Dear Ally (Skills Teacher),
I’m a white man in a position of cultural and professional privilege at an engineering-focused tech company.
Some of the other white men here have privately admitted to me that they no longer participate in conversations of race and gender. They’re scared of the shame they’ll face if they say something ‘wrong’ so they keep their opinions to themselves and avoid the discussions entirely.
I’m worried about what they’re saying to each other in private channels and how they might subconsciously (or consciously) undermine the work that other people are doing to make this a more welcoming place.
What can I do to help them participate in a positive way? Or at least not have a negative effect on the people who are working so hard on these conversations?
This is a form of the most common question I get when I teach an Ally Skills Workshop: How can I convince other people to want to act as allies? The short version is: you can’t, but I will share with you the various ways I’ve seen it happen.
First, I want to say something a little surprising: I don’t think your quiet coworkers are having a significant negative effect on the people who are having those conversations. If people don’t feel confident about being able to participate in public discussions about race and gender without saying something harmful, just not participating in those discussions is a good first response. (This is similar to a previous question about how to change the minds of men who don’t want to mentor women because of #MeToo: in most cases, you don’t want those men to mentor women!) I hear your concern that they are engaging in much more harmful conversations when you aren’t around to hear them, and I’ll address that in the rest of that post.
Given that caveat, when does it make sense to put in effort to convince people that it’s worth the time, effort, and risk to learn about these topics and start participating in these discussions?
Why people start acting as allies
In my experience, people who end up fighting oppression that doesn’t affect them directly have the following qualities and experiences:
- They believe that fairness and equality are things they should strive for.
- They are willing and able to learn new information about the world.
- They are exposed to evidence of a system of oppression affecting others and eventually come to believe it exists.
- They discover some personal motivation to fight this particular system of oppression and begin to act.
The first two qualities are generally not things you can teach an adult. By the time you are working with someone at a company, they have probably already decided whether they value fairness and equality or not, and whether they personally should make an effort to support them. And once someone has decided to stop learning new information, it’s hard to convince them to start learning again.
Given a person that cares about justice and is open to learning, you can help with the last two steps by exposing them to evidence of a system of oppression affecting others and helping them find a personal motivation to fight that oppression. This is the heart of the conversion from bystander to someone who wants to fight oppression. I have seen this change of heart happen in a few different ways:
- They learn that someone they are very close to (spouse, child, parent) has experienced the oppression.
- They learn that several people they are moderately close to (friend, coworker, fellow student) have experienced the oppression.
- They read many studies or news stories about many people they don’t know at all who experience the oppression.
As you can see, the more they care for the person experiencing oppression, the less evidence they need to come to believe that the system of oppression exists. Hearing a story of oppression from one close friend is often more effective than reading a scientific study showing that thousands of strangers are experiencing the same oppression.
What you can do
Your job is to:
- Identify people who care about fairness and are able to learn.
- Make it easier for them to learn about the system of oppression in ways that give them a personal motivation to fight it.
Since hearing about oppression from people close to them is so effective, one important thing you can do as a coworker is make it safer for coworkers experiencing that oppression to share that with other coworkers. You can do this by showing that you believe and support their stories when they tell them, expressing empathy and respect for them to other coworkers, and taking on the job of providing supporting information for their claims. You can also share news stories about oppression on your social media, or in Slack channels at work, or during lunch conversations. When coworkers share false information about a system of oppression, you can speak up and share the truth about that system of oppression.
For the people who don’t care about fairness or can’t learn information, the best you can do is encourage them to continue not participating in conversations about race and gender because their participation will not make things better. If you can’t change people’s minds, you can often still change their behavior, and in this case they are already doing the best thing possible given their mind set.
Ally skill: Do your research and practice in advance
Being ready with quick summaries of relevant information and links to more resources about a system of oppression is extremely helpful. This requires some research and practice in advance. You can keep links to useful web pages in your browser bookmarks or a file on your desktop or wherever is convenient for quickly copying and sharing with your coworkers. Consider investing 30 minutes in finding some good references, and then practicing saying your explanation out loud a couple of minutes a day for a week or two. If you are more likely to be doing this in writing, you can take 30 minutes to write one or two versions of the explanation, and then copy and paste that into whatever conversation you are having. Many marginalized people have been doing this kind of work for years, and appreciate someone else taking on this often (but not always) thankless work.
Featured image CC BY Chris Waits https://flic.kr/p/bb2Dbz