Allyship is about those who are active in supporting efforts to increase fairness and inclusion in our societies.
The good news is that many people are committed to diversity, equity, inclusion and fairer societies. The bad news is that some people who benefit from the status quo are not—either wilfully or through indifference. Even those of us who would like to be more active in pushing for fairness can be justifiably wary of getting things wrong or our intentions being misinterpreted.
Being an ally can be an effective way to promote fairness and inclusion. For example, people from advantaged backgrounds who challenge prejudice are perceived to be more effective at reducing prejudice than the people from the disadvantaged groups themselves.
The term 'ally refers to people who are active in supporting efforts to increase fairness in our societies. In practice, this means challenging biases and providing practical support for victims of discriminatory behaviours, processes and systems. Because an ally can be very influential in shifting opinions, their support and advocacy can be an important part of bringing about positive change in our societies.
There are three traps to avoid: performative allyship, ineffective allyship and 'someone else needs to deal with this'. Performative allyship refers to situations in which people outwardly profess solidarity with topical causes 'in order to distance themselves from potential scrutiny' but do not support this with any meaningful action. In other words, they are 'talking the talk, without walking the walk'. Performative allyship is particularly harmful because it calls into question the intention of genuine allies.
On the other hand, ineffective allyship is not malicious but also leads to negative outcomes. Ineffective allyship occurs when people do not acknowledge their personal biases and offer help that perpetuates dependency.
Finally, there is a general misconception that the responsibility of taking action is primarily with professionals who have responsibility for diversity, equity and inclusion. This is not true. In the corporate context, Google have found that it is necessary to 'make diversity, equity and inclusion everyone's responsibility'. Anyone who supports fairness in our societies have a responsibility to become allies.
For anyone interested in bringing about positive social change, here are seven ways to be a good ally.
Acknowledge your privilege
The first step is to acknowledge that you have certain privileges and advantages due to the existing status quo. This could be due to your nationality, gender, class or ethnicity. We are not suggesting that all your successes and achievements are solely due to your privilege. However, it is important to recognise that some people in our society are granted more privilege and given more opportunities than others. If you need support with this, talking to trusted friends or receiving coaching may be a good way to increase your self-awareness and could boost your motivation to take action.
One of the most important things to do is to listen respectfully and authentically to those who are disadvantaged or marginalised. In doing this, be careful not to take things personally. As a person with privilege, you may feel personally criticised. As an ally, it is essential that you allow others to have a voice. They have a right to be frustrated. Listening well is the starting point to understanding the challenges that underrepresented groups face on a daily basis.
Learn about inequalities
If you want to be an effective ally, you will want to learn more about the challenges that people can face in our societies. It is helpful to be curious about what leads to social injustice and systemic discrimination. This involves going beyond mainstream discourses and finding out about the conditions that have led people to be disadvantaged in your society. As part of your learning, you may want to broaden your professional networks and social circles. Be prepared to acknowledge your own biases and question stereotypes and assumptions that you may have developed over many years.
Invest in others
Being an ally means supporting others to succeed. It is important to provide people with the resources and connections that they need. Investing in others means finding time for conversations, introducing people from under-represented groups to your networks, recommending them for influential or leadership roles and openly acknowledging their accomplishments. In other words, you can use your privilege to facilitate opportunities for others. It is also helpful to invest time building a network or community of allies. This way you can amplify your effect while spending more time with like-minded people.
Empathy is essential because it is a powerful way of connecting with people. It can show others that you are interested in their experiences. You should make it clear that you trying to understand what it must be like for them. Be explicit by saying things like 'that sounds very challenging' or 'you must feel very lonely'. In this way, you show that you care. But remember that you can never know what it is really like. You run the risk of devaluing other people's experiences if you say, 'I know exactly how you feel.' Only they know.
Allies take action, privately and publicly, in their drive towards greater inclusion. This means that you should challenge comments that are discriminatory or hateful (e.g. homophobic, sexist, racist etc.) if it is safe to do so, whether this happens in public or in private. Allies need to be vigilant for unfair processes and systems, even and especially when they benefit from them. Such processes and systems should be questioned and challenged. This is where your privilege can be used to make things better.
Take a stand
Being an impactful ally requires a relentless commitment to positive change through interpersonal actions and private conversations. According to the Harvard Business Review, allies 'fight injustice and promote equity'.
Ultimately, being an ally supports the creation of fair societies and organisations. We should remember that every person’s experience is informed by different aspects of their lives.
Some people are disadvantaged multiple times; others may be privileged in one context but not in others. Whether you choose to support one under-represented group or take a stand for diversity, equity and inclusion more broadly, the first step is to become an effective ally.
Professor Christian van Nieuwerburgh is Professor of Coaching and Positive Psychology in the Centre for Positive Health Sciences at RCSI. He is an academic, researcher, executive coach and consultant interested in the integration of coaching and positive psychology in educational and health settings.
RCSI is committed to achieving a better and more sustainable future through the UN Sustainable Development Goals.