Democracy is not a spectator sport — yet the whole world watches and waits.
Allyship is ownership. To own our beliefs with courage, conviction and congruency.
As I wait for the results of the US election, I can’t help but reflect on a recent panel discussion, where I spoke about the importance of allyship in these polarized times. Whichever way this election turns, our quest for conscious allyship isn’t over. Today, as the whole world watches the leader of the free world turn democracy into a reality TV show, I am more convinced than ever that self-awareness is THE META skill for leadership in these polarized times.
It’s a feeling
Over the recent months, a lot has been written on allyship. There are articles, guides, speeches. Like any leadership trait, allyship is a skill that is built over time with self-awareness. Leaders who actively seek self-awareness are more confident, creative, clearer thinkers, better decision makers, and communicators. To all the allies and allies in progress in the room, I ask you to remember that discrimination is a feeling. Inclusion is a feeling. Exclusion is a feeling. These feelings are not governable, we can create quotas and laws around them, but when it comes to authentic allyship, empathy is the key. Take a moment, think about a time you can remember feeling different or less than, it can be over anything. Did you feel younger than? Shorter than? Poorer? Less intelligent? Weaker? What does different in a ‘less than’ way feel like? The feeling of alienation is not only about colour, it is about experience. This is where we begin our conversation.
There is an exercise, where students had to carry around a sack of potatoes for a week, everywhere they went. To the bathroom, to class, everywhere. There is an energy created through carrying such a weight. A sense of presence when you enter a room carrying this load. This is what the diversity candidate: people or colour, women, or any underrepresented group carry with them each time they enter a room. it is what we should carry as allies. Nita Mosby Tyler in her Ted Talk, spoke of unlikely allies. She asked the question “what if white people led the charge to end racism?”, “What if men led the charge for pay equity for women?” If the same people speak up in the same way, we can expect the same results. As she says “Justice requires an accomplice”. Being an ally means when you see injustice and inequality, it has nothing to do with you, but you speak up. As Ta-Nehisi Coates said
“I think one has to even abandon the phrase ‘ally’ and understand that you are not helping someone in a particular struggle; the fight is yours.”
In silence we can hear
Graciela Mohamedi asked her audience during a talk to complete a simple task. If we all stop for a moment and sit in complete silence for thirty seconds, we will notice ‘background noises’. Do it now. Sit without a saying a single word and listen. Listen to what is going on around you. Do you hear cars in the distance? Do you hear your own breathing? Someone breathing near you? It is uncomfortable. This is the same with unheard voices. They are considered ‘background noise’, but we can make the sounds come to the forefront by listening.
The Magnifying Glass
Our mind is like a magnifying glass, what we point to we focus on. So, as we point our magnifying glass, we can apply some principles from the Dalai Lama, which Dr. David Campt wrote about in “Message to White Allies from A Black Anti-Racism Expert: You’re Doing It Wrong”.
- Clarify your intentions: What is your why?
- Cultivate Mindful courage: Have the courageous conversations.
- Cultivate curiosity: start from a place of genuine curiosity, not interrogation when you ask questions
- Focus on agreement and common humanity: remember to C.A.R.E. (Connect, Accept, Reflect and Express)
- Practice humility: walk the talk, be authentic and take ownership over your mistakes and successes.
Being an ally is to be a leader. The self-awareness leaders must cultivate, means we must evolve and unlearn certain leadership tropes we have been taught. Saying you’re an ally is much easier than actually being an ally. It looks good on paper, especially if you’ve never been taken to task. Being an ally doesn’t mean you fully understand what it feels like to be oppressed. As Secretary of State, Madeline Albright famously said,
“It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent”.
Gulnar Vaswani is a Diversity & Inclusion consultant, thought–leader, board advisor and executive coach to CEOs. Social scientist meets spiritual warrior, Gulnar is re-imagining leadership for the 21st Century. Against the backdrop of today’s increasingly uncertain world, she consults leaders and their organizations in inclusiveness, cross-cultural dynamics, diversity and the power of change.