To Promote True Advocacy, Don’t Be an Ally: Be an Accomplice

BY Willie Jackson | December 10, 2019

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.

Willie Jackson will be speaking at From Day One's conferences in Los Angeles on Dec. 11 and Seattle on Jan. 28

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.


The Power Gap Among Labor Unions: Why Some Have New Strength–and Others Don’t

As the United Auto Workers set up picket lines last week outside of plants for General Motors, Ford and Stellantis (maker of Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge), there was a sense of familiarity, of economic history repeating itself. In times past, the UAW would roll up to a contract negotiation with all eight cylinders of its union engine roaring. There were work stoppages, but when the Big Three controlled 80% of the market, the car companies had a lot of sales to lose in enduring a long strike, so they had some willingness to compromise.Since the 1980s, though, the UAW–not to mention the United Steelworkers and other large industrial unions–have been squeezed by the global labor arbitrage that shifted work to Asia. They’ve become fewer in number, less powerful politically and forced into waves of givebacks to keep their jobs. Most galling, for the UAW, was the adoption of a two-tiered wage system—a lower rate for new hires, vs. legacy workers. The scoresheet has not been kind to labor; its share of national income has been in a long decline, one that has accelerated in this century.This year, the wealth and power pendulum has started moving the other way. The post-pandemic reordering of the global supply chain that enriched some U.S. industries–think greedflation–has given the UAW, and a few other unions the chance to muscle up again. They’re seizing the moment to demand a share of that new wealth. This is a workforce that has done everything asked of it during the pandemic to meet the needs of corporations and their customers.Which is making labor more militant, more willing to hit the bricks for better pay and benefits. We're going to see this soon in Las Vegas, where the Culinary Workers Union, 50,000 of them, may strike the major hotels and casinos if there’s no new contract. Las Vegas has been recording record month after record month of revenues since the end of the pandemic, and the unions quite reasonably expect to get a piece of those winnings. Some corporations have acknowledged as much, with the Teamsters winning a big contract with UPS. Likewise, American Airlines just settled with its pilots on a new contract in August, providing a 46% increase in compensation, as “revenge travel” hasn’t slowed. Why wouldn’t you settle with workers if your airline is filling every seat, and facing a pilot shortage over the next decade? Pilots are United and Delta have also settled. That’s the benefit of a healthy economy,  when labor and management each have more to gain than lose.The economy can’t solve every labor issue. In Hollywood, both the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild have been on strike for months against the movie studios and the streaming companies. And in warehouses and coffeeshops nationwide, Amazon and Starbucks are fighting bitterly against determined unionization efforts.  Every labor negotiation rests on the extent of the common interests among the two parties. In the UPS negotiation, each side had too much to lose to take a strike. Shippers had already been moving their UPS business to other carriers as talks dragged on. And with drivers now earning more than $100,000 annually in some places, the urge to walk rather than deliver wasn’t strong. So UPS and the Teamsters settled and each can claim victory. This is the same Teamsters union that refused yet more givebacks with foundering Yellow Freight, and allowed the company to go under. Yellow had been in the red for years and the union could not see a way forward. With demand for truckers still high, and Yellow’s assets going on the block, there will still options for its drivers.For the auto companies, business is great but business is also changing rapidly–and that’s where the mutual interests are parting. Detroit has been able to sell every pickup truck it can build, for instance. These are the industry’s most profitable vehicles. How much of that business is worth risking? But the switch from internal combustion engines to EVs has introduced a host of new technologies that is reordering the workplace, and the unions are wary. Transmission plants get replaced by battery plants, for example, and the automakers are placing some of those plant in less union-friendly geographies in the South. The UAW has seen this movie before, when robotics came on the scene and eventually displaced a wide swath of jobs.Yet neither side is playing hardball, it seems. The unions are picketing at three selected plants–one from each automaker, a switch from the days when it would focus attention on one company.  That includes a Stellantis factory in Ohio, for instance, that makes the ever-popular Jeep. The union calls it a “standup strike.” The idea is to get the message across without crippling the entire industry. GM CEO Mary Barra, a lifelong GMer and the daughter of a GM engineer, has tried to keep the temperature low: “If you’re asking for more than the company made, I think that’s not a good position,” Barra said, but added, “I think we’re in a good position to get this done.” The gap remains wide, but that was also the case with UPS and the Teamsters.Technology is also a feature in the Hollywood strike by creatives against the studios and streamers. The actors and writers see AI technology being used to deprive them of earnings and intellectual property. Talks stalled, but there is still talk. Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav tried to spread optimism, telling analysts: “We are just hopeful as a company, and I am very hopeful, that we can get that resolved. If we can get it resolved soon, then the long-term impact will be minimized.” But that optimism sounded a bit scripted, given that Warner has been willing to take a $500 million hit to earnings during the strike, and Zazlov’s lavish pay packet, $285 million over the last two years, has further impassioned workers over lavish media CEO pay.The dissonance could not be any greater in the case of Starbucks and Amazon, whose founders still exert a powerful influence on labor relations, leading to conflict. For Starbucks former CEO and chairman Howard Schultz, the battle with unions has been particularly difficult. Schultz, who grew up working class in Brooklyn, is a progressive. Starbucks pays well and has good benefits. He cares about the workforce, so he can’t understand why workers would want a union. He believes that he’s in the right position to know what they need, moreso than a union. But his view is from the top down. From that vantage point, understanding the workers’ point is view is difficult–very few business owners can do it. Henry Ford had the same stance–and his hired goons’ violent confrontation with union organizers was a turning point in UAW history.At Amazon, founder Jeff Bezos built a company by being a control freak over costs and operations and trained his senior managers that way. Unions represent a threat to that control mantra. And threatens to bring higher costs. Workers, for their part, see themselves as dehumanized labor inputs within Amazon’s system, not people. So the fight goes on, in both companies.The capital vs. labor issues this year are unique to their time–an economic situation unlike we’ve ever experienced and rapid technological developments that are rearranging traditional conflicts. The path to labor peace in the auto industry, then, may require these two old adversaries to bring more imagination and innovation to the negotiating table.  Bill Saporito is an editor at large at Inc. magazine. Previously, worked as an assistant managing editor at Time magazine and as a senior editor at Fortune.(Featured photo: United Auto Workers members walk the picket line at the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Mich., on Sept. 18, 2023. AP Photo/Paul Sancya) 

