01/13/21 | Allies, Menu-Homepage

Learning the ABCs of Allyship

Did you know that someone proposed a new “Alphabet Song”? One that rids us of the famed LMNOP (read “ellemenopee”) in favor of each letter getting its shine in the song.

Of the few things that brought me joy this 2020, watching people on social media mourning the loss of LMNOP and questioning life’s cruelties over this change was pretty high on my list.

While I was squarely in the camp of the outraged who felt like a part of their childhood was taken away, it did make me think — what a perfect analogy to allyship.

What are the ABCs we are practicing and have internalized when it comes to showing up as an ally? Maybe we have developed a routine so familiar that we can recite it without thinking and practice it on autopilot. However, if there is a different way, a better way, that someone proposes, it sparks a visceral reaction.

It’s not easy to change. We are creatures of habit and change can be ugly, especially when we are confronting the uncertainty that comes with new decisions. In addition to that, I think opening up to change also means confronting who we currently are and accepting that we aren’t where we could be, or worse, where we thought we were. Regarding allyship, I think many of us take pride in our commitment to helping and showing up for others and feeling accomplished when we “do good”; however, these feelings of affirmation are limiting us in some ways, keeping us from pushing to a place where we are acknowledging our blind spots, thinking about where we still may be biased, where our privileges remain unchecked and harmful to others, and where our silence on issues functions as reinforcement of unfair outcomes.

We are so caught up in the song we sing ourselves sometimes that we don’t make room for the song we probably need to hear. We tell others we are allies or own it as a badge of honor, but aren’t actually aware of how others may perceive our commitment when it counts. We may support the ideas that everyone deserves respect and psychological safety; however, our interaction with our environment is very individualized and narrowly focused on how the environment impacts us, rather than how we impact the environment. We may show up for the cause, but not show up in our everyday environment to consistently challenge the status quo.

There are clear ABCs in the allyship journey, but the allure of singing to our own cadence is a strong one. If we are serious about showing up for others, then we have to be focused on awareness, behavior change, and consistency. How we sing the song matters; how many of us would have grasped L,M,N,O,P, more quickly if we had given those letters the space to breathe? How much more effective can we be showing up for others if we root ourselves in the right cadence of practice rather than embracing our own? How much more reliable can we be by acknowledging what it takes to grow and committed to it daily?

Considering singing this one along with me.

A is for Awareness

Education is important. Some wise person somewhere said that we can’t address problems that we do not know exist. We should do the work to increase our awareness of what could change around us that would improve things for someone else if we are trying to be an ally. What we don’t want to do is replace awareness with assumptions here: that because we know what we would want, we could reason out what someone else would want. This reminds me of the golden rule, and also how shortsighted it can be – treating others how we want to be treated is a baseline to ask people to identify a modicum of humanity in other people; treating others how they want to be treated is truly seeing someone and showing up for them. We can’t do that if we aren’t willing to invest the time to learn something new.

This learning can take place at the intra, inter, and systemic levels.

  • Intra: do you know what you truly believe? Can you articulate it? Have you internalized a set of expectations about the environment or a person you expect to be true most of the time? What assumptions do you make about the world around you?
  • Inter: do you know the people around you? Have you invested the time to build trusting relationships with friends, coworkers, family, the barista, the store clerk? Have you taken the time to learn someone’s story?
  • Systemic: do you know your history? Have you looked at events in history from multiple angles? Have you experienced a culture other than your own? Have you learned about the rules, laws, and expectations that define your code of conduct?

Challenge yourself to grow as an ally by increasing knowledge of self, your relationships, and your environment. These questions help point you in the right direction

B is for Behavior Change

Engaging in learning should rewire something for you. This is where behavior change comes in. If you think about any representation of a change in nature – chemical, biological, physical, geological – change is catalyzed by a force or the introduction of something new to inspire something better. The process can be volatile, vulnerable, and sometimes unpredictable. That doesn’t stop it from happening and shifting behaviors and compositions.

Showing up for others as an ally is no different. In order for us to truly transform, we have to introduce something new and embrace the ride that follows. Though that may feel unsettling and even daunting, showing up as an ally is about getting comfortable with the discomfort – of not knowing the outcome, of not predicting every consequence.

If it hasn’t become clear yet, allyship is a risk. There is a chance that someone will disagree with you, challenge you, hate you for your stance. We should take a moment to pause and honor that acts of allyship are not insignificant or small choices because the stakes are high. Now consider that if allyship is risky, speaking up in the world as the historically marginalized, underrepresented, or disadvantaged community is that risk multiplied by centuries of pain and struggle and millions of stifled voices. This is why allyship can be powerful. Allies have the positioning, influence, or authority to speak in spaces that others cannot; to stand up when others are forced not to because the risk profile looks different. Put positively, allies have a social and relational capital that makes the same messages of resistance, fairness, change, and equity, more palatable in spaces historically not occupied by minority communities.

Allies have to make a conscious decision to use that capital differently to truly show up as allies.

C is for Consistency

What is a habit? We generally talk about them as something automatic and difficult to change. We learn these ways of being and normalize them, many times without intentionality. I really appreciate the way that Charles Duhigg talks about habits, breaking them down into parts we can start to analyze and understand: the cue, the routine, and the reward. When it comes to moments where we are compelled to be an ally, what are our triggers, motivations, and responses to the moment?

Focusing on the routine is the more obvious part — I need to do X instead of Y. However, any of us that have ever made a New Year’s resolution can attest to the fact that simply knowing what we would do our how we want to respond is not enough. We build consistency by thinking about and reframing the value we derive from being an ally or expanding the cues that prompt us to think about allyship.

For instance, maybe we challenge ourselves to check-in and validate more moments where we could be allies. Not just moments where the conversation trends toward justice, like professing that “black lives matter”, but also those everyday moments where someone else could or would willingly explain it away as “no big deal”, like microaggressions.

We should also think about what being an ally actually means to us. Do we derive pleasure from the act of showing up for others? Does it validate our sense of self, confirming that we are good, caring, and compassionate people? Deriving some intrinsic value is not necessarily a bad thing, however, if the act of allyship is only serving our needs for validation, then when the moment calls for sacrifice, risk, or doing something simply because it’s the right thing to do, showing up for others may feel out of reach or impossible to commit to.

Once we learn the song, singing it is easy. The application can be harder. Without practice and commitment, we fall into the trap of doing what is easiest rather than doing what is most effective.

The more I’ve hummed the new ABC song, the more it’s grown on me. And the more we integrate with these ABCs of allyship, the more it will feel like a core part of who we are.

This piece originally appeared on Corey Ponder, and was published here with permission.

Corey Ponder

Corey Ponder

Tech policy professional by day, wannabe superhero by night. Passionate about building communities, spaces, and platforms focused on inclusion and empathy.

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