Being a Better Ally (but sometimes failing)

I struggled with the title to this post. It’s too generic and almost seems purposely attention-getting. But it’s also on point, as you will hopefully see. I’d also like to say that I have struggled with writing this for a while now, because it’s a sensitive topic, I’m not an expert on it, and because, well, maybe I’m just wrong in what I’m saying. For all I know what I think I should have done in the situation outlined below is still wrong and I’m still unintentionally supporting some “bad” thing or another.

I’m currently reading Better Allies (yes, I’m at least a year behind on my reading, though I have been getting the weekly newsletter for a while), which is both a book (2, actually) and a movement, and am thinking about a difficult past experience I had. I’ve been debating whether I was trying too hard to be a Knight, an Ally, or just messed up at both, regardless. Either way, the intention was sound, but execution almost certainly not.

My point in this post is, first, to express a relatively recent (within the last 5 years) struggle to be a better Ally and Upstander (see first point in this Code Like a Girl page). My second argument is that it’s just plain hard to know how to be a good ally sometimes, even when we are faced with what seems like blatant actions and words. If anything, I would argue that the examples in the Better Allies book of inappropriate jokes and micro-aggressive discrimination by race are far easier to handle because they are small (but significant) situations. I’m not sure if things are usually more complex in the “real world,” (I use quotes because Better Allies is very much “real” in its examples) but I sure struggled with this one, and for all my good intentions and intentional actions…I did not handle it well.

The not-so-short story is that our IT department decided to do a campus survey – using both a survey instrument and just talking with people – about how we were doing. As an organization operationally (were we doing our jobs), as part of the community (were we being good neighbors), and as a contributor to the culture of the institution (were we being good listeners, supporters, and change-agents towards a positive work place). However, as we gathered this information, we started getting some concerning feedback. We were being told that IT supported a masculine environment that was not friendly to women, for example. Some more extreme examples included that we were blatantly sexist and discriminatory in our departmental culture to other departments.

Not surprisingly, this worried me and the department leadership team. One Director was even brought to tears at the thought that he or his teammates were contributing in such a negative way to a community that he valued so deeply. I expressed that we probably needed to do something, and went home to a restless night.

In what I see now as trying too hard to be a Knight, I acted “decisively” the next day and called a team-wide meeting (I used to call them “all-hands” meetings but now know that that is a term that is not inclusive). I expressed firmly to everyone that these kinds of behaviors and the culture they propagated were anathema to my expectations, and that “that’s not how we do things here.” I used words that were tough to say (because I’m more of a “servant leader” – quite the hot term these days – than a top-down one and tend to choose my words accordingly) and difficult for others to hear. To make things worse, I did this basically right before Thanksgiving break. Which was just plain old bad timing and kind of stupid (I won’t even say bad practice or poor leadership or anything. It was dumb and insensitive).

I say that I was being a Knight rather than an Ally because it was only later (though at least right after the all-team meeting) that I offered to meet with everyone individually and to express more deeply my desire to erase these kinds of cultural contributions at a systemic level. I was trying so hard to be action-oriented and make an immediate difference that I didn’t think about how to make a deeper, lasting one. So I failed there.

What happened next, as I dug deeper into the situation, was where things both got interesting, and embarrassing. As we looked closer at he comments, we discovered that he specific words being used were not as damning as I had feared. They pointed at things we could do better, but there were not, in fact, any specific examples of us being discriminatory to the point where should have acted as I did, with the immediate calling of a meeting and drawing a line in the sand. I want to emphasize that again, because I don’t want to diminish the fact that legitimate complaints were being made. But we didn’t have a smoking gun here. Which leads me to my second failure.

My second mistake was that I was too quick to bold action. If I had simply but emphatically said in IT leadership that this wasn’t okay and that the directors should spread that message to their teams as per their individual cultural norms, that’s one thing. I could have made that my first move. If I had waited until after the break, that would have been more sensitive, certainly. But if I had simply waited in general, I would have realized that I was trying too hard and over-reacting. I had gotten the information somewhat second-hand, after all – people looking at and somewhat interpreting surveys of what others said. But I reacted like I had just been handed what looked like a bomb and had simply and hastily thrown it back from whence it came without taking a second glance.

Again, my point is not that Better Allies is misleading in presenting what I feel are more clear cut examples. If they were in fact clear cut then they wouldn’t happen nearly as often because those wishing to be good Allies would catch them all the time. Micro-aggressions and discrimination by all manner of aspects happen all the time, without question, and they should be called out. I am writing this because it’s an example of how I, personally, struggled, despite my goal to be a good Ally, and it’s an example that I chose to share, even if it makes me look stupid or anything else.

Maybe I was in fact right to have tackled the problem head on (don’t let it slide, right, even if it was Thanksgiving break coming up). Maybe sentiments expressed even mildly should be taken as if they were a bomb dropped in my lap, because those kinds of concerns and actions, whether big or small, should be treated the same.

I write this post because, even though I try so hard, even though I read the books, even though I get the newsletter(s)…I still struggle. I still get things wrong. And I still think about it every time I’m asked to make a decision on almost any issue of any kind today. But I will keep trying to be an Ally and Upstander. I will keep reading and refining. And, surely, I will keep making mistakes now and then.

Comment (1)

  1. Pumpkin Yang

    Thank you so much for being vulnerable and sharing this!

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