Bill Saporito | September 19, 2023

The Myth of the ‘Woke’ Corporation

“Whatever you do, lead with your values,” Apple CEO Tim Cook recently told the graduating class at Gallaudet University. Well, that leaves it wide open, doesn’t it? In Apple’s case, what values allow it to manufacture in China, a country that has crushed democracy in Hong Kong and violated the rights of millions of Uighurs on the mainland? Yet iPhones today are allowing citizens and soldiers of Ukraine to use technology to fend off the invading Russian hordes. Or consider McDonald’s, which closed some 850 stores in Russia, laying off 62,000 people. This is the same McDonald’s that is being accused by investor Carl Icahn of being complicit in ruthless treatment of pigs by vendors who supply meat for McRib sandwiches. Then there’s Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who claimed to eschew politics before tweeting, disingenuously, that he was becoming a Republican because the Democrats are the party of hate, notwithstanding the GOP affiliation with the clearly hateful and racist “replacement theory” that motivated an 18-year old domestic terrorist in Buffalo, NY, to murder 10 people. That’s not going to play well among California’s liberal Tesla owners—who now have many more EV models to choose from. And there’s no more emotional and potentially divisive topic than abortion rights. The issue is so fraught that the public relations firm Zeno advised its corporate clients to do zero–to run and hide. No, you don’t. Businesses that don’t confront such issues face the possibility that a relatively small group of white, male, you-don’t-even-have-to-say conservative legislators and regulators in states such as Texas and Oklahoma are going to dictate national policy. Which is why companies as diverse as Citigroup and Chobani quickly revised their benefits programs to include travel for out-of-state abortion services. If young people today want to work for a company that has a purpose, then defining that purpose in all its forms–political, social, environmental, racial and even local–has never been more complex for corporate America. Likewise for investors and investment companies. BlackRock has drawn fire from both conservatives for its stance on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, and from liberals for its investments in China. In Florida, the Walt Disney Co. first tried to escape the debate over that state’s so called “Don’t Say Gay” bill. But Mouse House employees, particularly its creatives, were having none of it. The company then broadcasted its dissent against the gay-bashing legislation. Disney’s support of its own LGBTQ community, in turn, made it a target for Florida’s reactionary governor Ron DeSantis, who orchestrated legislation that stripped Disney of its special tax and government status in the two Florida counties where Disney World operates. (Also potentially leaving the state on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars of bond payments.) Then DeSantis vetoed funding for a training facility for the Tampa Bay Rays in part because the team spoke up against gun violence. Apparently, the governor favors it. But Disney’s customers voted Mickey over Ron—that is, they continue to flock to the Orlando resort and watch Disney movies. Those include the thousands of LGBTQ customers who show up, and are welcomed, for unofficial Gay Days at the resorts. A Dick’s Sporting Goods store in Michigan, one of more than 700 in the U.S. In 2018, the company halted sales of assault weapons in all of its stores (Photo by RiverNorthPhotography/iStock by Getty Images) The fact that a Republican governor would try to harm a Fortune 100 company that employs more than 70,000 Floridians underscores how divisive the politics have become. The fact that consumers have largely ignored DeSantis  shows that they respect thoughtful corporate decisionmaking about controversial issues. And well they should.  