04 Jan Allyship in the Workplace: A Q&A with Raafi-Karim Alidina
Russell Tobin, a division of Pride Global, hosted a panel of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) experts early this year to discuss
companies moving from intention to action with regard to their DEI commitments.
The concept of allyship came up during the conversation, so we caught up with panelist Raafi-Karim Alidina to talk more about how individuals at all levels of an organization can advocate for each other in the everyday course of their work lives.
Raafi is a consultant with Included where he works with clients to help create more inclusive workplace cultures. He also co-authored, with Stephen Frost, the book Building an Inclusive Organization:
Leveraging the Power of a Diverse Workforce.
Pride Global: Let’s start by clarifying what it means to be an ally, and why does it seem so
I think allyship has become a buzzword lately. It’s been around for a long time, this idea of being an ally. People would talk about being a good bystander. If you see something, say something, right?
Then it became upstanding, and there was upstander intervention training. Now you’re not just standing by, you’re standing up for someone. And then I think that’s when it started changing to allyship.
Because it’s not just about standing up in the moments when it happens, it’s about standing up and actively looking for opportunities to help the situation get better. Not just in the moments when something egregious is happening, but even in the moments when something small is happening, or even when there’s seemingly nothing. I think that’s the difficulty. All of those things are difficult to do, and there’s a lot to think about.
For example, if I’m in a meeting with a coworker and both of our bosses, and one of our bosses says something really offensive, as an ally, I would want to speak up. But there’s also another power dynamic in play that makes it really difficult, and I have a lot of empathy for that.
It’s hard to balance out standing up for what we believe to be correct and true and good with trying to be respectful of people, while also knowing that depending on how that person takes it, it could have some negative backlash for you. How much backlash are you willing to receive? That makes the role of the leader or the person who has the power in that situation so much more important.
Pride Global: That’s fair. So then how can companies encourage allyship in the workplace?
We talk a lot in our work about making sure it starts at the top. It has to. You can’t just expect people who are at lower levels of an organization to stand up if they don’t know that they’re going to be safe, so it’s about creating that safety.
One of the things we do in our training—one of the norms we establish every time we have a workshop—is to own your impact, not just your intent. It’s this idea that you might say something offensive, and that someone else might find something you say offensive, but we will assume the best intentions of everybody.
Then if someone calls you out on something, it’s not because they think you’re a bad person, or they think that you’re sexist or racist or something like that, it’s that what you said or did still had a negative impact.
And so, if you’re able to own the impact—not just the intent with which you said your statement, but the impact it had—if you’re able to sit with the discomfort you feel, the defensiveness, the fragility, and stop yourself from reacting defensively, then you’re owning the impact.
If everyone knows that everyone is willing to own their own impact, then it creates a situation where people do feel safe speaking up, standing up, and being active allies.
Pride Global: That’s great, but what if it’s not starting at the top? What can you do in that
This is where it can become really complicated, but I think every situation is going to be very different. If you and I are peers and we have a good relationship and you say something that I find offensive, I might call that out. I might call that out in the moment, or I might do it later.
But if you and I are just meeting for the first time, is that going to be something that I feel comfortable doing? And if I don’t feel comfortable, why is that? You always have to weigh out what those risks are. Am I willing to risk our working relationship on the off chance that I say something in a way that you don’t take particularly well? That’s an important question we’ve got to ask ourselves.
And that’s part of what being an ally is. It’s not thinking about, “Am I going to stand up,” but “How am I going to stand up in these different situations?”
So, maybe if you and I don’t know each other, I might call it out in a joking way to try to make you laugh, to make you feel a little bit more at ease.
Or if we do have an established relationship and this is a mistake you’ve made a bunch of times, then maybe I’m going to be really conscious of it and say, “You know that’s the third time you’ve misgendered me and I’d really like you to try and use the right gender.” And I’ll be a little more vulnerable and sincere in that way.
Or maybe it’s something super offensive and I need to really call that out and be really clear that, “No, it is not okay for you to use that word.”
Thinking through how you might respond in different situations is a worthwhile process to go through.
Pride Global: During the panel discussion, you mentioned “partnering,” where two people act as allies for each other when they go into a meeting, for instance. Can you tell us more about that?
