True Allies Listen
I have been ruminating on this blog post for a couple of months. Events in the US and around the world have made many people feel scared, unsafe, and uncertain. I wanted to do and say something, but it felt like nothing I could say or do would actually help.
Recently some people asked me how they could improve the situation and I realized I have a lot of advice on how to be a good ally. So if you are someone who wants to be there for others right now but you do not know where to start, here are some tips.
The most important thing you can do is listen. Actively listen with the intent to understand. Don’t focus on how you can respond to what you are hearing but try to get a solid understanding of things from someone who has direct experience.
As a woman in tech, one of the most frustrating things I deal with is listening to men tell me what I experience as a woman in tech. It sounds ridiculous, and yet it happens all the time. I have heard conference speakers talk about how I am or am not disadvantaged. Sometimes people assume I have experienced overt sexism (for the most part, I have not).
Folks sometimes forget that even within a group such as “women” or “minorities”, everyone has different experiences and different desires. Until you sit with someone and hear their story, their struggles, and their fears you cannot be sure how to help them.
Listening is also a way to combat the tendency to be a white knight. We want to help, and so we jump in and try to do something, but often these well-intentioned actions backfire or serve to further alienate the communities we are striving to help.
One of my favorite examples is a conference that invites 50 junior developers from underrepresented groups as part of an outreach effort. On the surface, this is a noble idea. But, unless care is taken to ensure there are also some experienced folks from these underrepresented groups, it creates an environment where most attendees who do not fit the “white, male, geek” stereotype are truly less skilled. In effect, this reinforces the stereotype that folks are trying to fight by inviting the junior developers in the first place.
If you attend a conference and none of the presenters have much in common with you it is natural to feel that you don’t belong.
When you listen, believe what you hear. When I wade into the comments sections or discussions about controversial issues I frequently hear things like:
- “I don’t believe that happened.”
- “You must have done something to make that happen.”
- “But why didn’t you __?”
- “They were just joking – you have no sense of humor.”
- “You didn’t understand what was happening.”
It may feel like you are just having a discussion and getting to the truth, but comments like these can be hurtful to hear and are more likely to end a conversation than to start one. To be an effective ally, you must believe that someone else can perceive and experience a given situation differently than you based on factors out of their control.
Even if you disagree with someone’s behavior or the core facts of the situation remember that everyone is doing the best they can with the information they have and the time and energy they have available. If someone’s request or behavior does not make sense look into whether they have the same information (or fundamental beliefs) that you do. Try to find out what resources they have compared to the ones you have.
In my experience, reflection is rarely comfortable. I am white. I grew up in an upper-middle-class area where many of my friend’s parents had STEM careers. My parents ensured I met women who had non-traditional careers and could attend any girls in STEM event I wanted. I have experienced relatively little behavior that I know was gender-based discrimination during my career. When I have stumbled across jerkish behavior, my reaction is usually “I’ll show them” rather than “maybe I don’t belong here.”
With this background, it was easy for me to believe in the meritocracy. I thought anyone could achieve success if they were smart and worked as hard. Until I took some time out to listen to friends and reflect on my past, I did not realize my path to tech was easy compared to many others.
When I really thought about it, I realized that even when things got tough, I had past positive experiences to pull strength from and many folks around me supporting my career. I’m not saying things were always easy. I still felt like giving up at times. But, my family and upbringing made my path to tech easier than most.
Until I realized that, I did not fully understand why listening to the stories of others was so important.
Underrepresented groups, by definition, have fewer members to get their messages across. To be heard it helps if folks outside the group amplify their message.
Amplifying can be simple, like retweeting. You can share articles and ideas with your friends that reiterate the messages you have heard when listening. Repeat ideas that came from a member of an underrepresented group with attribution, especially if folks are getting talked over or silenced.
Finally, show up. Your physical presence at events where allies are welcome says “I care” in a tangible way.
For many folks showing up at rallies, protests, or even meetups that deal with social issues is scary. It was for me at first too. I was afraid I would not be welcome or that I would make mistakes. It turns out most events welcome folks who are there to listen and learn respectfully. The important part is showing you care by showing up.
Sometimes being an underrepresented minority means spending a lot of time educating others. It can get exhausting, especially when people expect you to teach them things you have explained hundreds of times before. Therefore, it is important to remember to respect other people’s time, energy, and boundaries.
So if someone says they just don’t have time to talk or teach right now believe them. It is not that they do not want your help; they are likely just burnt out. Some events and groups are not open to allies. If you stumble across one of these please respect it and assume the organizers have a good reason for their decision.
If you want to learn more, there are plenty of resources on the Internet. Read the blogs linked at the bottom of this post. Watch talks on YouTube. Find events to attend where allies are welcome.
When you are trying to help, it can be frustrating to get told “no, I don’t have time to talk to you right now” or “no, you can’t attend this event.” Just remember, if you are there to help you should respect other people’s boundaries and desires.
It isn’t about you. So take a step back and remember that we are all doing the best we can with the resources we have.
I hope that this gives you an idea of where to start. However, this post is not all-encompassing. It is not intended to be. If you want to learn more about allyship here are some other resources I recommend. Each of these resources links off to many others so I’d set aside thirty minutes or more to dig in and learn.