Yet another mass shooting event in Texas, in Uvalde, once again focused attention on assault rifles. But it was following a mass shooting at Parkland high school in Florida, in 2018, when Dick’s Sporting Goods CEO Ed Stack pulled assault rifles from the company’s stores and halted gun sales to anyone under 21 years of age. That decision would cost the company some $250 million in sales initially. But Stack, a gun owner, had had enough. He told me: “After Parkland, I said, ‘We’re done. We’re not selling these guns, we’re not selling high-capacity magazines, we’re not going to sell any guns to anyone who’s under 21.’ That was it. We’re never going to change our mind on any of that.” Sales would eventually rebound because most Americans want to ban assault rifles, too. Walmart, no paragon of wokeness, made a similar call on behalf of its customers. This is a company that is now making a big investment in health care, because it can see the great need, and opportunity, among its customers and employees. To that end, Walmart recently banned cigarette sales in many of its stores even though the company, via a subsidiary, was once the largest tobacco wholesaler in the country. Selling death while at the same time trying to prevent death is a mixed marketing message at best, so Walmart made a choice: your health matters. We’ve already watched the Trump Administration play divide and conquer with corporate America in its defenestration of the Environmental Protection Agency and the trashing of pollution regulations. In clashing with the state of California over its stringent automobile standards—Trump demanded lower fuel efficiency—the administration forced automakers to choose sides. GM, Fiat Chrysler and Toyota, conservative by nature, backed into Trump’s garage. Honda, Volkswagen, BMW and Ford (with the support of executive chair Bill Ford), boldly backed California. These firms were already moving swiftly to expand their EV offerings; siding with California enhances their EV cred and offers a market advantage by doing so. Ford’s F-150 Lighting EV pickup, for instance, is already a breakout star. Corporations need to look a decade ahead to stay ahead. Any company that wants to be aligned with the future can’t avoid addressing human rights, animal rights, government actors, health care, sustainability and the environment. Not that the path is straightforward or even logical. Consider that Texas (once again) bars state retirement and pension funds from investing in companies that want to reduce fossil fuel consumption. Also consider that Texas is the nation’s leading producer of wind energy. If you build wind turbines, doesn’t that make you anti-fossil fuel by definition? Texas pols can deny climate change, but those denials will provide little protection when a monster hurricane–one of the consequences–wipes out Galveston. (Again. In 1900, more than 6,000 people died in such a storm.) And even if Galveston is spared, homeowners in coastal areas that haven’t prepared for extreme weather tied to a warming climate are already seeing sharp increases in flood insurance, if they can buy it at all. Which is to say that even if the free market doesn’t have a conscience, it tends to be rational. The defeat of two ExxonMobil board nominees last year by an activist hedge fund that criticized its strategy around climate change didn’t suddenly transform a hydrocarbon giant into an alternative-energy outfit. But that outcome did demonstrate that ExxonMobil wasn’t as focused on the future of clean energy as it might be—and that’s a market risk shareholders don’t care to face. ExxonMobil’s investors were indeed following their own values–while at the same time addressing shareholder value. That shouldn’t be such a rare event in corporate America. And if the graduates at Gallaudet follow the advice of Apple CEO Cook, it won’t be. Bill Saporito is an editor at large at Inc. magazine.

