#MeToo. That’s the hashtag that’s been circulating around the post-Harvey Weinstein Internet this week. Women around the world, on every social media platform, have stated publicly that they too have been victims of sexual assault and harassment. The goal is to demonstrate that assault and harassment do not only happen to a minority of women. Rather many women, potentially most, have faced both of those throughout their personal and professional lives.
In one sense, I would love to see another form of #MeToo. This time, however, from men. “I supported a woman when she was a victim of sexual harassment.” #MeToo. “I spoke up when my friends dismissed a woman’s sexual assault story.” #MeToo. Yes, it does have more than a whiff of the self-congratulatory about it. However in my imaginary world, it wouldn’t be about making the man the lead in someone else’s narrative. Instead it would be about recognizing this truth: people in positions of power have the ability to help someone who is being discriminated against, harassed, assaulted, or oppressed. In America, and particularly in the legal profession, those people in positions of power are usually white men. One role they can play is this: “ally.”
What Is An “Ally”?
An ally is someone who recognizes that they have a position of power in a system, whatever that system may be, and uses that power to promote, advocate, defend, or help someone in that system who does not share that same position. As author Anne Bishop writes, “allies include men who work to end sexism, white people who work to end racism, heterosexual people who work to end heterosexism [and] able-bodied people who work to end ableism.”
Surprisingly it was Hollywood that reminded me of what a good ally is. At the Emmys last month, Lena Waithe became the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing. She co-wrote an episode of Master of None with comedian Aziz Ansari. As they accepted the award, Ansari stood behind her while she delivered a remarkable speech. Ansari, who has repeatedly identified himself as a feminist, knew the power of having a black, lesbian woman accept an award on one of the most powerful stages in Hollywood. On that same night, David E. Kelley, who created and wrote HBO’s women-centered summer hit, Big Little Lies, said not a word while his show won award after award. He stood back and let the women who acted in that show and produced that show, speak. Both Ansari and Kelley had a platform and let someone else use it. That’s the power of an ally.
How to Become A Better Ally
If you want to be an ally for people who are marginalized, harassed and oppressed, consider some of these ways to start.
1. Listen. This is the single hardest communication skill to master, especially living in a world where the loudest people get the most attention. But when a woman says she is being sexually harassed, or a gay man complains about the lack of advancement opportunities, or a person of color talks about being passed over because of race, listen to them. Put aside your natural inclination to judge the speaker (“What did you say to him?”) or to dismiss their claim (“He was just joking.”). Instead, when a person is telling you their story of harassment, discrimination, or assault, acknowledge the courage it took for them to come forward, appreciate that they trust you enough to tell you their story, and respectfully listen to what they are saying.
2. Interact. I once had a conversation with a white friend where she lamented about how she would feel uncomfortable attending an all-black church. I responded that I understood because I have been in all-white churches, more times than I can count. And in all-white board rooms. And in all-white elevators. And at all-white schools, bars, weddings, and baseball games. Minorities live and breathe in majority spaces. If you want to become a better ally, try the same. Enter a space where you are the minority. Visit neighborhoods that are primarily minority. Attend parades and events organized by minorities. Actively seek out books written by minorities. Visit websites run by minorities. In all likelihood, you will feel uncomfortable. Lean into that discomfort and use what you learn to become a better ally.
3. Speak Up. I interviewed a white woman last week who told me this story: when she is in a group of white men, and someone makes a demeaning comment about a woman or minority, she pauses for five seconds and waits for one of the other men to say something. If they don’t say something, she speaks up and challenges the speaker on his comment. And she does that because she knows that while her saying something is better than nothing, having one of the men say something is even better than that.
Part of being an ally means confronting discriminatory behavior when you see it demonstrated in your peer group. It means responding to that email forward instead of shaking your head and saying, “That’s just how he is.” It means speaking up when someone is critiquing the looks of a female employee. It means saying something when your friends or family use offensive, demeaning names for other groups instead of shrugging it aside. If you are a white man working in a majority white male profession, you have the power to speak to your peers about the indignities that women and minorities face on a daily basis, many of which we are unaware of because we are often not in the same spaces as you. We aren’t in your chat message groups, on your softball teams, at your blackjack tables, in your fantasy football leagues, or at your happy hours. And if we are, many of us are so terrified of losing our jobs or our hard-earned status, and of speaking from a position of weakness rather than strength, that we stay silent. It took decades for the Harvey Weinstein story to take hold, decades that might have been cut short if other men of power had spoken up and pressed for change.
4. Commit. Once you start recognizing the many ways, women, people of color, and other minority groups are oppressed – either explicitly or implicitly – it may get exhausting. You may feel frustrated that you have to constantly speak up, that your statements might offend, that making a joke might get you a glare, that people might not invite you places because they are worried you might judge them, or that you may be looked on in certain situations as, “That guy.” Instead of stopping, I hope you stay the course. Being an ally is a lifelong commitment that recognizes the power differentials in society and works to improve them. It is a long, long, long road. Commit to walking it. Continue to stand up for women and minorities, and speak out against those who would harass, assault, discriminate against, and oppress them. Help create an environment where women and minorities feel supported enough to object to and report that behavior. Better yet, create an environment where that behavior is stopped in its tracks. That’s the work of an ally.