5 ways to be a better ally in the office, according to psychology

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In recent interviews, the American soccer player Crystal Dunn expressed the joy and fear she felt when her teammate Megan Rapinoe decided to take a knee against police brutality and racism in 2016. While Dunn wanted to join her teammate she worried “they could rip up [her] contract” and as a result chose not to.

The fact that Rapinoe felt she could take a knee while Dunn could not speaks volumes. The US Soccer Federation did condemn Rapinoe’s kneeling. However, Dunn was worried the repercussion would be worse for her as a black player.

Psychologists have found that when a black person confronts a racist remark they are seen as “rude”, but when a white person does the same they are perceived as “persuasive”. Similarly, when black people pushed for a diversity initiative they were seen as self-interested. While white people who did the same were “objective”. If people of color and women showed they valued diversity at work, they received worse performance ratings from their boss. However, white men who did the same weren’t punished.

Although white people, particularly men, are less likely to be punished for pushing anti-racism, they often shy away from it. They think it’s not their place, they don’t want to seem impolite and it can make them feel profoundly uncomfortable. As a result, this difficult work gets outsourced to people of colour. For instance, when something racist is said, psychologists have found that white people look towards the black person in the room. This creates a double burden where people of color suffer discrimination and then are saddled with calling it out.

Uncertain Allies

Research has found that being a better ally is one way white employees can stand against racism at work. Allies are people from a group who don’t suffer discrimination but who provide support to those who are discriminated against.

Allyship at work can have many potential benefits . It can foster positive inter-group connections, undermine racism and other forms of oppression and build a more positive workplace culture.

However, allyship has some dangerous pitfalls. Well-meaning allies can burden others with requests to talk about traumatic experiences they haven’t shared. There is also the danger of “performative allies” who publicly show their support for a cause, but only for a short time. Would-be allies are sometimes more interested in dealing with their own “white guilt” than effectively helping the movement. There is also a danger that allies end up crowding out the very people they hoped to support from the movement.