Ally skills basics

This is a summary of concepts and skills related to ally skills, how to power and influence to make your workplace more fair and just. This resource is intended as a quick reference, not a stand-alone learning tool. See our resources page for more information about learning ally skills.

When learning ally skills, it’s okay to start small and simple and work your way up to more difficult actions slowly over a period of years. To learn ally skills in more depth, we recommend participating in an Ally Skills Workshop. You can also find out more about hosting an Ally Skills Workshop at your company or organization here.

Definitions

  • Privilege: an unearned advantage given to some people but not all
  • Oppression: systemic, pervasive inequality present throughout society that benefits people with more privilege and harms those with fewer privileges
  • Marginalized person: a member of a group that is the primary target of a system of oppression
  • Ally: a member of a social group that enjoys some privilege that is working to end oppression and understand their own privilege
  • Power: The ability to control circumstances or access to resources and/or privileges
  • Intersectionality: The concept that people can be subject to multiple systems of oppression that intersect and interact with each other, coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw

Ally is not an identity. You aren’t an ally when you are doing nothing. You are only acting as an ally when you are taking action to end oppression that you don’t personally suffer from. That’s why we prefer to talk about ally skills rather than allies.

Identifying your sources of privilege and power

An important first step to learning ally skills is identifying the privileges and power you have, so that you know which situations they give you an advantage in. For example, a white woman is more likely to be effective when she speaks up against white supremacy than when she speaks up against sexism. In the first case, she is part of the privileged group, and in the second case, she is part of the marginalized group.

In many cultures, people are uncomfortable directly talking about or even thinking about their power and position within hierarchies. However, effectively fighting oppression requires being aware of your sources of power and how they affect your relationship with the people around you, both in positive and negative ways. Identifying your power and privilege isn’t about feeling guilty, it’s about learning how to use your time and energy effectively.

Power may be entirely earned, or it may be partly or wholly derived from some privilege you have. An example of a mix of power and privilege is a degree from a high-status university; while the degree is partly earned, most high-status universities are more likely to admit and graduate people who born to wealthier families.

For help with identifying your sources of power and privilege, you can fill out the power and privilege exercise from the Ally Skills Workshop.

Useful ally skills

These skills are organized in chronological order, starting with skills it is better to learn first, followed by more difficult skills that may build on previous skills. You won’t be able to learn ally skills just from reading this list, but when available we have linked to resources explaining more about putting each ally skill into practice.

  • Educate yourself
    • Take responsibility for self-education
    • Seek out information about oppression on an ongoing basis
    • Listen to marginalized people about their experiences
    • Identify your sources of privilege and power
    • Define your values and priorities
  • Prepare to take action
    • Identify oppressive situations where your privilege and power helps you
    • Brainstorm actions to take
    • Choose short and simple actions
    • Don’t try to be funny—humor often backfires
    • Don’t harm one marginalized group when trying to help another marginalized group
    • Seek out feedback on actions and iterate
    • Practice taking action
  • Take action sustainably and efficiently
    • Start with easier, simpler actions before trying harder, long-term actions
    • Focus on changing the behavior of many persuadable people instead of a few hard-to-change people
    • Spend more time criticizing powerful people than marginalized people
    • Save your energy by acting when you can be most effective and letting other things go
    • Take care of yourself first so you can care for others better
  • Share the benefits of your privilege
    • Redirect valuable opportunities to qualified marginalized people if you can afford to
    • Be scrupulous about assigning credit correctly
    • Give credit repeatedly, generously, and proactively to marginalized people
    • Demonstrate respect for marginalized people through your own actions
    • Amplify marginalized voices
    • Redirect praise for your ally actions to marginalized people who helped you
  • Prioritize fighting oppression above your comfort or ego
    • Be willing to say unpopular things
    • Be willing to be uncomfortable
    • When wrong, apologize, correct yourself, and move on
    • Recognize when your values and actions are out of sync
    • Be willing to put your ego and self-image second to fighting oppression
  • Respect the agency of marginalized people
    • Speak for yourself, not marginalized people
    • Justify your actions with your values, not with speculations about what marginalized people feel or want
    • Ask marginalized people what they want when you aren’t sure
    • Don’t tell marginalized people what to do unless they request advice
    • Find effective leaders from marginalized groups and support them
  • Be smart
    • Be alert for people acting in bad faith or trying to trick you
    • Question the framing of a situation and reframe when necessary
    • Take time to think before you react to inflammatory situations
  • Encourage others to learn ally skills
    • Share resources and information about ally skills when appropriate
    • When praised for ally actions, treat them as expected minimum behavior
    • Learn how to persuade and influence others in non-coercive ways
    • Serve as a role model in your day-to-day actions
    • When safe, share your mistakes and failings to encourage others