Man's and woman's hands reaching out to grab one another

The Anti-Oppression Network defines Allyship as

“an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person in a position of privilege and power seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group.”

I’ve been practicing allyship since my freshman year of college. I’d left the bubble of white, middle-class suburbia and entered a large liberal arts university (emphasis on liberal), where I dove into allyship head first. 

But it wasn’t until earlier this year that I realized why so many of the nice white people I know aren’t more vocal in their allyship– even those whom I know for sure are all for equal rights for everyone. 

The revelation began with curiosity: why was my partner telling me I should “cool it” with my Facebook posts? Why were my friends not incensed by what was happening at the border? Why weren’t more people speaking out in support of marginalized communities? 

Are White People vocal in their Allyship?

As I pondered, I could understand why some older white men would want the system to stay status quo. There is a perceived transfer of power where they might stand to lose some of the power they are accustomed to. Although that thinking is faulty, I can understand why some would think that way. I’ll write about why the thinking is faulty for my next article.

At first, I thought it was inertia, that powerful force that keeps us in mediocracy and even misery. If you’re not used to speaking up, inertia will make it unlikely that you’ll start any time soon. But it’s not really because of inertia.

Then I thought, maybe it’s the futility of it? How is my one small voice going to change an entire system of oppression? Of course, one voice won’t, but as Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” But no, it’s not that either.

Allyship begins with White People speaking up against inequality.

I was talking with a friend when it dawned on me. The nice white people who aren’t speaking up are afraid. They are afraid of saying something wrong. Possibly hurting someone’s feelings. Even the fear of being criticized. He said just that, “I don’t know what to say, and I don’t want to put my foot in my mouth.” So he was just staying out of the arena entirely.

That revelation was the genesis of BRAVE Cultures, a body of work I launched. One of the four tenets of a BRAVE Culture is that they actively embrace failure. I am committed to uncoupling the link between failure and shame. That’s a link endemic in our culture. Absolutely nothing good happens not prefaced by a failure of some kind. I wrote about failure resilience. I wonder how much better our lives would be if we could be like a baby learning to walk: fall down, get back up, and keep going. How much more innovative could we be? Can we have more fun? Would we be much more successful?

I went to a big coaching event several years ago where the facilitators did a brilliant job of normalizing failure. They told everyone the first day, “When we mess up around here, we say ‘That was me being sexy.’” In another coaching community, I was a part of, we’d say “ta-da!” whenever we made a mistake. In both communities, they knew that you can’t build a successful business without making a bunch of mistakes. 

Coach’s Challenge: That thing you’ve been avoiding because you’re afraid it won’t work? Do it! At the very least, you’ll get to learn from your mistakes. But what if it works?

Here’s a resource on allyship if you want to learn more, practice being BRAVE, and speak up.  


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About The Author

Johanna Lyman's picture

Johanna Lyman (she/her or they/them) is the Principal Consultant and Practice Leader for Culture and Inclusion at Kadabra. She is a dynamic, energetic Leadership and Culture coach and consultant with nearly 30 years of experience of leadership development and culture change.

She is adept at combining coaching, training, and facilitation to help clients build sustainably profitable businesses while creating deep meaning in their work. She quickly establishes rapport and creates a container of psychological safety, belonging, and deep trust with her clients and their teams. She believes that inclusion and diversity should be seen as the natural outcomes of building great cultures.

Johanna is wife to the best husband on the planet, mother to an adult daughter, and dog-mom to Petey the Amazing Tripod.

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