Moving Boundaries

What Does it Mean to Be an Ally?

‘Ally’ is another world for a helper, partner or supporter. In the fight to combat racism and discrimination against groups of people or genders, the word ‘allyship’ comes up frequently. What’s behind it and how is solidarity shown in practice? Diversity management consultant Hanna Göhler offers tips for learning and practicing appreciation at work and in everyday life.

What is allyship all about?

Allies are people with privileges who support, show solidarity with and empathise with others who belong to groups that experience oppression or discrimination. The aim is for people in the marginalised groups to feel heard, understood and valued. Being an ally isn’t a label; it’s an attitude. It means questioning the status quo critically and being open to change, sensitive to diversity and aware of prejudice, and reflecting that in one’s words and deeds. It’s a proactive process of self-awareness and action.

How do you start becoming more self-aware?

Examine your own privileges: What positions of power have I acquired and when do I feel powerless? In what situations do I belong to a majority or minority? Empathise with other people: What experiences have they had, and what do they mean? What types of discrimination am I familiar/unfamiliar with? Diversity wheels such as Gardenswartz and Rowe’s model illustrate the many possible dimensions that make people the same or different, the factors on which discrimination is based and the criteria that determine whether or not these people can participate in social and political processes.

Shaking Hands

What do I need to watch for when interacting with people from marginalised groups? Are there dos and don’ts?

Pay attention to how people talk about and position themselves. Don’t label anybody by assuming, ‘You’re this or that, so I’m sure you are being discriminated against and now I’m going to help you.’ That would be power-wielding and dominant behaviour. Observe, be mindful, educate yourself, ask curious questions. Everyone wants to be valued. You can show respect and appreciation by asking interested questions and mainly by listening. Honestly believe the person who tells you something about themselves.

What’s the best way for me to support people in my immediate circle who are being discriminated against?

Show sensitivity and awareness and advocate for them. People who may be afraid of experiencing discrimination based on a personal characteristic need to feel safe in order to open up and talk about themselves. It’s not easy for them to talk about past instances of discrimination and their own feelings. Show understanding and empathy; don’t make it about you. Try to put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself: what would it be like to be you – a woman, transgender, in a wheelchair, a person of colour, bisexual? If you can’t see things from their perspective right away, it doesn’t matter. Just believe the other person and their feelings anyway. Be loud and clear and stand up for everyone’s rights, so you take action to combat unfair treatment. Allyship isn’t some folksy performance on a symbolic holiday; it’s a mindset that is sensitive to diversity.

What should I do if I observe discrimination at work?

If the discrimination happens in an everyday situation, intervene boldly and verbalise the injustice. But there is also structural discrimination in processes such as hiring. Then you need to be persistent. Bring other people on board and join forces in order to change established practices. In Germany, the core dimensions of the diversity wheel are protected under the General Act on Equal Treatment and the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany.

Let’s say we’re talking about an everyday situation. What do I do?

Address the person whose behaviour you find discriminatory: ‘I think the way you are treating this person is unfair/unjust/domineering/racist/sexist/condescending ... What are you trying to accomplish by doing that?’ In the long term, you can invite them to talk about privileges, feelings and disadvantages, opening up space for self-reflection about these issues. In-house workshops, further training and team meetings are good forums for this. Supporting people who are experiencing discrimination calls for a foundation of trust and a safe space. It’s important to ask if they feel discriminated against and want your support, and if so, what exactly they need. Being an ally also means: not manifesting victimhood, but rather supporting them in their wish to assume a more powerful position. It’s about empowerment.

Dancing People

What if the oppressor is in a leadership role?

People in leadership roles are in a position of power – and not all of them reflect on this power and its potential impact. If awareness does not come through the person’s own initiative, organisational levers such as involving an ombudsperson, enlisting the support of the Works Council, escalating the matter to the next level or even going public in forums ranging from the break room to the press, can counter discrimination and enhance fairness and equal opportunity in the organisation. For managers: power means strength. Use it and unleash it so others can benefit. You have nothing to lose – and others have much to gain.

What else is important to remember?

Each individual is unique, and everyone has the same rights. Some people are sensitive, others are strong and still others are reserved. ‘Nobody wants to be reduced to one specific trait; we all want to be perceived as multifaceted, holistically sentient beings. Let’s be mindful of one another and advocate for everyone to be treated with dignity.

Nobody wants to be reduced to one specific trait. Everyone is multifaceted.

Hanna Göhler, diversity management consultant

About ... Hanna Göhler

Hanna Göhler lives in Cologne and is an organisational development and diversity management consultant. She helps companies and organisations with their digital transformation, acting as an anti-bias multiplier, among other functions. Göhler sits on the management board of the International Society for Diversity Management (idm) in Berlin and is the founder of Digital Habitat.

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