A Start to Becoming an Ally

Admittedly, years ago I found the term ‘white privilege’ triggering. For me, the word came into the
forefront with the death of George Floyd. I still remember receiving a phone call from a dear friend who
was in tears. She called me and said, “I’m so sorry” and I could hear her voice breaking. I remember
hearing her voice break and could tell she was crying. I didn’t feel empathy for her in that moment. I felt
bewildered. I’m not Black. Why is she apologizing to ME?
I then met other friends immediately after the death of George Floyd and another friend said, “and here
I am sitting with my White privilege”.
What irritates us the most gives us the greatest understanding of ourselves. Why would I be so triggered
by these actions? I think it was the first time I felt different amongst these friends. These friends are
White and I, of course, am Brown (well, toasted almond according to the Benjamin Moore paint app). I
didn’t like feeling different and I realized the intention of either action nor statement was to make me
feel different, yet it impacted me profoundly. Because in that moment- and many moments- I have felt
Observationally, I have noticed many White people are also triggered by the term white privilege. Again,
what irritates us the most gives us the greatest understanding of ourselves. I’m not White so will not
make assumptions why the term is bothersome for some White people. However I do listen, observe,
research, read, learn and continually unlearn. Most comments point towards that some White people
have an issue with the term white privilege because they feel guilt, shame, and blame. Some feel that
white people are being blamed for the systemic racism and past atrocities – if it be Black slavery or
Indigenous unmarked gravesites being found in schoolyards, is entirely their fault. Feeling shamed and
blamed can be damaging. People don’t want to hear it. And I can’t say I blame them.
I speak on diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s not an easy topic to broach at the end of the day. Many DEI
speakers and trainers struggle with teaching the concept of privilege without putting individuals on the
defensive. In fact, one Instagram user commented on a post about racism in the United States that the
post “doesn’t seem to come from a place of wanting to educate. It feels like a message more like, ‘you
should hate yourself for being white’. She went on to say the post seemed aggressive in nature and
ended the post with, “learn how to educate without putting the reader on the defensive”. I’ve also read
and researched how many White people don’t feel privileged at all. They may have grown up in poor
families or raised by a single parent barely making ends meet. They may have been passed over for a job
because someone of colour was deemed qualified. They may have an invisible disability making life
physically and emotionally painful.
I understood why the reader felt this way as I, too, was on the defensive for very different reasons.
What assisted me was understanding my own place of privilege. Recognizing our own place of privilege
is a start. A start to the conversation. A start to our own learning and unlearning. A start to becoming an
Self-reflection can be very powerful. It offers us understanding of ourselves. Why do we lead the way we
do? Why do we parent the way we do? Why did something make me more upset?
Self-reflection can begin with asking ourselves questions. I’ve put my own answers in the brackets.

Did one or both parents graduate from University? (YES-and here’s the self-reflection part- my Dad was
a neurosurgeon so very educated yet struggled immensely to find a job in Canada mostly due to his
ethnicity; my Mom attended University yet married at age 18 so never worked outside of the home and
drilled into both my sister and I that we needed to obtain college educations to be able to stand on our
own two feet)
Did you parents ever tell you that you were beautiful or smart. (YES and NO- and here’s the self-
reflection part- much later in life; I had to earn multiple degrees and show promise in my
entrepreneurial business before my Mom stated that I am, indeed, smart which might explain why I
often experience imposter syndrome. I don’t feel smart enough…ever. My mom never said I was
beautiful and I realized, over time, this had a lot to do with colourism. In many cultures being dark is
considered unattractive. Case in point- look for all of the skin bleaching agents in South Asian, African
and South East Asian grocers)
Did you study the history and culture of your ethnic ancestors in elementary and secondary school. (NO-
and here’s the self-reflection part- I did not learn about Indian history at all in school yet when I
travelled to India as a teenager I thought I’d feel a sense of belonging that I never felt in Canada. Yet I
never felt more different in my life; I’ve struggled with feeling a true sense of belonging all of my life as I
don’t honestly know where I am supposed to authentically belong).
Is your school and work not in session during the major (religious) holidays or other cultural events that
you celebrate. (YES- and here’s the self-reflection part- I am Christian so I tend not to work as much at
Easter and Christmas. It’s a much needed break. I only realized the importance of religious inclusion
when I started noticing small things. For example, when a colleague stated that he would not be in the
office because he was celebrating the Jewish Holiday Rosh Hashanah I wondered why other people were
not using their out of office greetings to educate and include others).
These questions were adapted from Peggy McIntosh’s concept of White Privilege yet we are all
privileged as evidenced from the above. Some of us will take a step forward if answering yes to a
question; some of yes would take a step back. The thing is- there will always be people that took so
many steps back that you have lost sight of them. They can see you yet you can’t see them anymore.
Recognizing our own place of privilege is the beginning of allyship.
Allyship was 2021’s word of the year. In simple terms, being an ally is advocating and actively working
towards the inclusion of marginalized individuals in all areas of society, not as a member of that
marginalized group but in solidarity with the struggle that individual has faced.
Examples of allyship include:
Elevating Female Voices in the Workplace
When a male manager outwardly states in a meeting, “what I learned from Lisa when she’s with a client
is the following….”. By taking action as an ally it builds credibility and character in the workplace.
Language Matters in the Workplace

Words such as ‘tribe’ and ‘spirit animal’ can be deemed derogatory for Indigenous and Africans in the
workplace. Learning and unlearing takes time. It’s ok to make errors- especially when we simply do not
know better. It’s also important to call people into a conversation; rather than call them out as, at the
end of the day, let’s face it shaming and blaming does not work. Education, awareness, empathy and
understanding does. By explaining to someone why the language might be offensive to some we
become allies by learning.
Establishment of Employee Resource Groups
Many companies and organizations have employee resource groups. There are employee resource
groups for women in leadership; BIPOC, LGBTQ2+, Hispanic/Latinx, caregivers, employees with
disabilities. Yet, there’s a misconception that one needs to belong to this marginalized group to belong
to the ERG. Belonging to an ERG simply means that you are attempting to improve the system for others
as well as for yourself.
Hence, to become an ally to others we need to understand our own privilege first. Recognizing your own
place of privilege is the start to becoming an ally.

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Tina Varughese