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This is how women of color can navigate relationships with white ‘allies’

“I have a responsibility as a leader to do my due diligence when an ‘ally’ offers support,” says the cofounder and CEO of Future For Us. As such, she explains how to vet allyship support to determine if it’s predatory, performative, or authentic.

This is how women of color can navigate relationships with white ‘allies’
[Photo: Vonecia Carswell/Unsplash]

White feminism as we know it is burning up in flames. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is calling for accountability on leaders across government sectors, large corporations, and local communities that have been benefiting and profiting off of the Black community for centuries. Shamefully, white female-led companies are some of the biggest offenders of marginalization.

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Consider that we’ve seen the glorified CEOs at Girlboss and more recently at Reformation, Refinery29, and The Wing, take stunning falls from their millennial pink pedestals. These savvy leaders promoted the advancement of women and seemingly had it all: growing businesses, families, best-selling books, financial success, celebrity lifestyle—you name it, except for the fact that their success came at the expense of Black and brown women by way of toxic work cultures, unequal pay, lack of career opportunities, and intimidation.

Through #BlackLivesMatter, Black women are saying, “This is not equity.” They are demanding accountability and meaningful change and are not settling for anything less. Even The Wing’s former Black and brown employees who are self-organizing have created their advocacy platform called Flew the Coop.

Writer and lecturer Rachel Elizabeth Cargle, in a 2018 Harper Bazaar article on white feminism, said, “If there is not the intentional and action-based inclusion of women of color, then feminism is simply white supremacy in heels.” Let that sink in for a moment. Without the active and intentional consideration of Black and brown women, white female leaders—the very people fighting against patriarchy—are essentially upholding it.

Possibly inspired by fear as they watch others from The Wing and Refinery29 go down in flames and recognizing their internalized sexism and racism, many white female leaders are extending an olive branch to women of color and women of color-led organizations. But how do Black and brown women and leaders navigate these new circumstances? It’s tricky, but here are some things to consider.

I am an indigenous cofounder and CEO of Future For Us, a national community platform dedicated to advancing womxn of color at work. As I have traveled on my path to entrepreneurship, I’ve been both supported and shunned by white female leaders. Even now, I’m seeing a significant increase of outreach from white “allies” who have previously strung us along in multiple dead-end meetings with no potential collaboration in sight. They want to be a part of our programming, post their job openings to our community, or develop content for their company with no budget to compensate us.

I have a responsibility as a leader to do my due diligence when an “ally” offers support. As I do my research, I ask myself whether the allyship support is predatory, performative, or authentic. Once I understand the intent of where their support is coming, I can set appropriate boundaries that help guide how my organization can best receive their help.

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When I assess authenticity, I research whether the company has a track record of supporting Black and brown womxn. I review their strategic partners, the speakers, and topics they organize for their employee resource groups and I follow the money. What organizations are they contributing to? I find this information through my network of female allies who hold leadership positions in human resources, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and corporate social responsibility. I count on them to be transparent and visible in their work, so that I can understand how a company works with and supports womxn of color.

Then I do what I call power-mapping, or tracking the history of the company’s leadership and who is getting promoted and who isn’t.  If Black and brown leaders aren’t represented, I find out if there are plans to promote Black or brown womxn into leadership or whether there is an internal program specifically designed to close the gap when it comes to womxn of color in leadership positions.

Forty percent of Future For Us members are early- to mid-career womxn of color looking for a new career or a leadership position. I encourage these womxn to look for allies who are in roles more senior to them and who can give them a referral or who can make valuable introductions that will open doors to management roles.

Finally, speaking from personal experience, some of the most effective allies I’ve worked with have an action plan for their own self-development and for our relationship. They participate in anti-racism resources through their employee resource groups or DEI programs, and they commit to a consistent rhythm of communication and accountability measures, systems, and processes that will make a lasting impact. It’s as simple as asking: Is my ally showing up for me? Is she responsive? Is she following through on introductions or referrals she said she’d make on my behalf? If she can’t offer full transparency, then I need to know that she is at least fighting for me behind closed doors and pushing leadership for greater transparency on hiring and supporting Black and brown womxn from within.

Now more than ever, we need to see more people in power emulate Alexis Ohanian, who stepped down from the Reddit board (a company he founded) and encouraged the company to hire a Black leader to fill his position. White womxn allies and feminists who are not upholding the very definition of what they stand for should consider giving up their power to uplift Black and brown leaders. They should learn about their privilege, learn how to be more authentic allies, consider intersectionality, and be champions of effective allyship. Think about what it would mean if some of the biggest white womxn feminist offenders, in turn, helped lead the #BLM movement by building a legacy program that opens the door for a Black or brown womxn to take their place leading the company.

I’m encouraged to see companies like Harper’s Bazaar, who named their first Black editor-in-chief in its 153-year history, make real change. Womxn of color need to occupy more power positions—not just in diversity, equity, and inclusion roles— but across management and the C-suite. And, rest assured, there’s going to be a lot more accountability to make sure it happens.

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Sage Ke’alohilani Quiamno is cofounder and CEO of Future For Us. She is an award-winning entrepreneur, speaker, and changemaker.

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