Allyship word cloud

Overcoming the Cognitive Barriers to Allyship

Allyship has been a buzzword since the summer of 2020, and we don’t expect it to go anywhere in 2022. More people than ever have expressed intentions in becoming an ally at a time when performative allyship is widely criticized for being insufficient at creating the change that people want to see.

While the desire is there, the knowledge and understanding of being an ally is often lacking. Significant cognitive barriers persist for well-meaning people who want to be an ally to a co-worker, friend or family member. As organizations look to promote cultures where allyship can thrive, it’s important to examine some of those cognitive barriers so they can be broken down.

Cognitive Load

We’re all working more hours, taking on new responsibilities, shifting roles and acquiring new skills during a pandemic that has no end in sight. Minds are already stretched thin and exhausted as it is in our “new normal.” This lack of mental bandwidth directly impacts concepts related to diversity, including allyship.

Allyship requires a few behaviors that engage the brain heavily. The first is empathy. Without it, one cannot effectively understand the perspectives and experiences of the people they are attempting to become an ally for.

The second is adaptation. Once the perspectives are understood and absorbed so that allies can do their work in an informed manner, they then have to adapt their own behaviors, communication styles and goals for their allyship. This process can be challenging even without the added stress of everyday life during an ongoing pandemic. The compounding stress from the COVID-19-era workplace leads to further burnout and issues around mental health, making the cognitive load of allyship feel even heavier.

Recognizing Bias

Everyone is biased to some extent, but people tend to believe they are free of it. A 2019 Deloitte study revealed a significant perception gap of racial or ethnic bias: only 34% of white respondents said they had witnessed racial or ethnic bias incidents, compared to 63% of African Americans, 60% of Asian Americans and nearly half of Latin/Hispanic Americans.

Some people don’t want to believe bias plays a role in our decision-making because it would involve acknowledging it — and realizing that we may have been ignoring it all along.

A part of allyship is coming face to face with our unconscious biases and learning how they impact others as well as our own lives. Once this occurs, it takes time for us to process. Going back to the previous point, the cognitive load of realizing your privilege can be heavy, even if you’re a member of a group that is not perceived as being more privileged than another.

Merely recognizing bias isn’t a magic wand that, when waved, suddenly removes bias from our lives. There is often a phase of rejecting this new idea or concept before the realization truly sets in. In other words, recognizing bias is a constantly evolving effort to prevent new biases from forming or letting old behaviors and mindsets creep back in.

The Need for Context

Too often, efforts to help one group will be perceived as hurting another. This sort of black-and-white binary thinking does little to help people who may want to be allies overcome their biases or move into a place where they are mentally prepared for allyship.

Context is key in everything as it furthers our understanding of the need for something. Without context, the ability to see another person’s perspective and understand their motives, intentions and emotions, is limited.

Instead, the focus should be on learning the historical contexts for these issues. For example, there is a long and cyclical history of hostility and violence toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States that is only fueling the latest wave of hate crimes. Understanding historical precedence, how it drives hate crimes, inequality and discrimination, helps clarify not only why these things are happening but how they present themselves and what can be done about them.

Confusion About Allyship

Despite good intentions, there is a fair amount of confusion on what constitutes an ally and how someone becomes one. It isn’t as simple as standing against racism or prejudice of any kind and calling yourself an ally. Beyond acceptance and acknowledgment from the group that one wishes to be an ally for, allyship is defined by the actions an ally takes.

In other words: you can’t self-identify as an ally, and perhaps more to the point, allyship isn’t about receiving recognition.

Allyship goes beyond a desire to help people from disadvantaged groups or befriend them. Instead, it’s a conscious effort to translate that empathy and understanding of the group into advocacy. An ally leverages their position to help underrepresented groups receive opportunities that they would otherwise not receive.

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