Intervention and allyship: How to be effective (#35)

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Jean Latting
May 23, 2023
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Want to know how to become effective at Intervention and Allyship? Learn how to create and maintain a more inclusive work environment.


Many years ago, I served on a board with senior and junior members, distinguishable by their senior and junior titles. Senior members would occasionally make subtly disparaging remarks about the opinions of the junior members. I don’t think they were deliberately insulting the juniors; rather they truly believed that because of their seniority, their voices counted more.

To me this was blatant rankism, which is what happens in highly stratified organizations where bosses (dominant group members) routinely debase their subordinates (nondominant group members), or where senior members (dominants) run roughshod over the junior members (nondominants). According to Dr. Robert Fuller,1 the originator of the concept, classifying people by rank is fine as well as rewarding merit and performance. But…

The problem, he says, is less tangible; it’s the predator-like way in which “somebodies” (people ranking high in advantage and social prestige) exploit and overwhelm the “nobodies” who rank lower.2

Back to the board situation – at one fateful meeting, a senior member made an off-the-cuff, disparaging remark about something Lillian, a junior member, said and I jumped in defending her point of view. I was furious that yet again, a junior member’s voice was disrespected. To be honest, at the time I was proud of myself for sticking up as an ally for a junior member.

That is, I was proud until Lillian called me later to say that while she appreciated what I was trying to do, in effect I had diluted her voice. She was perfectly capable of standing up for herself, she said. I was dumbfounded. How could I have missed that?

In hindsight I reflected on her face in the meeting as I had been speaking and could clearly see that she had a pained look. I had thought her expression was because of the original disparaging remark. No, Lillian explained, her pained look had been because I had shut her down and she was prepared to speak up in her own defense.

Of course I apologized. But I couldn’t undo what I had done. My hero halo had been tarnished.

I have never forgotten that conversation.

What have we learned from previous blog posts?

We have had three blog posts where people alluded to the dangers of jumping in as an ally. Let’s review them.

In a guest post (#34), Jessica Kanzler described some of the disparaging remarks and harassment that she has had to endure as a trans woman. She was clear that she welcomes support from allies during those times. However, she listed three considerations for would-be allies before offering help:

First, there is often a false assumption that it’s up to us to defend ourselves and that if you spoke up to a perpetrator, it might not do any good. My personal experience and the research say otherwise. Acknowledging my pain by speaking up in support is a net positive. We need to hear it. The research suggests that those who are confronted are less likely to engage in that behavior3 afterwards. And these studies also indicate that silent witnesses to allyship have resulted in those witnesses being more willing to take a stand in future situations. So speaking up could have lasting effects beyond immediately letting me know I’m not alone and have an ally.

Second, while I value your help, please don’t patronize me. You are not expected to be a savior. I can’t express how annoying it is to a trans person to hear someone say, “Oh you’re so brave! I’m here to support you through anything.” It’s a nice sentiment, but when we’re just having a casual conversation over breakfast, and I’m doing fine, it just seems disingenuous and exhausting. I don’t need to be saved, I need you to pass the salt.

How do you know if your stepping in will be supportive or come off as paternalistic or patronizing? Often, the simplest solution is to just ask. Help when you can, but only if it’s wanted [emphasis added]. Many of us are bruised and untrusting because of our treatment. Ask yourself if you have actual help to give.

Third, if you decide to speak up on my behalf, please don’t endanger us both by coming off as hostile to the perpetrator. A research study comparing different styles for confronting heterosexism found that directness and non-hostile style worked best.4

So that’s where I went wrong. I didn’t ask. I didn’t find out if my help was wanted. As a result, I came off as paternalistic and patronizing, the exact opposite of my intention. And embarrassing as it is to admit, I probably was not all that respectful either. After all, I had wrapped myself in a hero halo.

In blog #10, Carole Marmell wrote about the challenges of knowing whether speaking up as an ally would be useful. Here is an excerpt:

First out of the gate: how shall I begin? This is not a list in any sense of the word, but a disjointed and random stream of consciousness.

  1. I want to help. No... it shouldn't be help, which implies something episodic and based on the other being needy.
  2. I should use my White skin to protect BLM. No, I shouldn't be using my privilege right away. Using privilege comes only when requested.


  1. I don't know where I'm needed, what I should be doing, whom I should be doing it with. That cannot be the basis for doing nothing.
  2. This is a real commitment, to remain as equals and stay the course.

This is how I felt after my conversation with Lillian. I understood that I had not given her a chance to stand up for herself. But what was the alternative? She was squelched, and not so subtly either. It had made my skin crawl. As a dominant group member in that system, with the same rank and privilege as the person who was putting her down, what I did came naturally to me. I didn’t realize at the time that I was doing exactly what I condemned: using my seniority to speak for a nondominant junior member.

Was I supposed to just sit there and let this happen? Or was I supposed to ask her if she wanted me to intervene for her right there in front of everybody? That would been even more patronizing. I remember sitting there stunned after Lillian confronted me wondering what on earth I could have done differently.

How to intervene and by an ally without patronizing the person you want to support

I have pondered that conversation with Lillian and imagined various alternative scenarios over the years. Then Mark Hays provided an eloquent solution in my conversation with him (blog #20). He described how he had handled a similar situation as a member of the dominant group (White male) in that organization. Here is an excerpt of what he said (you can read the full version in the transcript):

I was in a meeting with actual folks and a young Black woman who was doing a presentation about important financial stuff. Her two bosses are in the room, but clearly she had developed the slide deck and it's clear with that she's making the presentation very well.

