How to be an ally
It is not the job of people who are marginalized to educate you; it is your job to catch up.
This seems to be a crucible moment in our history. We are in the midst of a pandemic that brought most of the world to a screeching halt. We also were faced with the horrific video of an African American man, George Floyd, being killed on camera by law enforcement. For many of us, these two events will be forever linked in our consciousness.
For months, many of us stayed home to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19. As more than 115,000 Americans lost their lives to the virus, we witnessed communities band together to ensure that individuals who needed assistance received it. Neighbors picked up essential groceries for one another. Letters of support were sent to senior centers especially hard hit by the virus. We raised money and resources to support essential workers of all kinds.
We also saw a shift in the response to the death of Mr. Floyd. Large protests across the United States and around the world continued for weeks, focusing on police brutality specifically and the persistence of systemic racism more broadly. In many ways, the protests seemed different than the countless moments of civil outrage before it.
The racial diversity of the protests was greater than ever, as well. White allies joined African Americans and other people of color in taking to the streets. A recent Monmouth University poll indicated that 76% of Americans believe that racial discrimination is a significant problem, an increase of 25 percentage points since 2015. The New York Times’ nonfiction bestsellers list is dominated by books that explore racism, criminal justice, apartheid and Black life in America.
It is unclear why white Americans are more engaged on the issue of race at this moment. Maybe it is because of the disturbing images of Mr. Floyd’s last moments. Maybe it is because we have all sheltered in place for so long that we have a greater capacity to pay attention to the discrimination that has been documented for centuries. Maybe it is just the awakening so many of us have been seeking for so long.
Whatever the reason, new people are joining the movement to stamp out racism and other forms of systemic discrimination.
The Next Move Is Yours
As veterinarians from all backgrounds reach out to one another during this time, the No. 1 question I am asked as both a Black woman and a diversity and inclusion professional is, “What can or should I do?”
My response is: Be an ally.
Being an ally is learned behavior and those who practice it demonstrate specific characteristics. As you consider ways to support your veterinary colleagues and clients, it is important to learn and embrace those behaviors and characteristics of an ally.
There are five key elements of allyship, and they need to constantly be pursued simultaneously. Allyship is not a step-by-step process. You must jump on into the deep end of the work.
1. You need to assume responsibility to learn how systemic discrimination impacts everyone, and you must do it on your own or with other allies. It is not the job of people who are marginalized to educate you; it is your job to catch up. Like how you commit to lifelong learning in veterinary medicine, allyship requires you to commit to lifelong learning about racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism and other forms of oppression.
There is no shortage of resources available to you: books, documentaries, podcasts, movies, discussion groups and websites. Sponsor a Community Reads program or a staff lunch to discuss a documentary. Learn, discuss, rinse, and repeat.
2. Understand that true allyship does not center the ally; it centers the oppressed. You should expect to be a follower and not a leader in these moments. Movements for change elevate the voices of the unheard.
Allies, by their very nature, are privileged and often do not have the shared lived experience of specific marginalized populations. You can and should offer your time, talent and financial contributions to advance the dismantling of oppression. This might mean volunteering with and financially supporting community organizations centered on diversity missions. This means staying in your lane when it comes to understanding the issues — you are not the expert. Listen, learn and follow.
3. Know that it is OK to be afraid and to be an ally anyway. In today’s cancel culture, there is always the fear of saying or doing something wrong and losing everything as a result. Stepping into allyship requires vulnerability. The people you support might not always trust you; you might fear being called a racist or a sexist or some other term. This is the opportunity to consistently demonstrate you are not those things. This is the time to learn to give genuine apologies.
Allyship requires you to take on the risk of alienating those who seek to maintain the status quo. Allies often find themselves in the crosshairs of conflict with friends, family and colleagues. It is also an opportunity to build your own community of shared values. This might look like putting a Pride symbol in your window or on your advertisements. It can be publishing a statement of support for Black Lives Matter or adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment. Take a stand, and assume the risks.
4. Allyship requires you to use your privilege for the good of change. Privilege comes in many flavors — racial, gender, sexuality, ability and more. Allies recognize the areas in which their lives are unhindered by these demographic markers and how that reality grants unearned privilege.
Using that privilege can take many forms. If you are involved in organized veterinary medicine, you know the lack of diversity that persists in those spaces. Using your privilege means that you bring up issues related to diversity and inclusion, that you seek to create less exclusionary pathways for access to participation and leadership, and that you support the recognition of affinity groups across the profession. You do this because those for whom you advocate are absent in those spaces. Speak up in places where it matters.
5. Allyship requires that you fully commit to the effort to make change even if you do not fully understand what it is like to be oppressed. Members of marginalized populations are unable to change their identities to reduce their social oppression. Allies can, at any time, walk away from their advocacy, but they do not. Becoming an ally is a lifetime commitment to advocacy for justice and equality. It means bearing the full emotional burden of your marginalized friends, family and colleagues. It means making mistakes, apologizing and trying again and again.
In meetings where everyone else wants to gloss over issues related to diversity and inclusion, you insist on working through those issues. In moments of great discomfort when you are suddenly the lonely only in a space, you sit, stay, learn and help. It means that you constantly seek ways to be inclusive even when doing so is challenging. Allyship requires persistent work toward ideals. Stay and work toward inclusive change at all times.
Are You Ready?
Allyship is not easy. It is humbling, demanding and at times exhausting. It can be risky; it can feel dangerous. It requires disciplined study and a thirst for learning more about one’s self and others. Despite these discomforts, allyship is integral for societal change.
Until those of us with privilege recognize the cost of that privilege to others, no real, substantive change is possible.
Now more than ever, I implore my colleagues in veterinary medicine to become allies to your professional colleagues and to the communities they serve. I promise you that your commitment and the work that stems from it will be worth the effort and the risk.
Diversity Toolbox columnist Dr. Lisa M. Greenhill is senior director for institutional research and diversity at the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. AAVMC’s “Diversity & Inclusion” podcasts are available at bit.ly/2APLtk4.