Being an ally at work means spotting this form of oversight

ally-at-work

The first time a client greenlighted a piece of content that I knew was offensive toward people of color, I said something.

As a communications strategist, I help brands cultivate their stories through a variety of media channels, selecting content that best conveys the brand’s commitment to diversity, inclusion, and authenticity in the workplace. The board of one of my favorite clients, and company as a whole, is made up of warm, sweet, brilliant, and highly aware people. They all just happen to be white.

Recently, I sat with them in one of the glass-walled conference rooms scattered around our SoHo office, reviewing stories we were considering for their online publication. A piece on how to create workplace unity in the face of today’s political divisiveness was put on the table. Too dry, the editor-in-chief insisted. The writing is a bit weak. Not having read the piece, I opened the file, scanning the article as I listened. It was dry, I noticed, but more alarming was its overarching argument for companies to eschew supportive groups and services for underrepresented minorities, instead promoting a more color-blind approach to corporate unity. No one mentioned this.

As a biracial woman, raised primarily among my father’s white relatives in rural and suburban Ohio, I’m no stranger to being the “only” in the room. Nearly always, I was the only child of color in my classrooms. This “only”-ness continued beyond childhood, and just as often as not, transcended race. Straight from college, I took a position at a finance firm and was the single woman in board rooms filled with suited male analysts. When I started my first company, I joined a mastermind group of other entrepreneurs -- all men.

Truthfully, being the “only” of my identity has always felt comfortable to me, like a scratchy school uniform feels after years of wear. Friendly and outgoing, I’m typically absorbed into the fray with little question.

Yet, after moving to New York amidst a renewed era of “wokeness,” of rallies and protests, T-shirts adorned with bold statements that the lives of people who look like me matter, I have begun to realize that much of the comfort and acceptance I experienced as a child and young adult came in exchange for sacrificing allegiance to, and even acknowledgement of, my “otherness.”

Over time, I’ve developed friendships with other women of color, and the diversity within my circle of friends and colleagues has grown. I have come to truly feel the burn of statements I once relished in, assertions like, “I don’t even think of you as black,” and people’s dismissal of my otherness by having conversations in my presence that they wouldn’t have in “mixed company.”

Amidst this wokeness is a newfound outspokenness, as well. Despite the increased demand for “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” this next generation has brought with it a refusal to quietly ignore problematic behaviors and rhetoric. I’ve found myself similarly awoken, engaging in debates and no longer giving free passes to discriminatory remarks, even to those well-meaning souls I’ve known for years.

Within a decade, I’ve gone from passively pondering the impact of systemic discrimination to knowing wholeheartedly that it pervades nearly every aspect of our lives. And with the affirmation of those who surround me, through endless conversations on the nuances of intersectionality and unconscious bias, I have no problem speaking up about it.

But when you’re the “only,” speaking up becomes that much harder. Back in that glass-walled conference room, I found myself questioning whether I was making something out of nothing. Whether I was reading the piece incorrectly, somehow.

Before I had come to a conclusion, the meeting wrapped up. My client promised to follow up with the author, encouraging a more personal tone before giving the piece a final go-ahead. Immediately, I sent the story to another black female friend for a second perspective.

“Not cool,” she wrote back. But I wasn’t convinced. I worried she shared the same “sensitivities.” So I sent it to one more person -- this time, a white woman. She, too, was horrified, and her unending rant reassured me. I went to my boss and insisted we scrap the piece.

A week later, I felt a sense of deja vu. As I reviewed the finished product of a brand video our agency helped produce, the beautiful imagery -- sun streaming through speckled forests, employees chatting happily at an outdoor conference -- was lost on me. All I saw was the lack of color in the faces of the people in the video. In the span of three minutes, I saw not one minority, and the absence was startling.

Because this incident came so quickly on the heels of the last, I kept quiet, worried about creating a reputation for myself as “hypersensitive” to racial disparities. When the video was reviewed by the company’s founder -- a person of color himself -- he immediately called out the whitewashed imagery. He wondered aloud how no one caught this, and I let out a frustrated sigh.

The pride I felt the week before for taking a stand was replaced by exasperation and anger. Why did I have to be the barometer for all issues of race? Surely it didn’t take a person of color to recognize such a glaring oversight.

And this is where the problem lies. With all the emphasis corporations place on the benefits of diverse hiring, the most widely touted advantage -- diverse perspectives -- largely relies on minority hires to serve as representatives for everyone of their race/religion/gender/orientation. They are expected, sometimes blatantly and sometimes through coded interactions, to become the guiding force on all issues relevant to the demographic that qualifies them as “diverse.”

In feminist conversations directed at eradicating racism, there’s an emerging dialogue about the question of exactly who must carry the burden of transcending inequality. The term allyship has become a hot phrase, used by those who believe that a truly equitable society is only possible with the unified support of those who aren’t actively affected by inequality.

But allyship can be difficult. Not because taking a stand is hard, though it certainly can be. The biggest obstacle to standing up for others -- for sharing the barometric task -- is actually noticing. So often the burden falls on the only woman in the room to speak up, because to her the issue is glaringly obvious. The same goes when it’s the only Latinx. Or the only Muslim. Or the “only” of anything. When it doesn’t affect you personally, it’s not always so obvious, no matter how well-intentioned you may be. So we all must try to notice. We must be aware, even when it is more natural to not be.

Which brings me back to my glass-walled conference room. Leaving the second meeting, I mumbled to my co-worker that I should have said something about the video. She shot me an empathetic look and whispered back, “I noticed, too. And I should have said something.” It was exactly what I needed to hear.