So people start asking questions. Who are they asking the questions to? They're asking questions of the two people in leadership positions that she reports to. And those two guys are all puffed up thinking, Oh, cool, you know, we get a chance to really show how much we know about this stuff and show how much thought we've been putting into the budget.

And so I'm at the back of the room, and this young woman and I have worked a lot together. And as his first question is ending, I'm looking up at her. And we make eye contact, and we both nod our heads, she knows what's going on. So she goes on a little bit, pauses for questions, and the questions go right back to those guys again.

And at this time, I'm mouthing, do you want to do something… and she's shaking her head, no. So she gives me a look like, you know, thank you for noticing. It's not just me, I'm not imagining this.

She and I talked after the presentation was finished about what we wanted to do. She didn't want it brought out in the group in that kind of setting. That would feel too risky [emphasis added].

But we did agree to talk with the two people that she reports to at the next break and talk about what happened and how those things occur and what to watch for. You know, how to just defer the questions back to her if that happens. So we did that. And they were going, Oh, my goodness, I'm so sorry….

So those are the things I'm trying to do all the time. 

Gulp!  Exactly where I had gone wrong. I had “brought out” Lillian in front of the whole group. No wonder she let me know her discomfort.

Let’s dissect why Mark had been so successful in his intervention:

  1. First, he noticed. He noticed because, as he explained, he stays in a state of “chronic unease.” Chronic unease, a term from the occupational health & safety field, describes a state of constant questioning whether you are doing enough or if something has been overlooked.5

As Mark described it, “It's not trying to force ourselves to be negative or anything like that at all. It's maintaining that sense of chronic unease to make sure we're doing everything we could do to not create something that kills a bunch of people, that hurts people.” In other words, as a White male, he maintains a state of chronic unease to make sure that people of color or others who may be vulnerable in predominantly White settings are not left hanging out there on their own.

  1. Second, he nonverbally checked with the young woman presenter to assess if she wanted him to intervene. She did not. In that gesture, he let her know she was not alone and that he had noticed. I can imagine her relief. 
  2. Third, he didn’t leave it there and throw off any further responsibility. He followed up during break with a quick check in and offered to go with her to the two executive offenders to explain to them courteously what had happened.
  3. Fourth, he didn’t go alone. He went with the woman to discuss the situation with the two executives. She might not have had the courage to face them alone. And if he had acted *for* her rather than *with* her, that would have implied she was too weak to face them herself. By going with her, he gave her the opportunity to speak for herself with his support.

The two executives were probably shocked, but since they had been confronted in a courteous manner (they had been called in rather than called out [blog 13] with this new information), they now had a chance to correct their behavior in subsequent settings. 

Let’s go back to what Jessica said.

Third, if you decide to speak up on my behalf, please don’t endanger us both by coming off as hostile to the perpetrator. A research study comparing different styles for confronting heterosexism found that directness and non-hostile style worked best.

Mark and the woman could have gotten on their high horse and called out the executives by insulting them. Instead, their approach was more like saying, here’s something you didn’t know you are doing – an inadvertent slight to the presenter – and you now have a chance to correct your behavior.

Everyone came out ahead.

What does this mean for you and me?

I showed the initial draft of this post to Carole Marmell, our content editor (who was quoted above). Her response: 

This sounds too easy. Knowing when and how to support someone varies with each person, each situation. Overall, the guiding principles are: Be sensitive to dominance dynamics. Don’t speak for someone without their consent. Don’t take over. Ask how much support and in what form.

Jessica’s words confused me: “Do it, but not now.”

Yes, Carole's right. The circumstances dictate how and when. There is a confusing “do it, but not now” element to allyship. This is where I took the wrong path. I assumed “do it now.” 

two hands of different color reaching out to each other

Obviously, this takes courage and skill. Mark developed that skill over time, and by maintaining a state of chronic unease, he has had numerous occasions to offer and hone his support as an ally over the years.

I learned from the incident with Lillian that allyship requires humility. As the years have passed, I continue to be astonished at how much there is yet to understand when I discover myself embroiled in dominance dynamics. 

My wish for all of us is that we are willing to risk the ups and downs of this journey.

Questions to ask yourself:

  1. During a typical day, in which situations are you in a dominant group? Nondominant?
  2. Under what conditions do you feel empowered to speak truth to power?

Conscious Change skills
covered in this blog post:

  • Building effective relationships
    • Develop skills in inquiry and openness
  • Bridging differences
    • Learn to recognize dominant/nondominant dynamics
    • As a dominant, provide support to nondominants in your group
    • As a nondominant, recognize that dominants may have blind spots about the impact of their behavior on nondominants
    • Call in vs call out

#BridgingDifferences   #CallOutCulture   #ChronicUnease #DoItButNotNow  #Dominant-NondominantDynamics

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[1] Fuller, R. W. (2003). Somebodies and nobodies: overcoming the abuse of rank. Gabriola Island, Canada, New Society Publishers.

[2] Kleiner, A. Diversity and its discontents. Strategy + Business. Diversity and its Discontents.

[3] “Tweetment Effects on the Tweeted: Experimentally Reducing Racist Harassment.” Political Behavior, 39(3): 629-649

[4] Martinez, L. R., M. R. Hebl, et al. (2017). "Standing up and speaking out against prejudice toward gay men in the workplace." Journal of Vocational Behavior, 103: 71-85.

[5] Risktec, Chronic unease – the hidden ingredient in successful safety leadership?