Bill Saporito | June 12, 2022

Don't Give up on Teaching About Unconscious Bias

Employee education about unconscious bias seems to have fallen out of fashion lately, with questions about its worth and impact. For many organizations over the last decade or so, anti-bias training had been a foundational pillar in addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). As a result of increasing critiques, however, some companies have now abandoned it, while others see continue to see value in it. The debate is covered well in this BBC story. Which way should employers go? There’s a wealth of research that unconscious bias exists, and that it can have significant detrimental impacts at work. So we shouldn’t just give up on the effort. I believe that adjusting the approach to the messaging and education in a few key areas can help keep unconscious bias education relevant and impactful. Having delivered varying approaches to unconscious bias through training and workshops across different industries and organizations, I’ve seen where it has made a positive impact and where it can fall short. From those experiences, I’ve identified some key challenges and the opportunities to improve. Avoiding the Backlash I have often wished for a replacement word for bias, because I see the resistance in people’s faces as soon as it is mentioned. For most of us, bias is a word with strongly negative connotations, so it takes more than just an assertion of “don’t worry, we’re all biased” for there to be a willingness to explore our individual propensity for it. Explaining that everyone has it–that it’s essential to how our brains operate efficiently–still doesn’t overcome our innate resistance to the word and its associations. Any successful learning and behavior change needs us to be open and committed, and anything that raises our resistance is immediately working against that goal. Telling people they’re biased creates a significant pushback, no matter how true it may be. Opportunity: Bias as a word and concept is already out there, and many people know something about it, so it’s not practical to avoid or replace it. However, in many scenarios, what bias creates is assumptions, and this concept is less threatening for people to wrestle with, because they can extrapolate from what they’ve likely learned previously–the importance of uncovering assumptions in decisions and strategy—to uncovering assumptions when it comes to people.  Why the Ask Is Paradoxical Our biases stem, in the simplest terms, from our brain being wired to process the masses of information we receive, by relying on broad assumptions. This is a survival mechanism because we don’t have the conscious-thought capacity to analyze every input and make a fully considered and calculated decision. But while on one hand we’re highlighting the limits of conscious-thought capacity, we’re also asking people to bring these assumptions out of their unconscious into that limited capacity. How do we do that? Can we expand conscious capacity? Do we displace existing conscious processes? Instead it’s implicitly positioned in the way many tasks are often assigned in the workplace: just add to an already-full plate and hope it works out. Opportunity: Acknowledge that our capacity is limited and ask participants to identify one situation where they recognize their own bias can have a negative impact for others, one where they are willing to put conscious effort into their own behavior change. To go the extra mile, they could also commit to providing feedback when they see others acting from the same bias.  Too Much Threat, Too Little Reward  There is plenty of research on what motivates adults to change behaviors, and it’s pretty clear that it’s not by being scolded or threatened. While examples of the negative impacts of bias can open our eyes to what can go wrong, and perhaps build perspective or empathy, those impacts are usually fleeting and don’t lead to behavior change. What’s so often missing is getting to the positive motivation that will fuel the effort that behavior change requires. Examples and exercises can show us how we might be biased, but unconscious-bias training rarely underscores the benefits of mitigating those biases—the benefits to others, and the benefits to ourselves. Jonathan Yeo, founder of The Potential Space (Photo courtesy of the author) Think about one of the most oft-cited examples of unconscious bias: identical resumes submitted, but with names of varying racial or ethnic associations. In one widely noted U.S.-focused research paper, the “white-sounding names” received 50% more callbacks than those with “African-American sounding names.” That finding is shared to show that bias exists, that it has negative consequences, and to hopefully prompt a reaction of “Wow, that’s bad!” It does indeed do that for many, but without any proposed mitigation it can leave people feeling shame, disappointment, disempowerment, cynicism, or despair. In other words, helpless rather than motivated. Opportunity: Contrast negative impacts of bias with their positive alternatives. In the resume example above, complete the emotional journey for participants by sharing examples of mitigating actions (for example, removing names from resumes) and their positive impacts (an increased qualified-candidate pool, more diverse teams). Don’t just leave the participants with what’s wrong–lead them to the benefits of getting things more right.  People Want Growth  For some reason, unconscious bias is often put in its own special place: a standalone training disconnected from everything else. That positioning, combined with some of the less effective approaches outlined above, can make it feel much more like compliance training than growth and development. At the least it should be part of broader learning on inclusion and inclusive behaviors. Better still, it should be embedded, recognized, or reinforced in programs on leadership, effective communication, career development, and growth mindset. Whatever you choose to call it, there’s still an important place for unconscious bias in organizations: integrated as a part of a development curriculum, embedded in programs to foster inclusion, and positioned as an opportunity for individual and organizational growth and success. It shouldn’t just sit out on its own. Jonathan Yeo is the founder of The Potential Space, a learning, development, and inclusion-focused consultancy. Previously, he worked at Apple for a decade in the fields of leadership development and inclusion and diversity. He will be speaking this Wed., Sept. 15, at From Day One's virtual conference on diversity recruiting. You can register here.

Jonathan Yeo | September 13, 2021