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Ally is a verb. Not a noun.

I received some disappointing feedback recently.

After a presentation I was excited about, I learned that one of my favorite cartoons was alienating to an ally who cared about inclusion. Their anonymous feedback after the event was to do away with the cartoon if I wanted to make the change I was hoping to.

The cartoon in question is by Will McPhail, and features a woman of color sitting across the desk from a large group of white men, being asked to “describe what she brings to the company.” It’s just perfect:

I love this cartoon because it beautifully illustrates what many women of color (including myself) face, not only in the hiring process but throughout our careers.

We’re constantly asked to reestablish our authority, to defend what we bring to the table, and justify how our diversity and differences contribute to the company – in meetings, in pitches and proposals, whether we work for a small organization, a large corporation or even, ourselves.

Let me reiterate: this was my REAL experience in a number of interviews in corporations. Many, many women of color face this all the time.

I recorded a short video to share what this feedback brings up for me, and I’ve written my thoughts below:

Ally is a Verb, not a Noun

We need to move away from the idea that an ally is something you “are,” an identity you can put on as easily as a pair of shoes.

No. Ally is not an identity, it’s what you do. Acting as an ally means practicing advocacy, co-conspiracy, allyship, or being a “success partner” (as my friend Minda Harts calls it). It goes by many terms, but always it’s focused on action.

To practice allyship means asking: How and how often do you amplify women of color? How do you ensure women of color are paid appropriately (which always means equally)? How do you ensure that our thought leadership and expertise get full credit?

How do you intervene when someone asks a woman of color to reestablish her authority or defend what she brings to the table?

Ally is not someone you are, it's what you do.

Defensiveness and Discomfort

Look, I get it. Talking about diversity, equity, inclusion, and bias in a meaningful way at work is uncomfortable. In fact, if you're doing it right, it's going to cause discomfort — guaranteed.

When you are shown images or you hear stories about bias and discrimination and racism, it’s really important to lay down your defenses.

When your friend or colleague tells you about a time that they experienced bias or racism or discrimination, it's really important to lay down your defenses.

When you feel defensiveness come up, think deeply. Consider, why are you feeling uncomfortable? What is it telling you?

Try viewing your discomfort as a green light, rather than the red light it might feel like at first. Discomfort is a positive sign of your openness to change and your willingness to grow. Even though discomfort is, by definition, uncomfortable, that doesn’t mean it’s bad!

Make a commitment to believe what you see or hear about someone experiencing bias or discrimination, even if you don’t totally understand or can’t personally relate.

And always, always call upon your empathy. The cartoon above truly is the experience of many women of color and people with other underestimated identities in the workplace. You must embrace that reality before you can effectively make change.

If a cartoon makes you uncomfortable, could you perhaps empathize with the discomfort we feel walking into the room as the first or only, and being asked in subtle and overt ways: “describe what you bring to this company?”

What do you think?

So as you can surely guess, I’m not going to stop using this cartoon in my presentations. If this feedback is constructive for anyone, I believe it’s the person who gave it.

Also, I want to say a huge thank you to Will McPhail! Your cartoon is truly one of the best illustrations of this reality. As far as I understand you present as a white man, so I really appreciate you picking up this nuance which is so much part of our lives as women of color in the workplace and in society. So thank you!

Now I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you’ve worked in the DEI field and received this kind of pushback. Please comment and let me know what you think. What are the ways you’ve dealt with feedback like this?


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