If you’re a white person who sees yourself as an ally to co-workers of other races and ethnicities, it’s time for a reality check: Many of your colleagues of color probably disagree.
Eighty-two percent of white men and 81 percent of white women see themselves as allies to colleagues of color at work, according to a June survey of 7,400 U.S. adults by LeanIn.Org and SurveyMonkey. A majority of white people in the survey identified their own “strongest allies” as “an equal mix” of races and genders.
But women of color said they encounter a different reality in the workplace ― and they are not likely to count white people among their allies. Just 10% of Black women and 19% of Latinas said most of their strongest allies at work are white.
And that’s if they are fortunate enough to have anyone vigorously advocating for them. Only 45% of Black women and 55% of Latinas said they had strong allies at work. (LeanIn.Org did not highlight results for Black or Latino men or people of other races due to small sample sizes.)
What does meaningful career support for women of color actually look like?
The survey defined allyship as “using one’s power or position to support or advocate for co-workers with less power or status.” From the disconnect between the answers of white people and those of women of color, it’s clear that not everyone shares the same understanding of what that looks like in practice.
Rachel Thomas, co-founder and CEO of Lean In, said it’s critical for everybody to be aware that women of color, and particularly Black women, are having a markedly different experience at work than their white peers.
“It is our job as white allies to self-educate,” she said. “I think too often we fall into the trap of asking women of color or other people with marginalized identities, ‘How we can help? What can we do?’ and we are putting the onus on them when the onus needs to be on us.”
Thomas said that self-education to learn about experiences not your own is one of the key ways that allyship differs from mentorship, which often focuses on offering advice. Allyship demands more.
Examples of real allyship include using your power to create opportunities for colleagues of color that are necessary for promotion or that give them the chance to share their expertise. Studies have found that the contributions of Black women, in particular, are less likely to be noticed or remembered, so a good ally acts to give credit where it’s due.
Actually challenging racism is another part of allyship at which white people fall short. Although less than half of the white, Black and Latina employees in the survey said they have spoken up about racial discrimination at work, the consequences were much harsher for women of color who did. Black and Latina women were twice as likely as white people to report facing retaliation for speaking up about racism, including being excluded from meetings and even being fired.
“Oftentimes, when you are white, you have a safety net that people of color do not have, and you have to use it in support of these causes if you truly believe in them,” Lisa Orbé-Austin, a licensed psychologist who focuses on helping professionals through career transitions, told HuffPost.
One way to be a more proactive ally if you’re white is to show support for your colleagues during those meetings, rather than after. “If you see somebody argue something related to race and racial discrimination, you don’t just silently pat them on the back and say ‘I totally agree with you’ after the meeting,“ Orbé-Austin said. “In the meeting, you say, ‘Absolutely, what are we going to do about it?’”