January 3, 2019

Principles of an Ally


As many people are aware of, there is a big movement to support underrepresented groups in order to help their voices be heard and encourage more diversity in the community. That said, I have noticed that there are many people who mean well in their attempts to be "allies" and often end up with the opposite result. So I have decided to write this quick overview on what I believe it means to be an ally. I hope that this will shed some light for those who want to be allies as well and don't know how to do so.


There are three primary principles that every ally should follow:

The spotlight should be on them, not you

This seems like an obvious princple, but sadly I've seen many "allies" violate this one time and time again. So here we go:

Regardless of how well intentioned you are or how many people you have helped in the past, if you advertise or label yourself as an ally, you are not. This might seem counter-intuitive. After all, shouldn't you let people know that you're an ally so they can come to you if they need help?

What you have to remember is that being an "ally" is something that is earned and given by others. It becomes part of your reputation based on your actions and is not a trait you attribute to yourself. To give another example, take the label of "selfless." Imagine how it would feel if you met someone who described themselves as "a selfless person." I don't know about you, but the only thing that tells me is that the person thinks rather highly of themself.

If you are truly an ally, you don't want the spotlight because the goal is to shine the spotlight on the group you're supporting and not yourself. Any attempt to show the world you're an ally comes off as you being more interested in your own reputation than anything else.

As far as some ways you can support underrepresented groups without making it about yourself:

  • Encourage them to speak up about their ideas. This is most prevalent in work scenarios, but if you notice that they are not speaking up a lot, you might want to find out why. Whatever you do though, do not call them out in the middle of the meeting to try and encourage discussion. That is more likely to have the reverse effect and is utterly terrifying. If they are uncomfortable bringing it up in a large group setting, create a safe space before the meeting to help them raise new ideas that can be validated prior to the large group setting.

  • They should be in leadership positions, not you. In the event you want to start an initiative around supporting an underrepresented group, you need to find someone from that group to serve as the leader of that group. In addition, you should be ready to do the legwork to make that group successful while staying in the shadows. Case and point, I love the work that VueVixens is doing and wanted to start a chapter here in DC, but it would have been ridiculous for me to be the chapter leader. So while I was ready to help with whatever needs to be done to make the chapter successful, I needed a partner-in-crime to truly make the initiative successful.

  • Support these groups financially. If nothing else, these groups are always looking for additional funding in order to provide scholarships and such in order to continue fostering diversity and growing additional talent. So help them out however you can.

Actively listen to their needs instead of trying to "solution"

It's very easy to fall into the trap of trying to fix every problem of the group you're trying to support. So when you hear that they are having issues with X, you instantly want to figure out how to solve it with Y. However, to truly support them, our goal is to empower them to solve their own problems instead of simply getting rid of the problem.

More importantly, when we simply try to solution our way through their problems, we often miss the point. And contrary to what most believe, when they are feeling frustrated, they may just need someone to actively listen and work through what they are feeling. So what does this mean exactly for allies?

  • Pay attention to the emotions at play and help them work through it. If they feel frustrated or insecure, create a safe place for them to share it so that they can then work through it.

  • Don't invalidate their emotions by saying things like "Well you shouldn't feel that way because...." There will be times when you might think that there is no rational reason for them to feel a certain way. However, emotions do not work on pure logic and we are not robots. More importantly, invalidating these emotions further suppresses their ability to have a voice and be heard.

  • Only provide a solution if they want it. I can't state this enough. If they haven't asked for your advice, don't offer it. That is going to get you in trouble more often than not because giving unwarranted advice is more of a selfish act than a kind one.

  • If you don't know, ask them. If you ever find yourself wondering whether they want advice, or whether they need something, just ask. Even though it might seem a little redundant sometimes, it will save you from making the mistake of assuming the wrong thing.

::: warning Note In case you've never heard "solution" used as a verb, it means that instead of actually trying to listen to someone's problem, your focus is entirely on coming up with a way to fix the problem. More often than not, the first step to helping someone is making them feel heard and understood. You would be surprised the number of times where they will often figure out the solution themselves while talking out the problem to you. :::

Be prepared to stand strong with them when the things gets tough

One of the biggest reasons why people from underrepresented groups have a hard time speaking up is because the negative consequences that can come from it can be utterly terrifying. Besides the common human affliction of simply fearing the criticism or ridicule from our peers:

  • They were raised in a culture where your elders / superiors are always "right"
  • They have learned through various social environments that their opinions "are not valuable"
  • They acquired learned helplessness and don't see a path forward

Since our goal is empower underrepresented groups to have a voice and be heard, this means that we must help them alleviate that insecurity and negativity as much as possible. In other words, we have to prove to them that it's safe to speak up. And more importantly, allies have to be ready to take the brunt of any negativity they might encounter if needed.

So in the example of encouraging them to suggest new ideas, criticism is one of the biggest fears. After all, it can be crippling if someone who is already insecure is forced to defend against ill-formed critiques and insensitive comments. So the ally must also be ready to jump in at a moment's notice to support them if they need it.

Here are some tactics to consider:

  • Defend their ideas when they are at a loss for words. You want to give them an opportunity to defend themselves first, but if they are having issues coming up with a good response, this is the time where you speak up for why you think the idea has validity. It's important that you don't try to put words in their mouth though. An example of this would be, "What I think ${name} is trying to say is...." This is bad because you are implying that ${name} is unable to properly communicate their idea which further invalidates them. Instead, use phrasing like, "Here's why I think ${idea} could work...but feel free to correct me, ${name}, if you think otherwise." This statement lends support while offering ${name} the opportunity to continue the dialogue as the lead on the discussion.

  • Offer to lead a separate discussion if things get bad. Sometimes the discussion can get too toxic for anyone to properly navigate, so it's important to jump in at this time to say something like, "How about I set up a separate time for us to talk about this?" By doing this, you are buying time and can help to prepare the person you're trying to support time to prepare their thoughts. In addition, since you would be leading this meeting, you are putting yourself in a position of power against toxic people which can help create an even safer environment.

  • Champion their ideas while giving credit to them. In the tactic I mentioned earlier regarding encouraging new ideas, there will be times where they feel uncomfortable speaking up in a large group setting. So once you ask for their permission, help give their ideas be heard by championing it while attributing it directly to that person so the group recognizes it is their idea.

Final thoughts

This is a complex topic that I would like to revisit to provide better guidance and examples for those truly interested in being an ally. However, I hope that these principles will serve as a starting point for now. And since this post is very much a work in progress, if you have any feedback or suggestions, I would love to hear it.