Ask us anything: how to be an ally

A while back we invited you to ask us anything. Here’s our first of these answers, to a question from Kevin Chase. (The question has been paraphrased for brevity, click through for the original.) What is the best way that I, as a white male scientist, can help women and non-white scientists? Most of the AUA replies will be joint posts, but I’m writing this reply on my own.

Disclaimer: I’ve read about this topic a fair amount, but am not an expert in this. So, I present this as my take on the topic, based on my experiences and readings to date, but with the acknowledgment up front that I certainly have more to learn about this area.

First, thank you for asking about this! Allies are so, so important. I want to start with an anecdote about a recent scenario where I wished I had an ally. I recently received an email that was really patronizing — I don’t want to go into the details of it, but I felt like I was being patted on the head by the (senior white male) person who wrote it. I spent the entire morning distracted by it, wondering whether I should respond to call the person out on it (and risk being seen as a humorless bitch) or to ignore it. In the end, I didn’t reply, because I felt that nothing would be gained by it. It would be inaccurate, though, to say that I ignored it, because, as I said, I spent an entire morning thinking it over, and checked in with a couple of close friends to make sure I wasn’t overreacting or misreading the message (even though it was pretty direct). And it’s worth pointing out that there have been multiple recent anecdotes along these lines that I could have gone with here,* even though I am at a place and career stage where these things are less likely to happen to me than they are to many others. As I said, in this case, there was no ally involved in the conversation who could call out the microaggression. But I wished there was, in part because I’ve been in conversations where a similar microaggression occurred where an ally was present. In those cases, when the ally immediately called out the behavior, it avoided me spending a bunch of time and energy wondering if I had misheard or was overreacting and how I should react. Moreover, it is often more straightforward and effective for an ally to call out the behavior. There is evidence that people are more likely to listen to the message if it comes from someone in the same group — for example, a white person is more likely to listen to a challenge if it comes from another white person. That is part of why ally work is so important.

But I appreciate your question not only because I am sometimes in need of an ally, but because sometimes I am in the role of the ally. Sometimes, when that happens, I end up feeling like I flubbed the opportunity to be an effective ally. Afterwards, I spend time thinking about what I could have done differently to be a more effective ally. So, thinking this all through more has been useful for me in my role as an ally.

The previous two paragraphs raise an important point, which also comes up in this post by John Asher Johnson: people have multiple elements to their identities, and might hold privilege in one area but not another. So, it’s possible to be the target of a microaggression in one scenario but an ally in another. It’s also important to note that the microaggressions I experience as a white woman in science differ in important ways from those experienced by people with other identities, and that intersectionality is important. Intersectionality acknowledges that:

A black woman, for example, might experience not only racism and sexism in her daily life, but could also confront additional barriers that white women and black men do not.

What is privilege? This cartoon (which I learned about from the Johnson post) is a great introduction:

Privilege exists when that aspect of your life is seamlessly accepted into the world without scrutiny or suspicion…Privilege is a fact, not an insult.

The cartoon, by Robot Hugs, is wonderful, including both an explanation of privilege and advice on how to be an ally. The basic advice given there on how to be responsible in an area in which you hold privilege (with added explanations that are well worth reading) are: 1. shut up, 2. listen, 3. educate yourself, 4. use it for good, and 5. learn from screwing up.

I also like the advice in this piece by Kerry Ann Rockquemore. First, she notes:

  1. Silence communicates tacit approval.
  2. Apologizing to the target afterwards adds insult to injury.
  3. The worst ex post facto response of all is asking the target of a microaggression to fix the problem. (For example, “You plan the next event if you think we need more women.”)

One thing Rockquemore suggests is moving from a reactive position (responding to a colleague’s microaggression) to one where you work proactively to create a more favorable environment for everyone. She also describes a technique known as “Open the Front Door”:

  • Observe: Describe clearly and succinctly what you see happening.
  • Think: State what you think about it.
  • Feel: Express your feelings about the situation.
  • Desire: Assert what you would like to happen.

The Rockquemore piece has some really useful, practical advice, and is worth reading.

Coming back to one of the specific suggestions from the Robot Hugs cartoon: listen. One thing I think twitter is really useful for is following a diverse group of scientists and academics, who open my eyes to issues I might otherwise miss. This piece by Sarah Ballard on how to be a better ally also notes the importance of doing one’s homework. Her post also has a list of questions to keep in mind when having a conversation related to race, including “Am I saying something that a person of color has just said?” and “Am I asking something of this person that I wouldn’t ask a person who looks like me?”

However, while listening is essential, so is talking. Read this piece about how important it was to this black woman in tech, Mandela Schumacher-Hodge, when her boss acknowledged the recent killings of black men by police in the US. Describing the interaction, she says,

She saw me, she saw my people, she acknowledged our pain, and she offered to help. That means something.

