Getting to the Table: Lifting the Veil on Barriers to Allyship

Chikita Kodikal explains a hopeful new way of getting minority and marginalised communities to the table.

Allyship has been instrumental in driving systemic improvements to organisational culture. In 2018, Hollywood got caught in the headlines, not for its glitz, glamour, or scandals but for news of a different kind: “Jessica Chastain got Octavia Spencer five times the pay.” Similar headlines were plastered in prominent news media outlets and prompted popular American chat shows to lift the veil off the (often) invisible and intersecting systemic forces that bar individuals from some communities to come to the table. True to the nature of modern-day media, these headlines got buried under new ones, but the discourse on allyship continued.

It has been rightly said that allyship is a verb, not a noun. Allyship is the continuous support offered by privileged groups who use their benefits to actively work for the inclusion of minority and marginalised communities in all areas of society, thereby inspiring systemic change. Popular social movements across the globe have highlighted the need for allies to act with minority and marginalised communities and not for them. The perils of performative allyship are grave, and its impact is counterintuitive to the essence of allyship. Undoubtedly, change within organisational culture and structures may bring anxiety to those who are required to navigate it. However, a key criterion for authentic allyship and inclusive leadership is the ability to commit to learning about minority and marginalised communities’ experiences while simultaneously unlearning racial biases and apathetic tendencies that affect them.

For most of us, opportunities to demonstrate allyship occur in the workplace. At an interpersonal level, employees may choose to pass the mic to their peers who are either talked over or side-lined during meetings and check the wellbeing of co-workers or support staff, who often bear the brunt of office housework. However, this too requires a degree of “internal scoping” on the part of us all, which can be deeply uncomfortable. Leaving my public sector puns aside, allyship in combination with organisational power can be used to disrupt bias in everyday workplace practices, including recruiting, onboarding, and promoting. Furthermore, allyship can also be displayed by proactively building relationship currency with new and existing professionals from minority and marginalised communities through mentorship and sponsorship.

Despite organisations’ best efforts to devise allyship strategies and empower employees, solely building organisational capabilities may not be enough to conceptualise privilege and constructively address intersecting systems of inequality. We may also need to apply a nuanced lens to our understanding of systems and the way they are designed to effectively harness the power of our allies. This requires a concerted effort from us – as public servants and members of the public – to understand how smaller systems interact within larger ones and whether the synergies created from those interactions will help or harm those who are required to navigate these systems. Allyship cannot exist in a vacuum, neither at a systems level nor within our communities, but when it is allowed to work, it can be powerful for everyone.

Organisations play an integral role in creating inclusive and equitable environments for all their employees. If the optimum culture is created, an organisation can inspire employees to enact allyship and collaborate with employees from minority and marginalised communities to resolve structural barriers that hinder their performance within the workplace. Perhaps, one way to narrow the opportunity gap within an increasingly superdiverse community like Aotearoa New Zealand is to close the knowledge gap by stepping into the arena and having (and listening to) some courageous conversations. Another way may be to start by acknowledging that experiences of marginalisation in one system of inequality do not countermand positions of privilege in another. Regardless, the journey to becoming an ally is an ongoing one. When we recognise this, we may find more headlines like that of Chastain–Spencer in the media or, better yet, create more pathways for individuals from minority and marginalised communities to come to the table.