10 Ways to Be a Better Ally and Use Your Privilege for Power

By Maimah Karmo – Founder/CEO Tigerlily Foundation

As I prepared to write this article, I read through several definitions of the word “allyship”.   The definition that most spoke to me was that of the Anti-Oppression Network, which was “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”.  It continues, stating that allyship is a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability.  

Writer and anthropologist Nicole Nfonoyim-Hara defines allyship as a process in which “a person of privilege works in solidarity and partnership with a marginalized group of people to help take down the systems that challenge that group’s basic rights, equal access, and ability to thrive in our society.” In that context, an ally is someone who actively supports anti-racist work and is committed to this lifelong journey of learning and bettering themselves and society. 

“It has also been said that ‘we risk becoming the best-informed society that has ever died of ignorance.’” – Paul Reuben

The events that have taken place over the past year have been, while painful, shined a light on the societal challenges that many have not wanted to face.  Racism has been spoken of in whispers, and like the Emperor with no clothes on, and it parades itself throughout our lives – on our television sets, our political system, corporate environments, economic, medical systems, at families’ dinner tables, and it threatens the very fiber of our humanity – bringing with it generations of shame, discomfort, anger, hurt, resentment, and the pain that comes with injustice.  I read somewhere that adversity is the path to truth. And I believe that we are at a moment in time where world events sucked the air out of the global room and awakened those who may have been walking through the collateral damage of racism in their daily lives with their eyes wide shut, to the stark reality of the de-humanization that Black and Brown people live with every day – and who now want to join us as allies.

I’ve spoken to countless friends and colleagues who have asked me the same questions, “Am I considered a racist?” “Why am I apologizing if I didn’t do anything?” “Does not saying anything make me a bad person?” “How can I help when I don’t know what to do?” “How can I do better?” To each, I’ve said, “thank you.” Healing starts with being vulnerable to ask the question and being able to sit with, listen to, and walk side by side with those who have been harmed. And allyship grows when you can recognize your privilege and wield it to help and heal.  

Most often, when we think of privilege, we think of White people. While I believe this to be true, I also believe that if any human has an advantage, it is incumbent upon that individual to use that privilege for good. Mine is my voice and my unrelenting commitment to ensuring that I use my voice to create change that leaves the world better than it was before I came into it; and taking action that helps to lead others to grace and growth.  

If you want to be a better ally but don’t know where to start, here are 10 specific ways you can begin to make an impact today.

1) Reflect.  These conversations require allies to recognize their privilege, fragility and to realize that by consequence of being within these systems, they may not even be aware of their biases, how their inaction is in fact part of the problem, and how they may have grown up blind to these systems that oppress others. Being within the system doesn’t necessarily make people guilty by association, but they are part of the matrix, which means that by virtue of having privilege, it then comes with a power that they are born into – one that continues to keep in place the very systems that have shackled people of color in many ways. From within the “matrix” as people with privilege, they now have the responsibility to use that power to create change. The next step after acknowledgment of privilege is acknowledging the trauma, pain and impact to our lives, and being willing to sit with us in these places of pain as we work towards healing.

2) Listen. The next step to allyship is active listening and learning from the people around you who are directly impacted by racism and discrimination; listening to the broader conversations led by Black people in the media, and actively seeking to diversify your own media intake to include diverse Black voices.  True listening also requires not having to fix or respond. You don’t have to have the answers. In one listening session Tigerlily Foundation held, a well-meaning White advocate speaking up about what she thought she knew, negating the very intention of the “listening summit”.  We learned so much that day about “listening” and giving people a safe space within which to express. As Black and Brown people, we spend most of our waking lives censoring ourselves in some way or being aware of how our Blackness, our culture, our strength, our voices, makes others uncomfortable. We censor our Blackness in school, in the office, in the face of police officers, we censor ourselves with well-meaning friends, and we censor ourselves with everyone but each other – because unless you want to understand the skin we’re in you may never get it. So, in every case, active listening is required, which means fully concentrating on what is being said, taking it in, and approaching these conversations with empathy, open mind and a closed mouth unless you’re asking how to do better.  To learn more about the experiences Black women have with breast cancer, here is a place to start.

3) Learn. Do your homework. I’m asking all White allies to deepen your understanding of racial inequalities by learning about the history of systemic racism in the United States and the modern-day impacts of systemic exclusion and inequality. Don’t expect anyone else to do this work for you: individual learning is required of all allies. While as a Black woman and a leader, I share my experiences daily, as a way to use my platform and to use my privilege for power, it is exhausting to ask people of color to relive their trauma daily, so that you can learn from it.  We have lived with trauma for generations. Protecting ourselves against the world is built into our DNA. We need you to do the work…and fortunately, lots of amazing resources exist to help you. If you want to learn more about racial inequities in health, here is a primer. You can also educate yourself about the realities Black women face with breast cancer through these powerful conversations  .

