Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Why Am I An Ally?

Today, on this last day of Black History Month, we hear from guest blogger Howard J. Ross. Howard is a builder of innovations in the field of diversity and inclusion and a unifier of people, organizations, and causes.  He is founder & Chief Learning Officer of Cook Ross Inc. and an adviser to major global educational, corporate, philanthropic, and governmental organizations. Through his unique combination of a personal and system-focused approach, Howard is an advocate for high-performing organizational cultures that advance people, performance, and profits. Howard has served more than 25 years as an influential business consultant to hundreds of organizations across the globe, specializing in leadership, diversity, and organizational transformation.  He is the architect of award-winning diversity and leadership education programs including ReInventing Diversity, the Diversity Toolkit, and CultureVision.

Why am I an ally?

People have asked me that question for years and I don’t know quite how to answer it.  For example, I have no gay or lesbian family members.  The simple answer is that I was raised right.  My grandparents were all Eastern European Jews who came to this country in the early 20th Century.  Virtually our entire family who stayed behind in Europe was killed during the Holocaust.  The message in my home when I was growing up was very clear.  Bad things can happen to people who are different, and it is your responsibility to do something about it.  And over my years of engagement in social justice issues it has become clear to me that if we are going to create true change in our society, if we are ever going to fulfill the vision of our country, then we all have to get involved.  

There are the reasons that we are used to hearing.  That, for example, in a just society, a society that prides itself on a vision of equality, it is simply unacceptable for some people to be treated as second-class citizens; to be denied the rights that others have, simply because their orientation is different.  That it is simply unacceptable for a group of people to be openly insulted, and verbally abused, even by presidential candidates.   And that it is unacceptable for young people to be openly bullied in schools and treated so dismissively by society that they take their own lives four times more frequently than others.  One would think that in a nation supposedly committed to “justice for all,” these kinds of things would be clearly unacceptable. 

Can that many people really not understand what “all” means??

And so I have studied what it takes to be an ally.  I have tried to educate myself as much as possible about the personal and societal issues that people who are different from me face.  I work to understand my own privilege.  I align myself personally and privately with advocacy organizations.  I try to initiate ways that I can contribute without being asked.  I try to promote inclusion in every way I can.  I try to own and share my own internalized homophobia, racism and sexism so that I can be a model for other people to normalize their ownership of their own “stuff.”  I am willing to have uncomfortable conversations.  I don't tolerate offensive comments or jokes around me.  I refuse to accept differential treatment that benefits me if I am aware of it. 
I have done all of those things for years (with varying levels of success), yet I realized at some point that the way we supported people who are disadvantaged or oppressed by societal structures or cultural patterns has often had a paternalistic side to it.  Those of us in the dominant group have often done social justice work for those who were disempowered.  But in doing so, we have often missed the boat.  In my mind, the issue is not what I can do “for them,” but what I can do to create a society to live in, and for my children and grandchildren to grow up in, that really fulfills the vision of America.  I recently saw a quote from the Aboriginal Activist Group from Queensland Australia that captured the sentiment well:

“If you have come to help me you are wasting your time.  But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Beyond that, I believe there is a compelling selfish reason for straight people to support equality.  Homophobia cripples relationships between straight men and between straight women.  For example, when as straight men we love and care for a man, ingrained homophobia often stops us from fully expressing our love to each other.  It can stop us from fully being with each other.  It can stop us from the full richness of human relationship, out of the fear that if we really communicate it, they make think we are “one of them”.

So, for all of those reasons and to honor my ancestors, for as long as I am able, whenever I encounter a place where people are being treated inequitably, whether it is because of race, gender, sexual orientation or for any other reason, I will take a stand at their side.

But I don’t stand for them; I stand with them, for justice.