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Intersectionality and Allyship in the Workforce

Let me begin at the beginning. I am a 51-year-old Filipino cisgender heterosexual non-disabled woman of color, an immigrant daughter of immigrant parents, a divorced mother of two daughters, an owner of two dogs, and a helper of others with a doctorate degree in medicine. I am absolutely unqualified to speak about race, systemic racism, anti-racism, diversity, equity, inclusion, white fragility, white supremacy, or decolonization. I am writing this blog on supporting colleagues of color with great trepidation about how I will be criticized, misunderstood, or incorrectly judged. With all those caveats in mind, I share these thoughts with you in a spirit of love and as a member of the most universal race: the human race.


Why does color matter in terms of support? Shouldn’t we support all people in the workplace, regardless of their race? What kind of support would “people-of-color” benefit from that non-people-of-color would not necessarily need? What is this actually about? I think it stems from an emerging understanding of how systemic racism affects people of color, specifically Black Americans. It is a well-known and uncomfortable truth that Black people in the United States cannot access educational, economic, health, housing, and political opportunities at the same rates as other racial groups. (1) In the workplace, Black employees at all levels do not feel adequately heard or understood to the same extent as their white peers. (1) Perhaps instead of talking about supporting people of color, we could talk about supporting persons from historically-marginalized groups or populations.


But this is dangerous as well. It makes sweeping assumptions and shallow over-generalizations about people based on their membership in a particular subgroup. Not all people of color want or need “special support.” Making this assumption is potentially insulting and more damaging to people of color who may be suffering for a variety of reasons. At the same time, ignoring the cultural realities of racial inequity and discrimination can come across as offensive white-washing or hypocritical colorblindness.

Is there a way to navigate this tightrope of discomfort?

I believe that the framework of intersectionality is far more useful and inclusive than “supporting colleagues of color.” The term intersectionality was coined in 1989 by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw as a way to explain the oppression of African-American women. (2) In short, intersectionality considers all of an individual’s “separate identities” and looks at the differences between and within them and how they overlap and interact to form a person’s overall experience. As noted in a 2019 report by Culture Amp, titled Workplace Diversity, Inclusion, and Intersectionality, “Intersectionality considers different systems of oppression, and specifically how they overlap and are compounded to shape the employee experience. For example, within gender, a 31-year-old white woman with no children will likely have a very different experience to a 42-year-old Black woman with two children. Intersectionality means we view the whole person, not their characteristics separately.” (3)

In my own world, intersectionality means that people and their lives are complicated, and I show up as my best self when I take an individual’s overlapping characteristics into account. It means I have the cultural humility and the willingness to take the time to ask a person what would make them feel most supported in the moment.

Paradoxically, increased self-awareness is vital to increased awareness of another individual’s perspective and how best to support one’s colleagues. About a year ago, I heard about Project Implicit out of Harvard and had the experience of taking an Implicit Association Test (IAT). (4) This is a brief computerized test that measures the strength of associations between concepts (like race or sexual identity), evaluations (like good or bad), and stereotypes (like athletic or clumsy). The main premise is that making a response is easier when closely related items share the same response key.  For me, the importance of the IAT is that it measures unconscious bias (or preference) which may be different than, or even contradictory to, what one consciously believes. In summary, taking an IAT can show that you might hold biases against, or stereotypes about, people from different groups. This difference between unconscious biases and conscious beliefs is a rich opportunity for reflection on how to best mitigate or challenge these associations. Now, whenever I hear someone say “I’m not racist” or “I treat everyone equally, regardless of gender or sexual identity,” I think about the IAT and how implicit bias exists below conscious awareness. Just this thought can be very humbling and cause me to understand that there are forces inside of me and external to me that can influence my beliefs and attitudes.


Another key concept in supporting our colleagues is allyship. According to the Anti-Oppression Network, allyship is “an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person in a position of privilege and power seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group.” (5,6) Realize that everyone is in a different place on the allyship continuum—from apathetic, to aware, to active, to advocate. (7) In the apathetic stage, a person does not understand the issues and is not interested in learning. A person in this stage is unaware of conscious or unconscious bias and believes that “his norm is THE norm.” In the aware stage, a person has intentionally and humbly educated herself on the issues and seeks to fully understand the viewpoint of a marginalized or oppressed group. There may be some initial discomfort in this stage as awareness grows. There is a realization that self-development leads to improved support of others. In the action stage, there is ongoing discomfort as a person unlearns old habits and begins to dismantle long-held viewpoints. In this stage, mistakes are made but eventually being an ally becomes more natural. An individual in this stage realizes that there is room for everyone to thrive, and that the success of others does not threaten his own success. In the advocate stage, a person is proactively committed to overcoming inequities and supporting inclusion on a daily basis. A person in this stage uses their power to challenge the status quo and create new norms. As I reflect on my own allyship journey, I realize with some embarrassment that I spent most of my life in the apathetic stage and I have only moved into the aware stage within the last two or three years.


What are the specific actions that allies can take to support a marginalized group?

Kayla Reed is a Black, queer feminist organizer and strategist from St. Louis, Missouri. She is the co-founder and Executive Director of Action St. Louis, a grassroots racial justice organization. She created the acronym A.L.L.Y. which describes four actions that an individual can take to be a more effective ally. (8) The A stands for Always center the impacted. This means avoiding assumptions, understanding how others want to be supported, and defining if you’re helpful by whether someone else thinks you are. Don’t make this about you. The first L stands for Listen and learn from those who live in oppression. Don’t offload the burden of learning by making someone else educate you; instead, be curious and do your own homework. The second L stands for Leverage your privilege by intervening when possible to shrink power imbalances. You’re not there to save, but to share. If someone isn’t at the table, advocate to add them or reconfigure the table. If you have a platform, amplify the voices of those who don’t. If you have access to resources, ensure those who need them most also have access. The Y stands for Yield the floor by talking less, listening more, stepping back, and enabling others to fill the space. Stand beside or behind the oppressed group instead of standing in the front.


A - Always center the impacted

L - Listen & learn from those who live in oppression

L - Leverage your privilege

Y - Yield the floor


In summary, I am a person of privilege in some of my identities and an oppressed person in my other identities. This blend of identities speaks to the importance of understanding intersectionality—the idea that humans are a complex mixture of nature, nurture, and lived experience, and that overlapping systems of oppression can compound human suffering. I have learned that everyone, including me, has implicit biases that may impact behavior on a subconscious level. On my allyship journey, I am in the awareness stage and I humbly acknowledge that I have a long way to go. As I practice the four actions of an effective ally, I can more effectively support my colleagues and build a more inclusive and welcoming workplace—and society.


REFERENCES:

 

HANDOUT: 50 Potential Privileges in the Workplace

 

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