This essay was first published on Forge, Medium's new channel on personal development.
I sometimes introduce myself as a “professional African American” when I travel the country to give ally skills workshops — often while looking out at a sea of white faces.
It’s a joke, of course, but the point is serious. I’m using humor to disarm my audience, and to make some difficult and personal topics more accessible.
I recognize that every person walks into the room with a different set of experiences and point of view. Many folks have had uncomfortable and even traumatizing experiences talking about race, gender, sexuality, and other forms of marginalization. And many of the companies I work with have had conversations about bias go sideways. So a part of the learning experience in my workshops is making it safe for people to be present, both physically and emotionally.
Of course, most of the people who sign up for an ally skills workshop already consider themselves an “ally.” Which is what exactly? An ally, in this context, is simply someone who isn’t part of a marginalized group but who supports that group actively.
Given the pervasive experiences of bias that many numerically underrepresented minorities report at work, the impulse toward allyship by majority group folks is encouraging. But putting this impulse into action can get tricky. As I caution folks, the very notion of allyship is rejected on its face by some folks who have been harmed by the ham-fisted efforts of well-intentioned, self-proclaimed “allies.”
The ally skills framework that I developed in partnership with Dr. Kim Tran, and I teach as a consultant at the diversity strategy firm ReadySet, asks a provocative question: It’s great that you see yourself as an ally, but what does putting that into action look like?
Be an accomplice, not an ally
It comes as a surprise to some of my ally skills workshop attendees, but I encourage folks to move from the frame of “ally” to “accomplice.” Here’s why I prefer this term.
Without context, most folks would consider “ally” to be positive and “accomplice” to be negative. But bringing history into focus means recognizing that many of the liberties we now enjoy — civil rights for black folks and gay marriage, for example — were but a dream not long ago, and required major disruption of the status quo to happen. Disruption isn’t easy or polite.
What I’m hoping to impress upon folks is that this work — the work of being an accomplice — might cost you something. Perhaps your comfort or social standing, or maybe even your safety. Real advocacy and comfort rarely go hand in hand.
Accomplices try to “care more”
For some people, the growth opportunity might involve slowing down, taking up less space in conversations across difference, and becoming a more active listener. For others, it might mean admitting when they’ve made a mistake and offering a genuine apology to the person harmed. For others still, growth might look like having the courage to speak up and communicate the impact of an unfortunate altercation.
I once had a boss advise me, “It’s okay to care more.” I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, but the phrase and invitation has stuck with me over the years. In my experience, many audiences exist on a continuum of caring, from withdrawn skepticism to card-carrying social justice warrior.
But caring is personal, and doesn’t need to conform to accepted tropes. Some of the most committed agents of institutional change decline to publicly advertise their commitment. They just do the work. I often cite as an example the actress Jessica Chastain, whose pledge to her fellow movie star, Octavia Spencer, to negotiate for pay as a unit leveraged her privilege as a successful white Hollywood star to demand equity.
I can’t tell you what to care about or how to express it, but I’m confident that everyone — regardless of identity — can put their caring into action a bit more.
Accomplices understand that marginalization isn’t always obvious or visible
My way of being in the world and my anchor in this work is deeply grounded in my identity as an African American man: the descendant of enslaved folks and the grandson of sharecroppers. I’m not shy about bringing this identity into the room and naming it. But this stance doesn’t require anyone to make themselves smaller in my presence. In fact, I invite others to bring more of themselves into the room as well.
One of the greatest shortcomings of our cultural discourse is the refusal to explore our complicated shared history in America. I don’t mean simply dwelling on the brutality inflicted on indigenous and enslaved folks, although we shouldn’t be shy to acknowledge historical truths. What I mean is that our shared history is more complicated and interdependent than we tend to discuss.
That sea of white faces I encounter in a workshop might well include more diversity and marginalized identities than it appears to at first: Many attendees have told me that while they pass for white, they identify ethnically in a multiplicity of ways. Many white-passing folks find themselves in conversations that “other” them or make them feel conflicted, invisible, and resentful. Many people of Italian, Irish, and Jewish heritage have ancestors who suffered from and fled persecution. And of course there are other less obvious identities in these rooms: LGBTQ+, differently abled, and neuroatypical folks, to name just a few.
In rooms of visible ethnic and racial minorities, expression of those experiences is often muted. It can be seen as insensitive and disingenuous for white and white-passing folks to claim a marginalized historical identity.
As a black-white binary pushes important nuance into the shadows, I’m passionate about creating spaces where all this can be discussed more expansively. I don’t think it serves us to expect people we think of as white to take up less space, and for the people we think of as black to take up more space, based solely on our perception of their proximity to oppression.
Similarly, it’s important to acknowledge privilege that may coexist with marginalization. Despite my historically and systemically marginalized racial identity, for example, the privileges afforded me by dint of being an educated, straight, able-bodied male are significant.
We all contain multitudes, and the space to bear witness to someone else's story can be sacred and affirming.
Accomplices don’t have all the answers
Admitting (and, frankly, learning) what we don’t know is a crucial starting point. I haven’t always had the analysis I now hold around race and identity in the United States. In fact, the whitewashed formal education I received was woefully deficient in preparing me for the realities of moving through the world with the identity I have. I learned my history — and in many ways what it means to be a black man in America — as an adult.
Despite our best intentions, our liberal enclaves, our high-minded ideals, we all have more learning to do. There’s something comforting in this universal growth opportunity: None of us have it all figured out.
As an accomplice, the goal isn’t to avoid stressful conversations or situations where we risk saying or doing the wrong thing; we actually need to spend more time in them, and learn to lean into our values when we feel emotionally triggered. That’s not easy: The physiological impact of conflict and stress prompts the brain to release cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream, putting the body into a fight, flight, or freeze response. In this state, we are biologically primed to respond to imminent danger — not to do complex thinking or bring our social graces to bear.
Put another way: We don’t rise to the level of our hopes and values, and we sink to the level of our basest instincts and our training. This is why it’s vital to train ourselves — to practice how we’ll intervene where necessary, and how we’ll respond when we’re embarrassed, ashamed, or called out.
And it’s why we need to breathe and reflect as we do the work of preparation — and when we can, maybe even laugh.
Willie Jackson is a Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI) speaker, consultant and facilitator who makes waves at the intersection of event production, behavior change, and leadership development. He’s the founder of an online magazine for black men called Abernathy, and an advisor to authors, startups, and executives across a range of industries.