How to be an ally—an example

I want to tell you a story about how a white man in a position of power used his white male seniority for good.  It was not a huge thing—there was no marching on the streets, no boycotts, no petitions—but it made a great deal of difference to this junior-level woman.

I am a graduate student in a university department that works closely with several other departments, sub-departments, non-profit organizations, and related groups.   It’s very common for emails of professional relevance to go out to all of these groups at once.  (It’s not uncommon for different people to send the same email to everyone, resulting in us all getting the same message about NSF funding three or four times, but that’s another story.)

Last week, one of these out-to-everyone emails stirred up some controversy.  The head of Dept. A decided that the email (about a petition to our national professional society) was overly political and therefore should not be sent over Dept. A’s email list.  This ruling seemed inconsistent with Dept. A’s prior practices, and in the resulting discussion, the head of Dept. A decided to retroactively disapprove of emails that had been sent in the past.

Specifically, the head of Dept. A decided that he was no longer OK with a month-old email that had urged senior employees to take steps against sexual and racial harassment.

After a few more general affirmations from mid-level staff on the importance of diversity and human rights, a different mid-level employee told us we were all being idiots to even care about this, and the email chain went silent.

It hurt.  When the senior people don’t stand up for you, it hurts.  When you’re a woman or other marginalized person in a junior position and the message you hear is “don’t talk about harassment, don’t talk about human rights, don’t talk about diversity”—it hurts.

I waited for someone to say something.  For hours—an eternity in email time—no one did.

I emailed the head of Dept. B, my department, and got back a wishy-washy bureaucratic brush-off.

I guess I wasn’t really that surprised.

Then, almost out of nowhere, the head of Org. C stepped in.  We rarely hear from him; he is one of many white men who hide in the upper floors of our building and are very busy with their own things.   This time, though, he was emphatic.  He pointed out, politely and firmly, that combating sexual harassment was not a political statement and he was very concerned that Dept. A’s new interpretation of the email rules would affect the safety of his colleagues.

I actually cried.  OK, I cry a lot, and had already been crying throughout this incident, but now I was crying out of a huge sense of relief.  Somebody out there has my back.  Somebody in charge actually cares. 

Some might say that the head of Org. C could’ve gone further, that he should’ve stood up for the spirit of human rights and diversity presented in the original email, the one that first set off all the controversy.  I disagree.  Had he done so, I think the arguments would have continued, the point would not have been made so strongly, and the result may not have been as useful.  By choosing to fight for the older email, the one specifically about harassment, he was able to draw a clear, hard, and basically unarguable line that talking about harassment has to be OK.

The head of Org. C was an ally.  He used his status—as a white person, as a man, as a head—to stand up for the rest of us.  It was just an email, and yet it had an enormous effect on my comfort level at the university.

I wrote him a thank-you, not because allies need thank-yous, but because I like thanking people who’ve had an impact on me.  I also think it might help down the line: if he ever has to defend his position, he can say that he heard from grad students about the importance of the issue.

Has anyone been an ally for you lately?  Tell me about it in the comments.

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