Susanne Tedrick
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Opinion: How To Be An Ally

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We’re all no doubt distressed with the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and sadly, countless other Black Americans who lost their lives to police brutality. 

I think it’s a good start that people and organizations are recognizing the impact that these events have had on their Black colleagues and friends, and that they have made public demonstrations to help them defeat racism.

But notice that I used the word start. Public pledges and social media posts are fine – I encourage them because it at least means there’s a bit of awareness to the problem – but they will not be the catalysts of change here. If we’re talking about dismantling centuries of racism not just in the United States criminal justice system, but in every industry or domain, hashtags, all-black photos, pretty words and good intentions won’t cut it.

It’s going to take a sustained and meaningful effort over time, and it is going to take true allyship. For those that call themselves allies to people of color, it means listening with empathy, having the uncomfortable but necessary conversations about race in America, and using your resources and privileges to help advance people of color at work, school or other domains.

Being a good ally is hard and takes a long-term commitment. I offer the following to any one who wants to be a better ally but may not be sure how to:

Understand That We’re Impacted By Current Events

Your Black colleagues and friends may not be in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, or New York right now. They may not have known George Floyd, or have had a relative who has experienced police brutality. That’s not relevant. I promise you, there are very few Black people in America who are not feeling this on some level and are trying to mentally reconcile it all. Many of us vacillate between anger, sadness, tiredness, exasperation – sometimes we feel these things all at once. For some, this is another reminder that we don’t matter and are not valued. We’re all taking what’s going on in, dealing with it and healing in different ways.

Be cognizant of this before approaching Black colleagues on discussions of what is going on in the world or on racism in general. Some may be welcome to have the conversation; some may not. Which leads to my next point…

Listen To Learn, Not To Defend

People want to be heard and feel like they are being understood. This is a universal feeling, and it is especially true for black people.

There are times where we can debate on how we as a society can move forward. I always encourage thoughtful and respectful debate. 

However, there are times that black people just want people to listen, so that you can better understand our experiences and our pain. That time is right now.

I know that these perspectives and stories can be uncomfortable and difficult to hear. Good. Truthfully, I don’t believe change and progress come from a place of comfort. Change and progress happen when people get fed up with the status quo.

I also know that people have said that police brutality isn’t a just a “Black issue”, “all lives matter” or that “things are better than they were in the past”, etc. If you consider yourself an ally, I implore you to stop making statements like this. Now. Statements like these are insensitive and can be more hurtful and traumatizing than on the surface, as it gives the impression that every act of discrimination we’ve experienced (violent or otherwise) is trivial. Whether intentional or not, it confirms to us that we don’t matter and are not actual participants in this society.

All lives do matter, but we can’t ignore the fact that there are still communities that continue to be marginalized. For all of our progress, many domains are still not diverse or inclusive.

Take the time to truly listen to your Black colleagues and friends with an empathetic ear and an open heart. 

Volunteer

Whenever possible, I try to volunteer my time with non-profits dedicated to bringing more women and people of color in the tech industry. While do use these opportunities to deepen my skills and learn new ones, the primary reason why I volunteer is to show others that it is possible for women of color to have a successful, sustainable tech career in spite of the odds being stacked against us. Research has shown that women of color are likelier to pursue STEM career fields when they have interactive role models who look like them and share their experiences.

As an ally, I urge you to volunteer with similar organizations whenever possible. Non-profits not only need all the help they can get – especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic – but it will help deepen your personal understanding of why barriers and challenges still exist in tech or other professions . Use resources like VolunteerMatch to find local or virtual volunteer opportunities.

Give Money

If your schedule does not allow time to volunteer, money helps too. Again, the pandemic is truly testing non-profits in ways they never envisioned. If you have the capacity to help financially, consider making donations to tech organizations like:

Speak Up and Out Against Racism

Being an ally means speaking up, even when it’s inconvenient, uncomfortable or may cause you to lose favor with others. 

If a colleague makes an inappropriate comment or joke at the expense of a Black colleague, call them out. By saying nothing or minimizing/rationalizing incidents like this, you are silently cosigning these behaviors, you are silently cosigning that the behavior is acceptable and making the life of your Black colleagues much harder.

Final Words

Understand that Black people and other communities of color cannot dismantle the years of systemic racism that exist in many of our institutions. We need partners, advocates, sponsors – allies – to help us have difficult conversations and do the difficult work necessary to bring about meaningful change. For allies, I urge you to use this time to re-double your efforts and commitment to helping Black people achieve true equality.

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