Having those conversations is something that I know I need to do more often. I tend to avoid them, feeling like I don’t want to pry. I’ve been trying to work on getting better at making it clear to people that I care and am interested but also respect their privacy. (I’d love suggestions from readers on this!)

This piece on how to intervene in a racist attack has advice that would be useful more generally for ally work, especially:

  • Speak only from your own perspective. Too often people start speaking for the person who is being attacked. This stops the victim from speaking up, who is likely to do so if he or she finds support from bystanders. For instance, if a person is being abused for wearing a hijab, don’t say that the victim does so because of her religion. Instead, speak about how people have the freedom to choose how they dress.

Following up on the theme of what to say: this video has very useful tips on how to tell someone they sound racist. One of the keys is to focus on what they did (“that thing you said was racist”) vs. what they are (“I think you are racist”). The video helped me a lot in terms of thinking about how to call out these statements.

Finally, when I think about ally work, I often think of a line from a blog post by Hope Jahren. I initially remembered it as being from her post on what to do once you get tenure, but it is actually from her post on how she cured her imposter syndrome.(*) But, really, it relates to both of those posts. In her post on what to do once you get tenure, she writes:

Change The World … into what you wished it was when you were coming up, as an undergrad, as a grad student, as a new professor.  Go out and give someone what you wish you had gotten.  All these things you’ve been bitching so bitterly about for years: Public apathy over Climate Change, lack of minorities in STEM, how damn dumb the students are – it is up to you to make the data that shows these things are getting better.  So gird your loins, Take Up The Tenured Man’s Burden and carry with you all the good luck that I can possibly conjure.  Go change our world a lot or a little.  Or a lot.  Because you are now finally doing something that only Tenured You can do.

The particular line that I think is part of that paragraph, but which is actually in her imposter syndrome post is: “shut your hole, pick up a shovel and help me out.” In my head, I’ve elided those two posts, and have made it so that the “change the world” paragraph ends with “pick up a shovel and help out”. And so I often think about picking up my shovel (especially now that I hold a position of relative privilege in academia) and helping out. I try to pay attention and, if I see a situation where I can be an ally, I do my best to pick up my shovel.

Thanks again for seeking out more information on how to be an effective ally, and for prompting me to think this all through more carefully! As I said at the beginning, I know that I have more to learn, and would love to hear more thoughts and suggestions for readings in the comments.


Postscript: After writing this post, I learned about this list of resources regarding what white allies can do, curated by Alyssa Hadley Dunn. That list includes a post entitled “So You Call Yourself an Ally: 10 Things All ‘Allies’ Need to Know” that is well worth reading. It includes reminders that we need to think of “ally” as a verb, that ally is not a self-proclaimed identity***, that allies don’t need to be in the spotlight, and that allies focus on those who share their identity (in other words, for me, one of the most important things to do to be an ally to racial minorities is to talk to white people about race).


* After the recent events in the US (specifically, the killings of two black men last week by white police officers), I considered deleting this anecdote. How much does that email I received matter when some of my colleagues and students are dealing with much more serious traumas? (This piece by Sherry K. Watt describes the toll racism and microagressions take on her; a subscription to the Chronicle of Higher Education is required to read it.) But I decided to leave it because I think it might be eye-opening to some white, male readers to know that these sorts of smaller microaggressions occur daily to people in their departments, even ones in positions of relative privilege, and they have an effect.

** I realize that the original poster does not have tenure, but am writing this post more broadly.

*** Last year, when ESA had “ally” badges at the Baltimore meeting, I thought that was a good initiative. But some challenged it on twitter, and I now agree that it might be problematic. It particularly causes problems with making it seem like being an “ally” is something simple that one can self-proclaim. I plan to think about this more and then hopefully to approach folks at ESA about it.


Related post:

  1. Stereotype threat and ally work

12 thoughts on “Ask us anything: how to be an ally

  1. Pingback: Ask us anything: how to be an ally | Dynamic Ecology – STEM at CoW

  2. This is one of those posts I will want to read again a few times to really absorb it all and think through what I can do. In short, I have learned much and it is clear that I have been more ignorant of these matters than I had thought. Thank you for taking the time to do this.

  3. “following a diverse group of scientists and academics, who open my eyes to issues I might otherwise miss”

    This is the #1 reason I’m on Twitter. “Listening” online is one good way to broaden your awareness of what others experience.

  4. Excellent post! and I really appreciate the link to Kerry’s article. The potential for “an apology to add insult to injury” is something I’m going to have to be much more careful about in the future because I am sure I have done this in the past.

  5. Pingback: A misogynist's guide to supporting STEM women | Andy Matter

  6. Pingback: Guest post: How to be an ally | Dynamic Ecology

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