Being an ally for black, indigenous and people of color

Last Modified: 3/01/2021

People of color

This post was written by Courtney L. Washington, PsyD. CSYAC, HSPP, clinical training director, Park Center, Parkview Behavioral Health Institute. 

The journey toward developing cultural awareness and humility is a complex process and is the first step to becoming an ally to others. Like many life journeys, there are often intense emotions such as joy, pain, discomfort and triumph.  

This process requires intention, thoughtfulness, vulnerability and humility. At times, it can be painful, especially when reflecting on how your worldview or experiences could potentially harm others or when recalling times when even good intentions came off as biased, hurtful or privileged. This work is scary. It requires courage. But most importantly, it is fruitful and beneficial for yourself, others around you, and the greater community.

When I first began this work, I was afraid I would do it “wrong” or say something offensive. The truth is, this happened, not out of malice, but ignorance. In response, I did my best to be receptive to feedback and learn how to respond differently. As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” This is a beautiful mindset when doing this type of work. When reflecting on and understanding one’s personal biases it is important to remember it is a process that inevitably entails missteps. This means being willing to accept feedback from others and show up despite discomfort. It can be helpful to remember, cultural humility isn’t something that is achieved but rather something we continually strive for.

Cultural humility is a lifelong process of self-reflection. By examining our beliefs and those of others, we gain a deeper understanding of differences that each person brings.

Understanding the language

One of the first steps on a journey toward cultural humility is knowing and understanding the language. The list below is by no means comprehensive but provides an introduction to begin the conversation.

Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) is the term used rather than people of color on its own to prevent lumping all people of color into one homogenous group. This term acknowledges that black and indigenous communities face different and often more severe forms of oppression, as it relates to United States history. Using one term (i.e., people of color) for all racially diverse people indicates we are not acknowledging the individual races and different experiences within one large group. This is akin to the microaggression of stating, “I don’t see color.”  

Microaggression is the everyday verbal, non-verbal and environmental insults which communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages about a person based on their marginalized group. These can be intentional or unintentional.

Implicit bias is the assumptions people hold regarding specific groups. These are rooted in cultural messages. Due to these influences, all people have implicit biases. Biases are expressed automatically and unconsciously. Research suggests implicit bias effects actions and beliefs. Also known as unconscious or hidden bias.

Privilege is unearned social power accorded by formal and informal institutions of a society to all members of a dominant group. In this context, we are speaking specifically of white privilege, which is unearned advantages, entitlements, and benefits bestowed on people solely because they are white. Having white privilege does not suggest that white people have not struggled with the difficulties of life. It does not mean all white people have access to wealth and luxuries. It does not mean white people have not worked hard everyday to live their best life. It does mean that white people’s struggle is not based on or complicated by the color of their skin.

Intersectionality is the idea that every individual has multiple identities that interact with each other. This allows people to hold aspects of privilege and oppression simultaneously. I am privileged as a white person, but experience oppression based on my gender.

An ally is someone who engages in conscious commitment to acknowledge their privilege and work in solidarity with oppressed groups toward justice.

It’s important to highlight that we all have some level of bias due to being raised in a society that presents one lens or perspective on experiences. In the United States the majority of stories told, media produced and voices heard (especially historically) are white voices. This lack of representation is detrimental to society, as the well-being of all people is not equally considered. Representation of all people is how we move toward a more just society.

Doing the work to become an ally

When doing this work, there are several important things to remember:  

No group is homogenous. We can never expect an individual to speak for all members of their group.

Different experiences and perspectives are valid even if they are contrary to your own. Just because you cannot relate does not take away from that person’s reality or invalidate their perspective. Listen when people share their worldview and try to empathize with what they are sharing as another human being.

Remember what we have in common is our resiliency, humanity, and capacity for love. Connecting to these similarities can help us recognize the human engaging with us as our neighbor, friend, brother, or sister.

10 tips for being an ally

1.Educate yourself. Do your own work. Seek out literature, art, movies etc. that shares different perspectives and worldviews. Remember to find balance in this. Stories about joy, love and triumph are equally as important as those of oppression.

2.Learn from your mistakes. Get comfortable with saying, “I didn’t know that,” “Thank you for pointing that out,” or “I can keep that in mind for next time.” We all make mistakes and no one expects perfection. This is a journey.

3.Know when to stop talking and start listening. This means listening proactively, not listening to respond. Listen to truly understand, empathize, and connect with the human you are engaging with.

4.Acknowledge your privilege. This can be the most challenging part and often leads to defensiveness. Remember, having access to privilege does not mean your life was a cakewalk or that you do not deserve what you have. It merely means, the color of your skin, gender, ability, etc. was not a barrier to your success. One eye-opener for me was researching historical policies that prevented access to resources for BIPOC.  

5.Sit with discomfort. As you learn, there are times when you will feel uncomfortable, uneasy, or guilty. These are appropriate reactions. Notice what is coming up for you and take a deep breath. With time, it will get easier to hold. Remember, marginalized groups often feel this way.

6.Don’t make it about you. These discussions can lead to intense emotions, personalization, or defensiveness. It is important to learn how to manage these feelings while remaining receptive and open. Many times, members of oppressed groups avoid these discussions with dominate group people to avert minimizing reactions which have been anticipated based on previous experiences.    

7.Show up/ Intervene. If you see something say something. If you hear a joke that is inappropriate or makes you uncomfortable, speak up. Nothing will change until the dominant group holds each other accountable. 

8.Get involved. Find ways to give back to the community. Donate time, money, resources, etc. Do something that you enjoy and share that with others.  

9.Have compassion and grace for yourself. Remember this is a process and no one will get it right all the time. Let me be clear, this is not an excuse to not put in the work. But we will all make mistakes. Next time, do better.

10.Use your privilege to elevate others. Make and hold space for those less privileged than you. This can be as simple as taking a breath before you speak up in a meeting or deferring to a colleague. Especially, if their worldview is different than dominate culture. 

Lastly, remember marginalized and oppressed people do not have a choice in these matters. They are faced with challenges everyday based on the way others perceive them. Make space for them. Hold people accountable and elevate those around you. It’s not your fault the system is broken. But it is our job to strive to mend it. This begins with the individual connecting to the humanity and equity of all humans. It is through this connection and value for all people and cultures that we elevate and strengthen our communities. As my mother used to tell me, “diversity makes the world go round.” 


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