A Fireside Chat: White Women Allies in Action

During DiversityInc’s Nov. 4 Women of Color and Their Allies event, DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson held a virtual fireside chat with Karyn Twaronite, EY’s global diversity and inclusiveness officer and U.S. executive committee member, about how white women can be authentic allies to women of color. EY is a DiversityInc Hall of Fame company which earned the No. 1 spot on the Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2017. 

The conversation began with Johnson and Twaronite discussing the roles of allies in advocating for women of color. Johnson explained how allies are crucial advocates that help ensure women of color’s voices are heard. Twaronite added that she considers her role as an ally dynamic and believes it has changed over the years. She said in the past year, she learned the importance of staunch anti-racism in being an ally. Twaronite also debunked the misunderstanding that allies are the engines of people’s careers. 

“It’s the spark to get it into gear, but it’s not going to drive the car,” she said. 

Allies are also not necessarily outspoken in the spotlight. Twaronite said the most effective and authentic allyship often takes place behind the scenes without praise or recognition. Authentic allyship does not serve to paint the ally as a hero — rather, it works to help women of color get an equal chance at showing their skills. 

“It’s about the person that you may be boosting — my words — or that you may be helping. It could be as simple as praising someone when they’re not in the room or giving credit where credit is due,” Twaronite said. 

In one case, Twaronite said her work as an ally included strengthening company policy to ensure its dress code was inclusive to all hair types and styles after learning that many Black women were anxious about their hairstyles being viewed as unprofessional in the workplace.

Another example of how an ally can be an advocate is by offering high-visibility opportunities to women of color.

“If you are being asked to present on something or to talk, say, ‘Hey, listen, I’d like this person on stage with me.’ It’s likely going to make the conversation more abundant and richer and smarter and you’re going to give visibility and normalize [diversity],” Twaronite said.

Twaronite and Johnson then spoke about the challenge of offering authentic allyship without truly understanding the day-to-day experiences of women of color. Twaronite said effective allyship does not hinge on having the same experiences of women of color, but rather listening to and validating them while joining in their fight.

“I think being a good ally isn’t necessarily about being the same as someone or fully understanding their lived experience but really acknowledging their experiences and even perhaps their struggles and acknowledging that they’re true and important,” Twaronite said. “It’s what’s made them who they are and what they’re bringing to the workplace.” 

These struggles can’t be ignored. Using data from the nonprofit data analytics company Coqual, Johnson pointed out that nearly two-thirds of Black professionals say they have to work even harder than their colleagues to advance their careers. She also mentioned the emotional tax women of color pay because of the racial and gender barriers they face at work. 

To amplify the skills and talents of women of color, Twaronite says she often sponsors their credentials for promotions by ensuring hiring managers and higher-ups are aware of what diverse candidates bring to the role. The benefits that diverse applicants bring to the team go beyond diversity numbers — they are simply the most qualified.

“I dial up with the facts and I work the network to amplify and advocate when I know a woman of color is the best person for a role,” Twaronite said. 

She also said she simultaneously encourages women of color to advocate for themselves and to not assume that other applicants aren’t self-promoting as well.

Johnson and Twaronite also discussed the reality that any person can be an ally — regardless of standing or position within their company. 

“Every single person has power because we all have the ability to influence,” Johnson said. “If I have an opportunity to explain to somebody that I am validating the things that you say you have done for people, that’s how I am using my power as an ally. So, it creates an opportunity for everybody to show up and support others. Again, career accomplishment is not part of being an ally.”

One of the most important aspects of allyship is truth-telling and giving credit where it is due. Allies do not need to do the work for women of color — they just need to highlight the work that women of color have done themselves, Johnson added. 

Allyship also requires listening and learning, but there can be a fine line between seeking out the voices of people of color to tell their stories and exploiting their emotional labor for one’s own improvement. 

“I think we also have to be respectful of not overburdening the women of color and men of color that you work with or that you know,” Twaronite said. “It’s not really their job to educate you, right? I think you can also educate yourself. There’s a lot of reading that you can do that can help you to understand better what’s happening in the world and why there are problems that we face … what microaggressions are and a whole host of different issues.”

Elaborating on this idea, Johnson spoke about how she allies by showing the benefits of diversity within the research and metrics she has access to and then giving individuals avenues to take action to improve equity. Johnson also says she offers others grace when they are imperfect, saying it’s “the foundation of being an ally.” 

She said mistakes white people often make when trying to show up as allies include being ingenuine or acting as if they understand others’ struggles enough to make light of them. 

“You may be just trying to make them more comfortable or show that you get it. But it comes off as or maybe mocking them or that you’re too familiar,” Johnson said. 

She also said well-intentioned allies should come to the conversation having done their own research into issues affecting those they’re trying to uplift. 

“Be prepared. Don’t expect the folks that you’re supposed to be helping to do all the work from education along the way,” she said.

Twaronite said that allies also help by challenging others to be an ally as well. 

During the audience Q&A session, one attendee asked how women can balance being outspoken allies without centering themselves. Twaronite said it is important for allies to remember the purpose of their allyship and who they are trying to boost. Ultimately, their job is not to provide charity, but to normalize diversity and inclusion because they’re simply good for business.

“At the end of the day, you’re not trying to be a hero. You’re not trying to be the center of attention in this,” Twaronite said. “That’s not the point. I think you just [have to] put others first. Remind yourself that this is about them. The reality is that if you do your homework, get your facts, make the calls and to be honest with you — if you do it authentically and you know what you’re talking about — it doesn’t have to be a big deal. It doesn’t have to be a long conversation and it certainly doesn’t have to be about you as the messenger.”

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