Partnering is a good way to practice. If you and I are partners, we’ll stand up for each other or call out things for each other in a meeting. It means having the conversation beforehand about how you’d like the other person to stand up for you, to call out the behavior, whether that’s in the meeting, outside of it, one on one, or whatever. You might also think about, for each other, what if that person is your boss? Do you want me to call out your boss on how they’re treating you? That’s a really complicated question.
So there’s work for both people to think about what they actually want. And that’s something people haven’t thought about, because nobody really stands up for other people as much as they would probably like. It might mean physically practicing it. Like, you and I going out for coffee and practicing the types of phrases that you would like me to use or that I would like you to use.
The next step, if you’re partnering while in a meeting together, is practicing keeping an ear out for those kinds of microaggressions even when we’re not together. So, it’s me and your boss and I’m keeping an ear out anyway, even though you’re not actually there, and I’m making sure to call out those kinds of behaviors.
The difficulty is being in a situation where you feel psychologically safe enough to do that. And that’s about whoever has the most power in the room creating that atmosphere.
Pride Global: Are there organizations out there you’ve seen embracing these methods?
I’ve seen teams do it a little bit, where someone says, “This is my team, and this is what I want us to do so we can practice. So, whenever we’re in our meeting, we’re going to practice calling out ourselves and calling out each other. We’re going to become okay with being called out.”
One company I was with decided to give everybody in a meeting a little red card. Anytime anyone exhibited a microaggression against them or anytime they saw a microaggression, they just raised the red card and put it back down. Just so people could see how often it happened.
I used to keep this sign on the table that said, “Did I interrupt or talk over you? Please help me by pointing to this sign.” Anytime I interrupted someone, or someone interrupted someone else, they would just point to the sign. That’s all they’d have to do. You don’t even have to say something. It just makes it a little bit easier.
And by doing that, you’re sending a signal that you want that to happen. That you know that this is an issue, you know that it’s unconscious, you know you don’t mean to do it, but you want to get better. Having those little subtle signals can be helpful for creating that psychologically safe atmosphere.
There’s an interesting experiment done at Carnegie Mellon University by a woman named Anita Williams Woolley. She and her colleagues did a randomized control trial where they ran a series of sessions of teams that had to do different kinds of tasks. Some of them were brainstorming, some of them were strategic problem-solving tasks, and stuff like that.
They compared whether the groups completed their tasks or not, but more importantly, they started some sessions with a norm: “Just a reminder not to use sexist language.” That’s it. They just said that phrase.
In those groups, they found that there was a more equitable distribution of conversation between people of different genders in the room. They found that there was less sexist language and more inclusive language overall both inside the meeting and afterwards, outside the meeting. Those groups performed better on the strategic problem-solving or brainstorming tasks as well—just from saying that kind of phrase and having those norms set from the beginning.
It seems really small, like you’re just saying this thing, but it signals to the marginalized group that we care about you, and we want to do this well. And it signals to the non-marginalized group that if something happens, they’re going to get called out.
It also creates this situation where people are monitoring themselves and each other, and they feel like they can call out each other, and so they feel a little less guarded. That it’s okay to make mistakes, and when you do someone’s going to call it out and you’re okay with that and you'll remember and fix it later.
One of the things I’ve noticed, especially lately, is people are so worried about making mistakes because they don’t know what to do when they make one. It’s not necessarily just like, “I don’t want to make a mistake,” I mean they don’t, “But if I make a mistake, then what? Am I a sexist now? Or do I apologize, do I stop, do I keep going, what do I do?”
I think that’s difficult for a lot of people, especially if you consider yourself an ally. Part of being an ally means knowing or being willing to learn what to do in those situations.
I’ve seen this a lot with pronouns where someone says “he” and is corrected, “Oh, it’s they.” Then that person responds like, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry, I really didn’t mean to do that, I really apologize…” But it’s fine. Just say, “Oh, I’m sorry, ‘they,’” and keep going. It’s just about practicing what your response will be when you make a mistake, and then moving on.
Pride Global: Do you have any advice for leaders who are trying to enact these methods in
Change it up. You can always change up the different things you do. One of the great things about partnering is you can always change your partner. Change your partner up every few months. And you’ll get more used to practicing it with different aspects of identity and different people and different meetings as well.