4) Acknowledge. Acknowledging your own privilege as a White person is essential to understanding systemic racism. When we talk about ‘White privilege’, it means that we recognize White people have greater access to power and resources than people of color in the same situation (a concrete example of White privilege is being able to go through life without having to be racially profiled or stereotyped).  It is not about judgement. It just IS.  To be a good ally, one must start by recognizing the ways in which whiteness has benefited you. Then, you can learn how to use that privilege for power, through educating others and standing up in the face of racism.  In 2019, I spoke with two close friends who are White women. They acknowledged the access they had in certain circles and the lack of diversity and the problems that causes – especially in breast health, where Black women have a 40% higher mortality rate, and less than 3% representation in clinical trials. This very lack of representation leads to “solutions” crafted by people who represent a system that doesn’t understand the barriers we live with or the lens that we view the world through.  This very disparity leads to death due to treatments not designed for Black women. After acknowledging their privilege, my friends committed to giving up their seats on boards and panels to Black women, pushing others to acknowledge the unlevel playing field that is set up for people of color. They also began to ask others to acknowledge their privilege whenever they had the opportunity. As we had further conversations, the promise that these two allies made to not participate unless there were women of color at the table led me to take things up a notch, and to launch the Inclusion Pledge, a rallying cry focused on dismantling systemic barriers and eradicating health disparities for Black women. To date, more than 14,000 individual allies and 70+ organizational non-Black allies have joined the #InclusionPledge, working side by side, investing time, resources and access to help us achieve equity – in the medical field and beyond.

5) Confront. Good allies confront their own biases. By virtue of existing within a society marked by inequalities and stereotypes (including in media), we all have internalized biases that might be unconscious. Even medical professionals, who are experts in their field, are still not immune to biases, as many studies have shown. There are many ways that, as allies, we can act on our implicit biases and stop them from cropping up in our decision-making: for example, we are more vulnerable to bias when we move and think fast, so slowing down and second-guessing your assumptions can help. You can also take hidden bias training and learn how to recognize and stop these thought patterns. Recently, I spoke to a potential partner organization that was working on engaging more women of color. Their organization had a variety of resources they offered to patients – mostly non-Black. They wanted me to provide them with Black patients to support their diversity and inclusion activities. I asked them to partner in a way where their programs would strategically benefit our Black patients, not just check a box for them, but they didn’t want to collaborate strategically. They wanted to acquire a few Black Bodies to check their boxes. When I realized what was happening, I felt the anger and disappointment fill my body.  This was reminiscent of how people purchased Black people as property. But I will not allow myself to be used to check a box. Not happening. I declined to partner with them.  These individuals, unlike the true allies mentioned above, not aware, nor willing to confront their way of thinking. 

We also need to examine how we examine diversity. For example, many a well-meaning organization will do diversity training, hire a Black Diversity and Inclusion expert, fill their Board with more Black people and do all the “right things”, but do these things really uncover or eradicate racist thinking and systems? If we do what we always do, we will get what we always got. Becoming a true ally requires re-examining everything about what you think and why you think it – over and over again.

6) Speak up. Allies can play a pivotal role through sharing information and resources, as well as pledging solidarity. If you have a platform, use it – your voice, your company, your community, social media or with friends and family.   Openly state your support for racial equity and the activists and organizations who are driving this movement Also, be willing to be called out or call out others who need to be educated.  The ability to learn, grow and better our world is an immeasurable contribution to the betterment of our world. But don’t be a ‘performative ally’: allyship is ‘performative’ when it is only surface-level – actions that you benefit from because they look good optically, because you’re jumping on the bandwagon, are doing it to enhance your brand or corporate social profile so you don’t seem like a bad person, do it only you’re called out, you’re positioning yourself in some way or are doing it while being resentful of doing it.  True allyship is risky, but it must be done. Remember that if words matter – actions always speak louder. 

