#1: A woman of color I work with opposes anti-racism work

Cursive graffiti reading "listen" with a sun rising behind it

Welcome to Dear Ally Skills Teacher! For my first few columns, I will be answering questions I frequently get in Ally Skills Workshops, summarized by me in letter form. Future columns will be answers to questions sent in by readers, which you can send by filling out this form.

Dear Ally Skills Teacher,

I am a white man who is pretty well respected individual contributor at my U.S.-based company. I’ve been trying to use my influence to support anti-racism work like compensation audits and recruiting at universities with more people of color. Most of the feedback I get is positive, including from people of color at my company.

What worries me is a Latina coworker of mine who speaks up to say that she doesn’t need any “special treatment” and that she opposes whatever change I am supporting. I know you say to listen to targets of oppression about what they need, but what do I do when they disagree with each other?

—Listening but Confused

I love getting this question, because it means people are taking risks, instead of only acting when they feel 100% safe. Rest assured that, despite what your coworker says, any race-based “special treatment” going on at your company is helping white people, not people of color! My general rule is that whenever people claim that a marginalized group is getting an unearned advantage, it’s probably true that the privileged group is getting that advantage.

Your question goes straight to the heart of a difficult problem: In general, we should listen to and follow marginalized people when we are fighting the system of oppression that affects them most, but what do we do when marginalized people disagree with each other, or tell us to support their own oppression? I’ll start with some basic concepts around diversity of opinion, listening, and co-option. Then I’ll talk about how to decide between differing opinions, followed by a technique to redirect any backlash to your anti-oppression efforts away from marginalized people and towards the privileged group.

Marginalized people have different opinions

Mountain range with treesAs you’ve noticed, marginalized people aren’t a monolith, any more than privileged people are. You disagree with your white coworkers about compensation audits; it’s no surprise your coworkers of color also disagree with each other about compensation audits. People’s opinions will also change as time goes by and they gain experience. In my experience, people like your Latina coworker often haven’t had a lot of negative experiences yet—maybe because they haven’t been working long, or they were protected by a powerful person, or they just got lucky.

One tragic example of this kind of evolution is Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. She wrote a book exhorting working women to “lean in” to their careers to solve systemic discrimination against women in the workplace. After the sudden accidental death of her husband a few years later, she admitted she had failed to understand the challenges facing mothers working outside the home until she herself became a single mother.

Privileged groups reward marginalized people for supporting oppression

Let’s talk more about why people should listen to members of marginalized groups when trying to support that group. On average, marginalized people know more about what it’s like to be a marginalized person. They have stronger personal motivation to study oppression and do research on the causes and solutions. Listening to people about what they want is a mark of basic respect for someone’s humanity and agency which should be extended to everyone, not just the most privileged. But none of these reasons means that any particular member of a marginalized group is necessarily an expert on how to fight systemic oppression against that group.

In fact, there’s quite a lot of pressure on marginalized people to defend the existing power structure, or at least not challenge it. As just one example of many, Bill Cosby, himself a Black person, rose to fame and wealth while avoiding the topic of anti-Black racism in his public work. After his career was well-established, he delivered his infamous “Pound Cake Speech,” which blamed Black people for their own oppression—and continued to receive honorary degrees from universities for many years afterward. (Many of those honorary degrees were later rescinded, not for Cosby’s racism, but because Tarana Burke and others led the #MeToo movement which played a key role in holding Cosby accountable for his record of sexual assault.) Cosby was also rewarded for supporting the narrative that his personal success is “proof” that other Black people are not being held back by racism, thereby reinforcing and legitimizing racism further.

Other examples of marginalized people who have been rewarded for reinforcing oppression against their group include Amy Chua, Peter Thiel, Phyllis Schlafly, and Barack Obama. Rewarding “token” members of a group for reinforcing the system of oppression that keeps most members of their group out of power is part of how privileged groups protect their unfair advantages.

