How to Be a Good Ally in the Face of Bias and Inequality
Last year, my 7-year-old daughter was physically assaulted by an older male student in a locked girls’ bathroom at school (he crawled under the door; she was on the toilet with her pants down). The full story is a topic for another article, but I haven’t been able to get through that one yet because I’m still so furious at the way the principal and superintendent handled it—or rather DIDN’T handle it. Among the many things the principal did to diminish my daughter and me, one small but important one, was the way he repeatedly addressed me: Mrs. Stoddard.
My children, whose full names he knows, have a different last name than I. Mrs is a salutation reserved for married women who take their spouse’s last name as their own—a tradition that historically denoted a shift from a woman being the property of her father to being the property of her husband. Apparently the principal assumed that I remarried a Mr. Stoddard—why else would I be a Mrs with a different last name than my children? In many emails he addressed me this way and, at first, I didn’t correct him because I was fighting for my traumatized daughter and didn’t want to poke the bear in power. But as it became clear the bear didn’t give a shit about anything other than sweeping the assault under the rug to protect his school’s reputation, I couldn’t take it anymore.
“And P.S., it’s Dr. not Mrs., but please call me Jill” I finally typed at the end of one email with a smiling emoji so as not to appear a jerk. Goodness knows, we women must not be too aggressive! (she wrote, dripping with sarcasm) I went on to explain that Mrs is a title I would never use and that I didn’t change my surname because of the historical significance denoting a property transfer. He responded by addressing me as Jill and saying “apologies for the misstep on the salutation.” Nine months later, he emailed again, beginning with the salutation, “Mr. Knorr and Mrs. Stoddard.”
What. The. Fuck.
Do you think he would have neglected to use my title if I were male? Research suggests he would not. Thankfully, before I could unleash a verbal haymaker on his ass, my husband replied, “Thanks for bringing this to our attention. Dr. Stoddard and I [bold added] are completely open and receptive…”
Now THAT is what an ally looks like.
My husband admitted he felt anxious about doing this. And he did it anyway. And I never loved him more than in that moment.
Being an ally doesn’t have to involve calling people out and making a scene about it (though if you are a white, straight, cis-gendered male, you can get away with this, so by all means go for it if that’s your style!). But it does mean doing more than just feeling supportive on the inside. I’ve heard things like “I like successful women” and that’s a great start! Now take it one step further and when you hear your Uncle Charlie or Aunt Betty calling Elizabeth Warren an aggressive bitch, you might respond with something like, “I noticed Bernie Sanders was raising his voice far higher than Senator Warren, so I wonder if you think he’s an aggressive jerk too?” Aunt Betty and Uncle Charlie don’t have to say all nice things about women, they just have to hold men and women to the same standards. And when you see them not doing so, let them know.
When you notice your wife paid three times more for her razors and shaving cream that are exactly the same as yours, only hers are pink and say “for women,” post about the ridiculousness of this “pink tax” on social media and tag the businesses who did it.
When you work (or attend school or events) with a trans*, non-binary, or gender nonconforming person and the restrooms are designated for cis-gendered men and women, speak up. Ask a person with decision-making power to create an all-gender restroom. Frame it as an opportunity to create and promote a culture of inclusivity.
When you work with or for someone who says your Latina colleague needs to promote her individual accomplishments more in her self-evaluation, remind him or her that women, especially women of color, and especially women from collectivistic cultures, have been socialized not to do so and the company requiring it, rather than taking these cultural factors into account, is further marginalizing them.
Women, people of color, sexual and gender minorities, and other marginalized people are strong enough to fight their own battles. But it would be nice if we didn’t have to go it alone. I know I have a lot of room to improve when it comes to groups I’m not a part of, and I’m working on it. Here are some additional suggestions for how we can all be better allies:
- Find qualified people of color, women, and other marginalized humans to be your physicians, financial planners, accountants, dentists, florists—seek them out.
- Search for and patronize businesses that are run by or support marginalized people. Check out stores like ABLE (www.livefashionable.com), Purpose Jewelry (www.purposejewelry.org), Rayo and Honey (www.rayoandhoney.com), and Beauty Bakerie (www.beautybakerie.com), and share them on social media.
- Vote for qualified women, people of color, gender/sexual minorities, etc., and suggest this to others. *Be aware of bias in how you determine whether someone is “qualified” and don’t dismiss those being attacked based on cultural biases (see example of ‘aggressive bitch’ above). Hold all humans to the same standards.
- Invite female, queer, and other minority speakers to your professional events; recruit them for important positions in your professional organizations (e.g., board membership, promotions, vacant positions). If you belong to an organization that is not doing a good job of this, point it out and request greater attention to diversity.
- Default to ‘Ms’ or ‘they’ when you don’t know a cis-gendered woman’s title or a person’s pronouns—better yet, ask how they prefer to be addressed and what pronouns they use.
- Promote, promote, promote by sharing and talking up events, businesses, books, announcements, podcasts, fundraisers, and classes of your contemporaries from marginalized groups. Like, share, and re-tweet the social media posts that announce them.
- Ask your place of business or favorite social spot to consider making mens’ and womens’ bathrooms all gender bathrooms. I did this with all 3 of my offices. Only 1 complied, but 1 > 0.
- Point out bias when you see it. My dad said recently, “How the hell can Obama afford a $15M home?” I texted him an article saying, “Michelle Obama wrote the biggest selling memoir of all time with an advance of $15M, so maybe she is how they afford their Hawaii home.” He later asked how one of my male friends could afford to purchase a summer home on a popular lake in New Hampshire. “Well, dad, his wife, M, sold a patent to a multi-million-dollar company, so maybe that’s how.” I pointed out this was the second time he’d done that and he got it.
- Men who are in heterosexual marriages—do half at home. Research shows women still carry the lion’s share of household and parenting responsibilities even when they work outside the home. This is gender bias. Look for it, acknowledge it, and split the visible (e.g., chores, homeschooling) and invisible (e.g., finding kids’ providers and making appointments) labor.
- Believe us. And give a damn when we tell you we’ve been discriminated against, harassed, assaulted, raped, or otherwise victimized.
All the research shows that businesses, marriages, and organizations of all kinds thrive when they promote equality, diversity, and inclusion. Being an ally is good for all of us. What are you doing to be a good ally and what else might you do? Perhaps you can start by asking someone you care about, “how can I be a good ally?”