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Privilege and Allyship
Privilege in the context of diversity and inclusion is a set of unearned benefits enjoyed by people who belong to particular social groups. Privilege can be a fraught topic because no single group has a monopoly on it—whiteness conveys privilege, maleness conveys privilege, ability conveys privilege, and so on—and because many are not aware of the privilege they have.
Acknowledging privilege can be uncomfortable, especially where overlapping systems of privilege are at play. But privilege is a critical concept in D&I work because it can help identify those with the social capital to effect change. It can also help to structure allyship relationships to ensure that less privileged voices are heard.
You may hear frustration or exasperation from some people, usually from the majority group, who say things like, “What do you want from me?” or “This isn’t my problem.” People who are not directly affected by inequity or don’t see it in their daily lives often don’t understand or accept that others have to work harder while facing discrimination, harassment, threats, or worse. When this is the case, people don’t always feel like doing something about a problem they don’t see—one they may not even believe is real. They may think this work should be relegated to those directly affected by bias and discrimination.
On the other hand, you might hear someone say, “I’m just a white dude. How can I help?” They’re saying that they really don’t feel prepared to address what they understand to be a deep and major issue, and they want to know where to start.
important When it comes to moving the needle on D&I, cisgender white men have an outsized impact on bringing about change. While they may not realize it, a vote of confidence or reaffirmation of belonging from someone in this group carries more influence than from anyone else. This is true at every level of your organization, from your C-suite down to your most junior employee.
When someone expresses that they don’t know what to do, or that they don’t feel that doing anything is their responsibility, it helps to frame the situation as benefiting everyone. Even though it may not seem like it, everyone is affected by bias and discrimination. When members of a team don’t feel supported or included, everyone’s work suffers, and so do the people they see every day. Eventually, those people are going to leave too. If candidates you’re trying to get to join the team don’t feel supported or included, they’re going to choose another company. By contrast, in a productive environment, everyone wants to make the team better, and that means supporting the needs of teammates and all of your candidates.
Being an Ally
An ally is an individual who uses their privilege to advocate on behalf of someone who does not have that same privilege. Anyone can be an ally—a member of the majority group contributing to inclusion work, a white woman to women of color, a cisgender person to transgender people, an able-bodied person to people with disabilities, and so on. Allyship is the process of acting as an ally. Because it is a process, rather than a conclusion, allyship requires ongoing learning, development, and effort from the privileged individual.
confusionTo highlight the importance of taking action, some prefer terms like accomplice to the term ally.*
Allyship is key because D&I is often misunderstood to be “a women’s issue” or “just for minorities to do something about,” failing to take into account the fact that D&I leads to better outcomes for everyone. One of the markers of effective D&I is when privileged allies start taking up the cause because they see themselves as part of the larger community.
caution Being an ally is a practice—something you do every day to support underrepresented people. Doing research and unpacking your own privilege is part of the work. It is not about getting praise for being a savior or fixing other people’s problems for them. And, like any new skill, you won’t get it right the first time.
Allyship behaviors include self-education, maintaining awareness of the issues that affect the day-to-day lives of the URGs in your organization, and amplification and endorsement of the achievements and concerns brought forward by underrepresented groups in their organization. In practice, these are small everyday actions like ensuring the voices of URGs are heard in meetings, affirming the technical difficulty of a completed project, or speaking up when witnessing discriminatory or exclusionary behavior. Allyship requires an ability to center the experiences of those impacted, rather than majority group experiences—including providing help and support in the ways that URGs have indicated they would like to receive it.
storyA good starting point is to find ways to listen to URGs. Allies can do this through diversifying who they follow on social media,* joining online groups or Slack channels where diversity and inclusion issues are discussed, or attending a D&I meetup in their local area. Learn how to participate in conversations without speaking—learn how to listen. When you hear something you disagree with, don’t automatically gear up for an argument, just make a note about it and keep listening. When you hear something that you object to or that runs counter to your intuition and experiences, don’t hop into the fray, don’t go ask the URGs in your network to explain it. Do the work to educate yourself. Get curious and Google it. The point of this is not to change your opinion or convince you of one perspective or the other. You’re learning how to de-center yourself and work toward an awareness of the issues that affect URGs. The goal is to develop an ability to recognize the moments in your day when an inequity happens so that you can take action to correct it. More often than not, that action will be nothing more than a small kindness—redirecting the conversation back to someone who was cut off, ensuring work was properly attributed, providing a public endorsement, inviting someone to participate in a meeting. —Jason Wong, leadership coach
important When it comes to hiring, steps you can take include listening for biased statements like, “She was too aggressive”; intervening when a hiring panel suggests adding on additional evaluation tests for URGs that no other candidate was subjected to; and trying to help candidates succeed.
dangerAllyship is especially critical because research has shown that underrepresented groups are often penalized in the workplace for promoting diversity. It’s people from marginalized backgrounds who can see the ways the system fails them, but they often lack the power to make changes without taking on significant risk. Gaslighting, retaliation, and labeling (like being called a “troublemaker”) are common.
Allyship acknowledges that it is risky for URGs to help each other. In a recent academic study,* participants were asked to rate a fictitious manager’s competence in hiring decisions after reading a description of a hiring decision and being shown a photo of the manager that revealed their race and gender. They found the following:
Participants rated nonwhite managers and female managers as less effective when they hired a nonwhite or female job candidate instead of a white male candidate. It didn’t matter whether white male managers chose to hire a white male, white female, nonwhite male, or nonwhite female—there was no difference in how participants rated their competence and performance. Basically, all managers were judged harshly if they hired someone who looked like them, unless they were a white male.
In addition to being risky, diversity and inclusion work often falls into a category of work with no promotion track and is handed off as a set of responsibilities on top of someone’s primary job. It is neither fair nor effective to ask people disadvantaged by the system—people who are historically underpaid relative to their white male peers—to be the ones charged with the bulk of the effort to fix that system. Success in building a diverse team requires allies to help shoulder the burden.
story“At my last startup, some of the biggest champions of diversity were cisgender white male engineers, especially because many had been so used to homogeneity of technical teams. They said, ‘It’s just so much better here—there’s a real culture around collaboration and thoughtful communication; I feel like we’re better at supporting learning and making mistakes better here.’ Having experienced the benefits of a diverse team firsthand, they said it’s something they would prioritize in future job searches. In the meantime, they wanted to know how they could use their privilege to help me and the rest of the team with diversity efforts. I felt like they were really getting it, that at the end of the day, it’s really about becoming better humans, not just more effective employees.” —Jennifer Kim, startup advisor and inclusion advocate