Deciding which marginalized people to listen to

Sleepy fennec fox
CC BY yvonne n from willowick, usa

If we should listen to marginalized people, and marginalized people can disagree with each other and change their minds, and are rewarded for reinforcing their own oppression, how do you decide who to listen to? The answer is that you figure out which marginalized people know more about how to fight the system of oppression affecting them, and follow their lead. Here are a few questions you can ask to help determine this.

Do they regularly reinforce oppression?

If a marginalized person regularly reinforces oppression against their own group, you probably shouldn’t follow their advice about supporting that group. This might look like:

  • Putting down other members of their group: “I’m not like the other girls, I’m much more rational than them.”
  • Victim-blaming: “Other Black people need to dress more professionally if they want to be taken seriously, like I do.”
  • Demonstrating bias against their own group: “I didn’t promote him because he’s so flamboyantly gay, and I’m pretty gay myself.”
  • Denying that oppression of their group exists: “My success as a fat person proves that fat people don’t have it any harder than skinny people.”

In general, if someone acts like they are biased against a marginalized group, you shouldn’t listen to their advice about supporting that group, whether or not they are part of that group.

Do they have empathy and respect for others?

If someone demonstrates little empathy and respect for other marginalized people (of their own group or others), they probably aren’t a reliable source of advice for systemic change. They might have good insight on what helps them personally, but they are unable to extend that insight to others, or understand how to change the system as a whole. For example, Sheryl Sandberg’s book for working women was so specific to her position at the time—white, upper class, attended Harvard, extremely wealthy, married a supportive man, etc.—that it was no longer applicable even to herself once she became a single parent. Advice like this probably won’t take into account intersectionality, the way that multiple systems of oppression interact and influence each other, as described by the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw.

Are they a reliable source of information?

You can also pay attention to all the usual signs of whether someone is a reliable source of information. Do they:

  • Have a hard time admitting they are wrong?
  • Discount research or the lived experience of others because they don’t like its implications?
  • Exaggerate small things or downplay big things?
  • Change their opinion drastically depending on who is listening?
  • Seem uninterested in learning new things or listening to others?

Listening is not the same as taking advice

You can also listen to someone without taking their advice. If you listen to your Latina coworker, you will realize that for her, it feels more dangerous and scary to be in a workplace where racism is being actively opposed than one in which racism is an accepted fact. When people are fighting oppression, the “rules” of how to stay safe change constantly. Your coworker has figured out how to navigate a workplace with specific patterns of systemic racism, and you are forcing her into unknown waters. That doesn’t mean you should stop fighting for change, but it does mean you should think about how to minimize backlash against marginalized people stemming from your actions.

Ally skill: Frame changes in terms of the privileged group

Black and white picture frameOne technique I use to reduce backlash against marginalized people is to frame changes in terms of the more privileged group. Instead of saying, “We need a salary audit because people of color are complaining that they are being systematically paid less,” you might say, “We need a compensation audit because I am unhappy that white people are being systematically paid more than their equally qualified peers.” Most likely the solution will be the same—raise the compensation of people of color to match that of white people—but you are highlighting white people as the cause of the problem, and locating the push for the change as coming from a white person. I recommend keeping the focus on the unfair advantages being given to the privileged group, because it implies both the cause of the problem and the solution to the problem are the responsibility of the privileged group rather than the marginalized group.

Keep at it! If you are successful, at some point it will be safer to support anti-oppression work at your company than to oppose it, and people who need safety and predictability will be on your side. Until then, figure out who can give you good advice about how to fight oppression, reframe your efforts as fighting unfair advantages given to the privileged group, and keep listening even if you don’t take someone’s advice.

Have you been in a similar situation? Share what worked (or didn’t work) for you in the comments!

Next column: Company management says that knowing what coworkers are paid will make workers unhappy. Is that true?

Featured image: CC BY-SA runran https://flic.kr/p/5o8gGC

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