Black History Month 2021: One ally’s perspective

Man holding protest signRik van der Kooi at the Seattle Children’s March, June 13, 2020.

Numerous devastating, disturbing and very public situations of racial injustice over the past year have compelled me – a straight, white man – to examine the role I play in perpetuating social inequities and the opportunity I have to help eradicate them. How do I use my privilege, my access to opportunities without barriers, to eliminate acts of hate and violence on communities of color? The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the Black community? The starkly different response from law enforcement to the mob invading the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 as compared to protests in support of Black Lives Matter? These questions require genuine reflection on privilege, systemic racism and the work ahead – and as an ally, they compel me to do more with my position to enact real change.

Growing up in Europe, I am all too aware that race discrimination and the inequitable treatment of minorities is a worldwide challenge. Increasingly though, across the globe, people are starting to speak up in search of a different future. Whether this is an outward, loud approach or a focused community conversation, this work is critical. As just one ally, I can start to enact change, but I believe it will take a groundswell of people coming together to stop the spread of discrimination and hatred by standing up for what is right.

How do we approach something that seems so intractable? These systemic global issues with deep historical roots are overwhelmingly hard to fully comprehend, let alone act on. I have found that it requires listening and learning differently than ever before, and:

  • Doing the work. For me, one aspect of this is looking harder at cultural truths, diving into history to learn what really happened and tracing that forward to the systemic disadvantaging of racial and ethnic minorities today. It also means seeing the same pattern in the many countries around the world that have histories of colonial atrocities and systemic subordination.
  • Overcoming the tendency to avoid, reject and revise uncomfortable discussions on race across history. No matter where we were raised, revisionist history shaped how we see the world. And no matter who we are as people, it is hard to learn that some of what we have believed to be true for so long is exactly the opposite. So, it is a regular practice in my conversations to pay explicit attention to this and question what I once held to be true.
  • Speaking truth to power and being prepared for disagreement. This is where allyship rings most true for me. Speaking truth to power means doing what is right – even in the face of criticism and backlash. A simple example of that is when I field questions about whether we are focusing too much on diversity and inclusion in our day jobs, and in the way our organization has pushed for appropriate education and reflection moments like Juneteenth. Or, when people question why I am one of the executive sponsors of our Blacks at Microsoft employee resource group when I am not from the community. Each of our capacities to enact change will be different, but are we standing up when we see inequity in our communities, when a colleague is overlooked or bullied, when our candidate pipelines are woefully monochromatic, when our white friends are reflecting on Black Lives Matter protests?

For me, allyship is not a passive activity. It is not enough to read, to make declarative position statements and converse about the issues. Real change requires activation and likely takes more heart, energy and empathy than we possibly have poured into many other things in our lives. So as I reflect on Black History Month, and the rich history that led to it, I resolve to do more, to be yet a better ally.

Like me, many of you reading this have had the benefit of white privilege all your life – an absence of systemic barriers to your advancement. Now, how do we use our privilege to lift others, make space for others and pave the way for true equity?”

Tags: allyship, Black History Month, Blacks at Microsoft