I’m pretty quiet the first time you meet me. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say (a fact you’ll figure out after we meet a few more times). I enjoy speaking in public as much as I do talking one-on-one about a subject that I’m passionate about. When I’m with an unfamiliar group of people, I tend to hang back and feel the vibes the first time around.
This is true for me and meetings, too. I don’t like to take up space until I learn who the space is for, what the space is for, how people fit in, and where I fit in. No matter where I go, I bring a collection of identities and interests that I call “me.” No matter where I go, those aspects of myself will align and resonate with different people.
Sometimes I’m in places where that isn’t immediately true, where I don’t have much in common with others. In spaces like that, I prefer to begin with passive curiosity. I’ll learn through observation without asking too many interrupting questions. So what does it mean to be an ally to a community? How can I be a part of a group that isn’t set up for people like me, or for my needs?
i am not a guest in their home
I afford guests a specialness when they come to visit. I want guests to feel welcome in my home. It’s in my power to do so because the house belongs to me. I know where the cups are! I know which side of the couch is comfiest. I want guests to have a good time because I want them to be there.
Things look different when I’m new in a space set up for people who have a marginalized identity. The place belongs in part to me when I’m a person of color in a BIPOC affinity group. I may have ideas or questions for a group that supports people in poverty. My presence alone doesn’t mean I deserve the floor.
Even though I’m in someone else’s space, my space is often everywhere else. I don’t need to feel at home here because I’m at home in a large chunk of society. I’m in their space to help them make everywhere else feel more like home for them.
i can follow their lead
When I’m learning about a community’s needs, I try hard not to come into their space with my own agenda. I usually have some ideas for the groups that I’ve joined, but that doesn’t mean my approach is the best. People with lived experience may even agree with what I want to do but still have other priorities in mind. My intention might not even solve the problem if I don’t fully understand the cause or circumstances.
Say we’re in a group that supports staff who are trans, nonbinary, or gender non-conforming. Perhaps we want to encourage the widespread use of pronouns in our email signatures. This would of course have a positive impact on the workplace. Trans employees might even agree that it’s worth doing! But we only have so much time in a day. We only have so much fight available to change things. It’s when we take a step back and try to see what others see that we become allies for their cause, not ours.
i can play a part
Now I’ve decentered myself. I’ve put my own ideas aside. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing I can do to support this group’s work. Before I can really think about how I can help, I have to take my goals and ideas off the table. By listening to the issues and priorities of the group, I can focus my thoughts on how I can help them do what they want to do.
Any of us can still do plenty to help people who have different abilities, levels of access, or power than we do. I am generally an assertive person. My mobility and access needs are already met in many of the spaces I’m in. I can advocate, I can persuade, and I can challenge people in power. When I act in support of someone else, I put my talents at their disposal.
Every now and then I observe white people who want to support their BIPOC colleagues. Some white people believe the best display of solidarity is to show people of color that they “get it.” They’ve read the materials, they’ve done the assignment, they are ready for the test. They want to make sure that the nonwhite folks in their lives know that they know what we know.
They don’t have to tell us that they get it. They have to tell other white people. That’s the role they could be playing. They could advocate for us when we’re not in the room. They could hear what we want, then spend their capital down to zero trying to get it. They could refuse to take no for an answer in the rooms where we feel alone. They could tell others in power that their solution isn’t good enough.
We all have power somewhere. If we are really committed to ending injustice, now is a perfect time to use it.