The other thing is don’t try to debias people, don’t try to remove your own biases. Instead try to debias the process itself. Debias the system. Remove the opportunity for your biases to come into play.
For example, say I have this unconscious idea that men are better at scientific-based activity than women. If I’m in recruiting for a scientific-based company, we could just anonymize all applications so that it’s impossible for me to know what gender the person is.
The easiest way to try to remove those unconscious processes from affecting you is to just take the opportunity away. Like if you don’t want people to eat junk food, the easiest thing to do is remove the opportunity to have junk food at all.
Pride Global: Any other advice you’d like to share?
Being a good ally is not easy if it’s something you’ve never done before, or you don’t necessarily understand, or you’re just coming to this topic for the first time. It’s also not that hard. It’s just trying to keep an ear out for people that you care about. It’s just trying to be better. Accepting that you’re going to get some things wrong sometimes and trying to do better. Those seem like opposites, but it’s more of a “Yes, and.” They’re both very seemingly contradictory truths that you’ve got to hold at the same time.
I think that’s what a lot of people who want to be allies find difficult. There’s this cognitive dissonance between: “This should be easy because I’m a good person. And I do believe that women are just as good as men, and I do believe people of color are just as good as white people, and that straight people are just as good as homosexual people. I believe that. And that’s an easy thing. Why is it so hard?”
That cognitive dissonance is paralyzing. I think that’s why it’s so hard for people, because they want to do it and they know that it should be easy—and it is easy in their minds in many ways— and yet it’s so hard to put into practice somehow, because it’s just complicated. Navigating the power dynamics that come to a workplace is complicated. Especially in the context of a society that has placed some people above others for so long. You’ve internalized that without even realizing it from birth, and so navigating that is hard.
That’s what stops people from doing anything at all. Because it’s much easier to just step away from the situation then to try and make sense of the fact that both of these things that seem contradictory are both true.
Pride Global: If someone is just starting out on their journey toward allyship, how should they go about it? What should they do first?
If you are a person who has a lot of privilege, who believes that racism exists in the world, that sexism exists in the world, and you want to help people, to do better, then just start.
You may think, “But man, there’s all this stuff out there, I don't know what books to read. I have to read a book? I have to read these articles? There are all these longform think pieces, and who do I believe and who do I not? I don’t know who to believe I don’t know what to read, do I have to read? Do I watch a TED Talk?”
Here’s my thing: just think about who the closest people in your life are. Who are your five closest friends? Who are your five closest colleagues? Who’s your partner or partners or people you’d like to be your partner or the person who plays the closest role to a partner in your life? Think about your neighbors.
How diverse is that group of people along things like race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, but also things like political views, socioeconomic background, and level of education? Chances are that group is not that diverse. That’s okay, it’s naturally human to be drawn to people who are similar to you.
But then notice all those ways in which there are other people who are not similar to that group. Those are people to keep an eye out for. Those are people for whom you might have a bias against because you’re just not as familiar. And that’s okay. You don’t have to be so familiar. But that’s a good place to start. To just think about those groups. Think about the ways in which maybe your gut instinct might be a little bit different if they looked a little bit different or if they were a little different, if they spoke a little different. Just start thinking about that.
Then, once you start thinking about it, maybe talk to some of those people who aren’t as close to you. They may not be your best friend, they may not be in your top five, but maybe they’re people you know, that you’re comfortable with that do occupy some of that difference. Start talking to them about it. Say, “I noticed this, what do you think that means? What’s different about your life than mine? Let’s talk about it.”
And if they don’t want to talk about it, accept that. Just be like, “Okay, you don't have to talk about it. I’ll find someone else to talk to. Or maybe, if you ever find a time that you are willing to talk about it, let’s talk about it.”
That’s it. Just start talking to people. Talk to people who are outside your “in” group. Who are different from your “in” group. Just start talking to people. That’s it.
I really deeply believe in this. I really believe that people want to be good people. People believe that they’re good people. And people want to be better people than they are, no matter how good they think they are now. All we need to do is give them a path towards how they can be good in this particular way, how they can be better in this particular way.
That’s all it is. People don’t know—and so you give them a little bit of help.