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What it Means to be a True Ally to Women of Color?

Hint: There’s a lot more to it than sharing a social injustice post on Facebook, shouting “Hashtag Feminism!”, and boycotting Starbucks #FakeAllyship

Watching how much of the toxic discourse that went down in the RWA PAN forum, and how it managed (unsurprisingly) to drown out the voices that needed to be heard, I want to share a bit about allyship. My struggle to look at this from a 30,000-foot view and a WOC is real, so I’m just gonna be real. Apologies when I switch from an “us” to “them” perspective.

If you want to be a genuine ally (for any underrepresented group), you must learn to talk less and listen more.

In fact, start with the 80/20 rule: 80% listening / 20% talking. Genuine allyship is not about you; it’s about taking action to support someone else. That 20% should be asking questions to learn about THEM and ultimately ask, “How can I help YOU?” “What can I do to help you feel included?”

Understand that white women have historically benefited from almost every human rights movement and gender equity program far more than women of color. Women have it hard, yes, and WOC statistically has it much harder. The LGBTQ community is still struggling with basic civil rights, and when you layer that struggle with being a woman of color, still you get a whole different experience. In understanding this, it’s very important as an ally to step back and make the uplift about THEM for a change. Respect the intersectionality — the layers involved with being part of more than one marginalized group. Those disparities for them are unique and compounded, with needs very frequently drowned out by cis white women.

Familiarize yourself with the real world disparities that affect these marginalized groups. Don’t juggle whether these disparities exist. There’s tons of research and data out there to absorb. Year after year. Social science academics write books on it. We KNOW they exist. Discrimination, bias and systemic racism is a part of our world even if you’ve been protected from much of it. It’s now about what are YOU going to do about it within your area of influence?

You don’t have to be perfect and we’re not asking you to. You’re not a savior (and it’s not a good look for those who try to behave as one). So be authentic. You don’t need to use buzzwords or quote my lingo to be woke. There’s no secret handshake and there’s no prize for armchair activists (as Kilby Blades coined). Just be yourself and express real empathy and willingness to help raise up the group.

Step up, Step Back (or Speak up, then step back). True, your voice matters and you should use it to call out the injustice you see. But be careful not to put words in the mouths of the underrepresented. Not cool. They can speak for themselves and you don’t know all of them. They’re not a monolith. Your duty as an ally is to speak up in your realm of influence when you see a problem, then step aside to hear THEM.

Yes, you will be uncomfortable. That’s healthy. Racism, bigotry, and bias is a very uncomfortable thing to discuss. However, imagine the lifelong struggle of others and those who have to live in that uncomfortableness 24/7. This is where your empathy and vulnerability comes in. You need to be strong enough to live with this discomfort because that’s what it takes to do the work.

Ask questions and be prepared for the “real talk” answers. Remember what I said about not being perfect? That’s true. You will make mistakes. Someone will check you when you say or do something inappropriate or offensive to the very group you’re trying to support. This isn’t the time to be fragile; Don’t try to rationalize it out of existence. LISTEN. Then apologize, learn and do better next time. Allyship is about learning, growing and sucking it up when you’ve made a mistake. If you cannot handle that expectation, then take off the badge and go home.

This is ongoing work and it’s not a game to be popular. There’s no “Wokest of the Year Award.” Allyship is never a “clock out” or “checkbox” duty that has an end date. You can’t nod your head, share a social injustice post from someone and say, “Done! I’m an Ally! Woot! #feminism, #WOKEAF! You’re not! Suck it! I’m better than you other white ladies!” That’s not how this works (This isn’t how any of this works.) In the Real Talk: WOC & Allies’ article, “Which Fake Ally Are You?,” there’s a great point on this:

An ally wouldn’t say we should be grateful for anything they do. She would just do the work — and keep doing the work — without any expectation of a “thank you” or any other ally cookie.

That article is great to read to find out how NOT to be a fake ally. The archetypes described in there has been seen everywhere. Even in the PAN forum, sadly. My recommendation: Read this article, then work not to be “that woman.”

Back to my point around the gloating and feeling holier than thou to their sleeping white others: Allies don’t look down on the others in their group, they use their influence to educate, not alienate.

allyship cannot be done from a tower. The real impactful work is done in the trenches.

The underrepresented you work to support determines if you’re an ally, not you. Proclaim all you want, but again, it’s your actions that build trust and respect as an ally. The root word of activism is a powerful verb. ACT. There’s an air of suspicion when someone calls themselves an ally. It’s similar to the side-eye I give when someone proclaims they aren’t racist. Again, you shouldn’t have to say that — we would learn soon enough by your actions.

You will be unpopular; it goes with the territory. Think about white men and women who marched with blacks during the Civil Rights Era. They got spat on and beaten like everyone else. They put themselves at a risk all for wanting to make a change to social order. Imagine that courage it takes to be that passionate about your belief to right the injustice? Luckily, you don’t necessarily have to go through all that as an ally for authors of color, but just giving a perspective that allyship cannot be done from a tower. The real impactful work is done in the trenches.

So in stepping back from this and switching on my author lens, what could white authors do to be an ally to black women and other WOC so they thrive in the same space?

Understand that whether you believe you have certain privileges or not, many of your fellow authors, your fellow RWA members currently experience a lack of opportunity and lack of representation in the publishing world. Assuming that everything is already equal is just ignoring what is already staring everyone in the face. You have some internal work to do on yourself first to make sure you are not part of the problem.

Raising #ownvoices and promoting books written by black authors and other WOC. The talent is out there and it’s fighting to be seen and taken seriously. Ask yourself when was the last time you tried a new #ownvoices author? When’s the last time you offered to cross-promote? When’s the last time you included an author of color in your blog, interview or just to connect with? Again, this isn’t about you. It’s about raising another voice that readers want to hear.

Ask the tough questions of the powers that be. Sometimes it all starts with this. If the system is flawed, inform the powers that be that you believe it’s flawed and educate them on why. I’m sure you may meet with some resistance, but that’s why you connect with other allies to make a COLLECTIVE case. Many voices in unison make harmony; many voices in the division is just noise. No one wants to listen to noise.

And finally, if you want to know how to help…REACH OUT & ASK THEM.

Ask: Do you feel supported by this community? Please share with me how I can help?

Then Listen. Don’t make excuses or draw conclusions to negate how they feel or what they need. Don’t put all the stress on them to educate you — it’s not their job. Just listen to what they have to say. Get out of your comfort zones. Get out of your cliques and regular groups and make connections. You won’t learn and appreciate the differences in the world if you’re experiencing it in a bubble.

Be patient. As you can see from the discourse in the forum, many of us are on guard, exhausted and trust in the system (if there was any) is badly damaged.

Many of us will need some space. But don’t stop the outreach. Don’t stop the work. Change can happen and a true ally is valuable. Educate yourselves and continue to do the work to raise the voices. We have a voice and we know what we need. Just remember to step aside and continue to hear us when we speak.

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