If they are just unpleasant or untrustworthy, I will probably be more vague (“It’s me, not them!”) and allow the other person to figure it out on their own. If there’s a lot of trust between me and the other person, I may explain more. It’s up to you how much effort you want to put in to helping the other person understand your reasoning. (It might be helpful to read Ijeoma Oluo talk about the personal cost of trying to change other people’s minds.)

When I am in this situation, I try to focus on holding firm on my personal boundaries, continuing to act in alignment with my values, and letting go of any specific outcomes beyond that. If I am patient for a few months, the activist I disagree with will often act in a way that proves my point.

A wooden fence in a misty green field
CC BY Anton Novosolev https://flic.kr/p/agdrwH

Ally skill: Learn to identify activists whose behavior supports your cause

Activism is like any other field: it includes both people working hard to support those who have the least, and people who behave in self-centered, power-obsessed, or abusive ways—and people who are a mix of all of these behaviors. Being able to identify effective activists who contribute to the overall cause and activists who are a net drain on their professed cause will help you be a better ally. To do this, look at the pattern of a person’s behavior over a period of years and ask what proportion of time they spend doing things that help themselves or tear down others compared to the proportion of time they promote other people’s work and support others (especially those with the least power and privilege). While every activist needs to self-promote or criticize others sometimes, they should more often be acting in solidarity with marginalized people.

Featured image CC BY Robert Couse-Baker https://flic.kr/p/WJ9cgJ

Learn more about the Ally Skills Workshop

I hope you enjoyed the first 10 columns from Dear Ally Skills Teacher! As the next few months are the busiest time for ally skills training, Dear Ally will switch to a biweekly posting schedule. We still have a number of good questions in the queue, but I plan to end the column in a few more months in the spirit of “no more forever projects.” If you would like to get your specific question answered, ask now!

If you enjoy Dear Ally, you would probably love the Ally Skills Workshop. If you would like to learn more about how to attend an in-person or online ally skills training, email us at contact@frameshiftconsulting.com.

CC BY-ND Justin S. Campbell https://flic.kr/p/72WwmZ

#10: Should white people use white skin tone emojis?

Dear Ally (Skills Teacher),

I’m a cis white man in the U.S., and I have a leadership role at a tech company that uses Slack for communication and has many employees from marginalized groups.

Slack has a default “skin tone” for emojis, which is a cartoon-y yellow by default but can be set to another skin tone. Most of the people of color in our company have set their emoji skin tone to reflect their own appearance. A few white employees have set their skin tone to reflect their own skin tone. Most white people here have left the default yellow emoji skin tone.

Should I change from the default? And what happens when someone of Skin Tone #whatever posts a reaction emoji, and you click to second the reaction? Or when there’s one white-skin wave and one brown-skin wave reaction already, how do you add your reaction?

—Ruminating on Reactji

Can I say that I love that Slack and the Unicode Consortium have created a situation in which millions of white people are forced to think about their race at work sometimes? People who aren’t part of the dominant race or ethnic group (in the U.S., this is people of color) have to consciously think about their race or ethnic group all of the time. But if you haven’t been forced to think about it a lot, it can be a major *record scratch* moment on the rare occasions that it happens. Race and ethnicity vary a lot depending on culture and location, so I’ll write the rest of the column specifically about white people in the U.S. and what emojis they should use. The answers are probably different for other parts of the world, but you should be able to use similar principles to help figure out the answer.

What do different skin tone emojis mean?

All right, you’re a white person using Slack at work and now you have to choose: do you use a yellow emoji or a paler skin tone emoji or a skin tone emoji that doesn’t match your skin? Part of the problem is that you’re not even sure what each emoji is saying. Like, does a white person using the paler skin tone emojis mean “I am a white person who is aware of their racial privilege?” or does it mean “I am a white supremacist?” If there’s already a darker skin tone reaction emoji than your skin, is starting a different skin tone reaction emoji saying “I am aware and respectful of race and how it affects people,” or is it saying “I refuse to associate myself with your inferior race?” If a white person uses the “default” yellow emoji, is that just reinforcing the idea that whiteness is the default? And sometimes a skin tone emoji simply means “I once used an emoji with that skin tone and now it always uses that skin tone emoji and I don’t know how to change it back.”

It’s all so complicated! And you don’t know how other people will react, and you’re not sure what is the safest thing to do, but you have to choose something and you have to choose quickly and it’s stressful. My first recommendation is to stop and appreciate for a moment, “Oh, I am now experiencing a tiny sliver of the stress and mental load that people of color in the U.S. experience all day, every day. Wow, that’s a lot.” People of color also have to make a decision about which emoji skin tone to use AND deal with police brutality, Model Minority stereotypes, racial wealth gaps, etc. As a first step, take the discomfort you are feeling about potentially being perceived as racist and use it to develop compassion for people who are experiencing racism itself.

