Fundamentals of Effective Allyship

Karolina Szczur
4 min readFeb 13, 2018
Photo by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash

This is a transcript of a 10-minute talk delivered at Tech Inclusion Melbourne.

The tech industry has no culture stewards. Often, we glorify our leaders, trusting they’re the only agents of change. This profoundly patriarchal agenda limits our capacity for improvement. The accountability for the future starts with every one of us.

The community won’t improve without a continuous commitment of its members. No more being complicit. Change begins here. That’s why we need to talk about allyship.

Being an ally is an ongoing process of unlearning and re-evaluating. As Mia McKenzie, the founder of Black Girl Dangerous and a prolific writer on race, puts it: a way of living life without reinforcing oppressive behaviours we’re claiming to be against.

Allyship is a journey, not an identity. It’s not self-defined but recognised by whoever we choose to ally ourselves with. It’s working on challenging the oppressive status quo. It’s not a t-shirt slogan. Or a Twitter bio. Allyship isn’t creating a platform for ourselves, but for those without privilege.

So, how can be allies?

Step one: Understand privilege

Privilege is a set of unearned benefits that come with identity traits, such as race, religion, sexual orientation, class or ability, to name a few examples. It’s unavoidable and omnipresent. Privilege is the opposite of oppression, but the two can coexist (which means it’s entirely possible to be a member of an underrepresented group and still experience privilege in some areas, just as I benefit from being white while being in the minority in the tech industry).

It’s our responsibility to recognise, identify and act on the privilege we have. One of the ways of doing so is committing to an ongoing act of introspection, reflection and learning. You will find yourself challenged, uncomfortable, even defensive, but the more intense these feelings are, the more likely it is you’re on the right track. Ignorance is part of the oppression. Being complicit is lending a helpful hand to unequal power dynamics.

It’s our responsibility to educate ourselves on privilege and injustice. Don’t ask members of underrepresented groups to explain and re-live the oppression they’re facing.

Step two: Amplify and empower

Photo by Nkululeko Mabena on Unsplash

The more diverse accounts we are exposed to the more we understand with whom we’re allying ourselves. We begin to grasp the obstacles different underrepresented groups are facing.

It’s crucial to choose to amplify the voices of those without privilege and facing oppression. We need to stop mostly boosting white men and women. It’s necessary to consciously follow and empower more people with backgrounds different than ours. Mindfully create a platform for them to thrive and safely share.

It’s up to us to decide who we lend our privilege to. Give power to women of colour, people with disabilities, indigenous community and LGBTQIA community. Hire them. Connect them to opportunities. Share their work. Invite them on stage. Let them tell their stories on their own.

Step three: Hold yourself accountable

No matter how hard we try, we will make mistakes. Write off inappropriate behaviour as a joke. Act defensively. Lash out when called out for our wrongdoing. It’s in human nature to do so.

As Jamie Utt puts it: “allies listen, apologise, act accountably, and act differently going forward”. Don’t erase the traces and evade responsibility. The internet is great at remembering things in perpetuity.

We need to own up to our mistakes.

Step four: Prioritise impact over intent

Intent of our actions doesn’t matter if they have an impact on furthering exclusion and oppression. It’s necessary to accept the wide-reaching effects our doing can have and centralise the experience of marginalised groups. Admitting no intention to harm or denying being racist, homophobic, ableist, ageist or sexist privileges the oppressor and their experiences. We need to take responsibility for the footprint we leave.

The widespread diversity and inclusion lip-service has to end. Qualitative results and the positive impact is how we can measure the effectiveness of our allyship. Purpose is nothing without considerate implementation.

Step five: Focus on intersectionality

The term intersectionality was coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, an exceptional law scholar and critical race theorist. While initially addressing the marginalisation of black women, intersectionality is the answer to most common pitfalls of feminism, highlighting how different forms of discrimination can overlap.

Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

To put intersectionality in practice: in Australia, women with disabilities are 40% more likely to be the victims of domestic violence than women without disabilities. Disregarding the intersection of being a woman and a person with a disability would paint an entirely different picture, misunderstanding the oppression faced by those individuals.

We need to understand, act on and raise awareness of multiple dimensions of injustice. Interpreting diversity through the lens of whiteness or binary gender is a failure of allyship.

These are just a few starting points that anyone can act on today to create a better, inclusive future. We need to fight against privilege, lend power, be intersectional, prioritise impact, hold ourselves accountable and more importantly — show up every day.

Allyship forces us to rethink systems of oppression and our role within them. To dismantle those systems, it’s necessary to start with careful introspection on our actions. Today, I invite you to take on the deliberate practice of allyship.