People outside of a community experiencing injustice can have a hard time becoming allies (and can never imagine being accomplices) because they often feel they don’t know where they fit when it comes to the fight for workplace equity. And the discomfort of not knowing or finding their place causes them to opt-out and say nothing.
When you’re in a workplace where your race, gender identity, ability, or a combination thereof aren’t represented in power, having the option to opt-out is a privilege you don’t get.
For those who do get the option, you create a bigger problem when you take it because now you’re putting the onus on the people who already don’t have access or power in a space to reshape it.
So now we’re here. That super fun place where the people experiencing injustice are held responsible for fixing systems of the workplace that are built against us.
How I’m gonna change it from outside the club? I can’t even get it in! Make it make sense.
As you’re finding your voice, the most crucial piece of your role here is employing your influence to break down constructs that are hurting other people.
Remember: Progress isn’t made in a silo.
If it were just people who made less than $15 an hour talking about the need for a minimum wage increase, then no one would be listening. The people with power; therefore can make the most noise in that fight, wouldn’t even get out of bed for $29k a year (the equivalent of $15/hr).
You have influence. You just need to be willing to see what it is and employ it, which brings me to step one.
Step 1: Identify your sphere of influence.
What projects are you spending your time on throughout the week? Month? Year? Who are the people impacted by the decisions you make each day? This is your sphere of influence.
This can be your colleagues, your clients, or even their customers. Once you know who is impacted, then you can start to open your mind to being curious about the experiences of those people.
You can look at things as they are and say, Is someone not seeing themselves represented? Would someone feel actively pushed out? Is there someone’s story not being heard? Am I approaching a challenge the same way I always have or is there another lens to look at it through?
On the first episode of my podcast, “As It Should Be with Thamarrah Jones,” my guest Susie Berg shared that when her son came out to her as trans, she began to notice the unnecessary barriers that he experienced.
She started to apply this same kind of thinking at the camp where she is on the board. “I thought about kids who come from single-parent families. I thought about kids for whom that means divorce and kids for whom that meant the death of a parent,” she explained.
It’s a Jewish camp so she also thought about interfaith families, and because “kids are kids, I know that a kid who can’t eat dairy probably feels completely left out when there’s only ice cream. And a kid at 11 years old doesn’t see the difference between being left out because of that and being left out because they’re non-binary… for a kid that’s just being left out.”
Opening your mind to this kind of curiosity widens your view to really see all types of inequity and how your actions and inaction can be harmful to those around you.
In a more traditional workplace applying this kind of wider, more curious lens might look like applying those questions to things like:
Step 2: Start with listening.
When you’re genuinely curious about other people’s experiences you feel inspired, motivated, or even honored when you’re given the opportunity to hear them talk about what they have seen, felt, and gone through. That’s the spirit I want you to walk with when you’re approaching any social issue too.
On Brene Brown’s podcast, “Dare to Lead,” a Black woman discussed being in a meeting where she presented the results of a project she’s been leading for months. After the meeting, her boss asked how she felt, to which she responded feeling like the people in the room weren’t even looking at her and asked all the questions to her white male colleagues in the room as opposed to her. Her boss told her that she was reading into things.
This is a common misstep (read: microaggression) I’ve seen from people when someone tells them their experience.
The people not “in the culture” will explain to the people who are, why they’re misconstruing an experience to be something that it’s not. Or that they are taking something too far by calling for a specific set of actions from people in power in response to an injustice.
This erases people’s lived experiences.
If your instinct is to “keep the peace” by negating the experiences of the person telling you what’s happening in front of their very eyes, why is that? What are you afraid of happening if you just believed them?
Your job is to listen, not direct what should and shouldn’t be someone’s response to an experience they’ve had. You have a voice, that doesn’t mean you have authority, but if you choose to, you have the power to make space for accountability.
Step 3: Recognize that if your intentions are genuine, then you would be willing to take risks.
Comfort tends to be prioritized over all else. Ultimately, the people whose comfort is of highest priority are the communities in your workplace who are represented in power. Typically, that means White, cis-gendered, and non-disabled.
The problem here is that when we prioritize comfort, nothing changes, because you are never asked to challenge your own power.
This whole exercise of finding your voice is an exercise in introspection. You have to be willing to recognize that you’ve had blindspots and in filling them you have to be willing to make mistakes and be corrected.
You have to make peace with that fact. But understand this: The people who are on the other side of inequity, being hurt by it every day, start with less privilege, power, and support than you’ve ever had and are living full lives anyway, putting up this fight.
I heard someone say ally is spelled L.O.U.D, and I couldn’t agree more.
About the Author: Thamarrah Jones (she/her) is a brand strategist and host of the podcast “As It Should Be with Thamarrah Jones,” a show about refusing to accept inequity. Thamarrah interviews culture shakers and professional troublemakers in every industry to learn how they are using their skills to create a more equitable world. Every day she chooses to create a career steeped in purpose by working with companies driven by a mission to improve the lives of those they serve and the world in which we live. If you’re ready to challenge white supremacy and help recreate the world as it should be, follow her on LinkedIn and subscribe to her podcast.