How to make more allies
Updated: Jan 30, 2019
A couple of weekends ago, I was out with two female friends. We went to a quiet bar for food, and were sat chatting when a man came over to our table. I’m still not quite sure how it happened, but he stood at our table and harangued us about Brexit for about 15 minutes until one of my friends finally stood up, paid the bill and we left.
The following week, I met a woman at a Stonewall event who shared that she regularly gets harassed on the street because she is a lesbian. She said that if she reported this verbal abuse every time it happened to her, she’d never get anything done, so she just ignores it now.
What do these incidents have in common? I’ve spoken to a couple of (straight, white, middle class) men about both situations, and they both doubted that these things happened. In the first instance, I was told “you must have done something to make him come over”, and in the second instance “you mean she gets abuse on twitter – not walking down the street”. Both of these men are people I care very much about – good, kind and genuinely inclusive people. But their position as white, middle class, middle aged men meant that they just couldn’t imagine a world where these things happen. And it made me realise yet again that inclusion and empathy go hand in hand, and that “privilege” can make it very difficult for people to understand the experience of others.
Neither of these lovely men have ever experienced someone coming and assuming that they have a greater level of expertise or intelligence and lecturing them on a subject. It’s just not something that has happened to them. Similarly, neither of them has ever walked down the street and experienced abuse for the simple fact of who they love. As human beings we’re proof-driven creatures, and we find it really hard to believe what we can’t see or haven’t experienced, especially if it’s something completely abhorrent to us personally. And it’s even harder if you’re in a group which just doesn’t tend to have these kinds of experiences, or if you have “privilege” which those who are reporting the incident don’t have.
I have a bit of a problem with the word “privilege” (as anyone who knows me will be aware, I am extremely picky about language, especially when it has connotations which just aren’t helpful for a conversation) – its dictionary definition is: “an advantage that only one person or group of people has, usually because of their position”. When we’re talking about it in terms of diversity and inclusion, it tends to have the added subtext of a lack of awareness. But given that we all find it hard to understand things we’ve got no experience of, I wonder if “privilege” is a bit of a judgemental and unhelpful term to use. The reason I say that is that if we want to change behaviour and open up a conversation, it’s very hard to do that if the person feels judged for something they don’t have any control over.
So maybe, instead of thinking about people’s “privilege”, we should be thinking about them as “potential allies”. We should be focusing on starting a shared conversation – we need to create spaces which encourage people to share their experiences. Because being a good ally is about seeking to understand the experience of others, believing those experiences because we’re hearing about them, and not because we have experienced them ourselves, and making sure we are visible and open allies for those who need it.
At A New Normal, we believe that you can’t build inclusive working cultures without being prepared to start a conversation. For help on how to do this, please do get in touch – firstname.lastname@example.org