Avoiding appropriation

Let’s get the easy question out of the way first: in most cases, white people shouldn’t use skin tone emojis darker than their own skin (including adding to an existing reaction emoji). One thing I hear consistently when I listen to people of color is that, for many of them, it usually feels bad and weird when white people use darker skin tone emojis. To me, this looks like appropriation: deliberately adopting characteristics of a marginalized group you aren’t part of, but only when convenient or advantageous to you. If you’re using a darker skin tone emoji because it looks better, or you want to associate yourself with coolness, or show people that you are a good person, then that’s definitely appropriation. For more on why appropriation is so harmful, read Ijeoma Oluo’s interview with Rachel Dolezal, in which Oluo demonstrates the shallowness of Dolezal’s understanding of the Black people whose identities and culture she is appropriating.

I can think of exceptions for when a white person using a darker skin emoji makes sense (perhaps when representing people other than themselves, or as one of many different skin tone emojis intended to represent a racially diverse group of people). A useful guideline for white people is: don’t use darker skin tone emoji as a short-hand for “Look how ‘woke’ I am.” (And if your software got stuck with the wrong default skin tone for emojis, take the time to figure out how to reset it.)

White supremacy: more than a skin tone emoji

What about white people using a skin tone emoji that matches their skin tone? Many people of color are excited about getting to use an emoji with a skin tone that looks like theirs and consider using skin tone emojis as a form of pride in their race or ethnicity—does that mean white people using it are also trying to communicate pride in their race, or “white pride?” In the U.S., “white pride” is racist because society as a whole already reinforces and supports whiteness at the expense of other racial and ethnic groups, so the last thing we need is to celebrate whiteness more.

Overall, the consensus seems to be that unless you are indicating in some other way that you’re a white supremacist, such as using white supremacist code words or hate symbols, using paler skin tone emojis doesn’t make people think that you are a white supremacist.

Whiteness as the default

The Simpsons dolls
CC BY Torsten Schulz https://flic.kr/p/fZxPnA

What about the cartoon yellow skin tone emojis? Are they really skin tone neutral, or is the “default” actually whiteness in disguise? In The Simpsons cartoon, the white characters have yellow skin, but the characters with darker skin are drawn with human skin colors. In a white supremacist society, whiteness is the default, and this goes for cartoon characters as well, even when the default is technically yellow. One reason that many people with darker skin tones were so excited to have and use skin tone emoji was that they didn’t feel included in or represented in the cartoon yellow emoji default—and they were right. While everyone can use the default yellow emoji, feeling like it unquestionably represents and includes you is one element of white privilege.

In summary, if you are a white person, there is no skin tone emoji choice that clearly says, “I am a white person who is aware of and fighting against racism.” People with privilege often want some kind of way to say, “I’m not like all the bad people who look just like me, I’m one of the good ones.” The reality is that we aren’t “good people,” we are “people who do things, sometimes good, sometimes bad.” There’s no way to preemptively prove to the people around you that you aren’t racist; all you can do is choose the action that fights racism more often. Whenever you feel the urge to prove that you aren’t racist, take time to appreciate what it feels like to grapple with the impact of systemic racism on a personal level and to be unable to control how other people perceive you—and then focus on actions you can take to fight racism.

Which skin tone emoji to use?

Which skin tone emoji should a white person use? Either one that matches your actual skin tone, or the yellow one, either will do. It doesn’t matter that much; what matters is learning about and becoming comfortable with talking about your race, systemic racism, and how it benefits you. (If you’re not a white person and want advice on what skin tone emoji to use, Zara Rahman wrote about how some people of color decide which emoji skin tones to use, including a discussion of colorism, the societal preference for lighter skin tones.) Whichever emoji you choose, what’s really important is to channel your discomfort about emoji choice into concrete action to end racial injustice in other ways.

Ally skill: Practice acknowledging your privilege

People are often aware of and comfortable talking about the ways in which they are marginalized by society, but it can be really hard and challenging to say, “I have this privilege, and because of that privilege, society grants me unearned advantages that make my life easier.” If you feel uncomfortable acknowledging or talking about your privilege, spend some time getting comfortable doing that. For example, if you’re a white person in the U.S. and you feel uncomfortable describing yourself as white or talking about the ways that whiteness benefits you, you might read “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo or “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo, and then talk to some friends about what you read. You can also watch videos, or take a class, or whatever else works for you; what’s important is that you practice saying the actual words. Once you know that you can handle a conversation about racism, it becomes easier to think about and make decisions about issues related to racism.

Featured image CC BY-ND by Anton https://flic.kr/p/4jkoN2