7) Show up. If you witness discrimination or racism, stand up for those who are affected and use your voice. This is an opportunity to leverage your privilege for good. Don’t be a passive bystander.  A good ally stands up for what is right, by sharing your opinion, engaging in activities that support equity, starting a conversation or book series within your person and/or business community. You can also support non-profit organizations that are doing anti-racist work and fighting to end disparities.  You can also join listening sessions held by Black and Brown people, and being able to sit with our feelings when we show our pain. I recently spoke with a friend I worked with in a corporate setting years ago. He reached out to talk because he was leading diversity and inclusion activities in his company. When I worked in the corporate setting, often, many of the men – White men – in the room would talk over me, down to me, cut me off or ignore me. It happened repeatedly on conference calls and in meetings. It was extremely frustrating to have to constantly assert myself and have no one in leadership stand up for me. While working with Jay, though, we were having a meeting one day when the men started doing what they usually did. Without looking up from his laptop, he said on the call, “SHE IS TALKING. Don’t interrupt her.” It seems like a small thing, but I had to fight back the tears of gratitude that I felt for him showing up for me as a leader, giving me the respect I deserved as a human being and demanding that the others do too. Going forward, the level of respect and the way I was treated changed. I also asked to only work with Jay’s team – because I knew he cared. When he reached out to talk a few months ago, I got to share a bit about what it was like living in my Black skin and what he was learning about our experiences.  The conversation created a space for me to be open in a way I had not before – because the questions weren’t asked.  I left the conversation heart-filled.  So, how can you show up by leaning in and asking the questions?

8) Policy Matters. Support leaders, policies and candidates that make fighting systemic racism a priority. If you care about health equity, vote for health equity initiatives and policies at the local, state and federal level or create policy change in your workplace, and encourage other allies to do the same.  As a breast cancer survivor and patient advocate, I have used my voice and continue to do so to change policies that are unjust – on every level.  Currently, I am focused on changing policies that allow racism to exist in healthcare. Why are people allowed to run clinical trials that do not include 30 – 50 percent of Black or Brown patients? Why do certain communities not have oncologists or a means of delivering quality care to underserved populations? Why do certain healthcare center get more funding while others are left with sub-par equipment, limited staff and offer less access to treatment? Why don’t we examine systems at every level and enact policies that defund or incentivize organizations based on their anti-racist policies at every level?    

9) Engage. It is crucial for White allies to talk about race, and to have these uncomfortable conversations with their relatives and friends.  I recently spoke with a White colleague who said that she was overwhelmed with all the conversation about racism and that she didn’t want to be attacked on her social media by posting about it. I asked her to repeat what she’d told me and to listen to her words. I don’t get to be silent about being Black. I don’t get to be tired being Black or hide my Blackness. I don’t get to take a break from it. Black people don’t get to choose whether they will be emotionally or physically attacked because of the color of our skin. Our kids don’t get to take a break from worrying if the police will stop or shoot them if they wear the wrong type of clothing, reach for a phone or exhibit fear that is perceived as being threatening.  We don’t have the privilege of just freely existing. We should not have to teach our sons and daughters early in their lives, as young as 10 or 11 – or sooner – how to be aware of skin color and how to behave to keep themselves alive, but this is the reality that we live with.  So, if something is unjust and you don’t engage in affecting change or speak about it, that silence equals consent.  The conversation with the friend I mentioned above was intense, it was uncomfortable, but it ended with her realizing her complicity and also how not standing up for her Black friends and colleagues could be as deadly as a weapon.

Hold other White people accountable. Encourage your peers, friends and loved ones to go on this learning journey with you. Share the #InclusionPledge with them.  As a parent, you can and should also talk about racism and bias with your children.  No one is born racist – it’s learned.  There are resources on how to do so.

10) Invest. Put your money where your mouth is. Financially support organizations that are working to end to disparities, like Tigerlily, organizations that work to improve access to healthcare, to help the under- and uninsured, or to promote environmental justice.  Amazing things can happen to eradicate systemic racism and the barriers that exist because of them when allies support and invest in businesses of color.  You can also leverage your power as a consumer, by supporting Black-owned businesses and companies that are truly diverse and inclusive. 

I’ll end by saying this…

Use your privilege to make a difference in the lives of people of color because it’s the right thing to do. Follow Black influencers, leaders and activists and share our messages.  Use your social media, company’s public relations expertise or media influence to amplify our voices and work. Also, do not speak on behalf of, or over Black people, and always give credit when borrowing ideas or resources. When speaking up against racism, make sure you are prioritizing great resources already produced by Black-led organizations. You can’t teach an experience you haven’t lived; and trust me that you don’t need to create education or training from scratch.  If you want ideas on individuals and organization to follow, particularly in the Black women and breast health community, Tigerlily Foundation is constantly re-tweeting amazing women and organizations working towards  health equity. Join us or another organization you connect with, as we are already doing the work. We are already living the work. And remember…

Allyship is active. Allyship is authentic. Allyship is a path that if taken by all, will author a new story of justice for all, and make equitable change for generations to come.