A couple years ago, Aris and I were in the back of an Uber crawling along Upper Richmond Road in Southwest London. Gazing out the window, I spotted someone whom I thought was dressed strangely and I made a comment. My son didn’t waste a moment in responding sharply, “Not everyone dresses like you Mom. People are different and that’s ok.”
I had just been schooled by a nine-year-old.
Me… The champion for inclusion and diversity… The one who preached acceptance and embracing difference… The global communicator. Not to mention that I am a black woman. Raising my voice in advocacy for the marginalized had made me believe I had rooted out any bias lurking in the crevices of my brain. Yet there I was, suddenly feeling as if my allyship had been examined and found wanting. I suppose the only consolation was that Aris was aware enough to call me out!
As we kick off Black History Month in Canada and the USA to celebrate the contribution and legacy of people with African heritage, I believe it’s the right time to double down on the commitment to challenging the unjust structures that hold us back. This is where we need allies with a strong commitment. If you want to build your allyship, here are the seven words that I believe matter most:
Seven Ways to Be a Strong Ally:
- Authenticity – There must be a genuine shift in your thinking and desire to transform the structures that limit others. If you are doing it for kudos it becomes performative allyship. To create lasting change or communicate with depth, we must go beyond surface actions or a pre-occupation with image.
- Listening – Listen with the intent to learn and understand someone else’s world. We need to be willing to lean into a conversation that scares us especially if we are afraid of saying the wrong thing.
- Empathy/Respect –Showing empathy is a willingness to show up and sit with people through the darkness and honor their perspective as truth because it is their lived experience. Systems of oppression remove people’s dignity; by showing respect you can play a role in restoring it.
- Validate – Instead of gaslighting, bear witness and refrain from judging. People want to be heard; acknowledge their experience. And do your own research to relieve already disadvantaged people of the burden of educating you fully.
- Risk – Gather your courage to speak out, make your position known and stand for marginalized, minoritized and oppressed groups in tangible ways. It is difficult whether you do it individually, through an organization or from within government. It’s especially hard when you feel as if there is no personal reward but remember the words of Martin Luther King Jr. “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
- Active – Allyship means moving from intention to impact. This requires action. Governments and organizations have a huge role to play in dismantling oppressive structures and creating inclusive environments. At an individual level we also must take action. Not everyone has to march at a protest rally; we can make a hiring decision, approve a loan, donate to causes, read and inform ourselves, have complex conversations with others, and take daily actions that address inequity.
- Lifestyle – This is not a 28-day diet. It is a conscious decision made with a critical mind and willing heart. It is a choice to show up as an ally daily regardless of how inconvenient it may be. Allyship is not occasional or transactional. It doesn’t demand perfection; we all make mistakes. But it does require ongoing commitment to use our privilege and power to change things for others.
I am infinitely grateful that my life learning journey has been made richer through various allies like Hanna Naima McCloskey, CEO of FearlessFutures.org and one of the greatest truth tellers I am blessed to know. Ultimately, I am grateful for the challenge that my children bring to me every day to consciously speak a language of inclusion and to model the change that I so desperately want to see.
By the way, if you haven’t heard of Fearless Futures check out their website and sign up for one of their workshops or listen to the recently launched podcast series.
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© Arlene Amitirigala 2021. All Rights Reserved.