Are you an everyday hero?
What is an ally, and how do you become one?
By Vivian Chandra
Vivian is passionate about using technology for the good of humanity. She is a facilitator for Ally Skills NZ, which works with forward-thinking organisations to make inclusion a reality. She also works with startups and charities to optimise their technology strategy and align it with their business goals. She is also certified in agile team facilitation by ICAgile. Vivian graduated from the University of Auckland with a B.Sc. in Physics and a Masters in Sociology.
Have you seen that movie where the damsel in distress screams uncontrollably and then the superhero swoops in and saves her? She is ever so grateful and sinks into his arms and maybe even looks lovingly into his eyes.
I haven’t mentioned the name of the movie, and each of you is probably thinking of a different one.
We have been conditioned over years and years of popular culture to accept this narrative. If there is something or someone that needs help, they should wait around, helpless, until someone else comes to save them. There are only a handful of examples where this isn’t the case.
Being an everyday hero is different. It’s not about donning a cape and swooping in to save the day. It’s about recognising that no matter who you are, how you grew up, what you look like, you can sometimes be the hero and sometimes you need a hero.
Another word for an everyday hero is an “ally”. The systems of our world sometimes privilege some identity types over others–privilege is an unearned advantage given by society to some people and not others. Being an ally means that you have some privilege and you are actively working to end oppression and understand your privilege.
When people talk about diversity, more often than not, they are imagining people of colour, or women (and people who are non-binary or other marginalised genders).
When we talk about diversity within our companies, we look around and do a mental headcount of people who look different.
We often don’t stop to consider how our companies are structured to make all people feel welcome. It can be the same within our community groups and communities.
The other main issue I have with the superhero analogy is the grandness of the gesture required. A superhero literally flies in and shoots things with their laser eyes. It is a fantasy that is specifically created to be out of the reach of the regular human. Yet in real life, small but regular actions from allies are often the things that lead to big changes in workplaces and in our communities.
Vernā Myers, an inclusion strategist, said it best when she said: “Diversity is being invited to the party, and inclusion is being asked to dance”.
When we consider whether our communities and workplaces are diverse, we often overlook whether we are being inclusive. That is where the real power of the ally lies. Imagine being invited to a party and being ignored the whole night; this is what we do when we tick boxes and do mental headcounts. Allies make sure that everyone is getting a chance to dance.
Here is a practical example. You are sitting in the communal lunch room, having your lunch. You’re reading a book, just minding your own business. Two of your colleagues (who you don’t know very well) come and sit at the table. They are chatting about a third colleague who isn’t there. They are commenting on his weight and joking about the amount of lunch he has just finished.
What do you do?
Now, imagine the same scenario, and a third person is nearby. This third person is someone who is higher-weight.
Is your reaction different? Should it be?
In this case, an ally is someone who is average or lower weight and who jumps in to point out that it’s not cool to joke about someone’s weight or how much someone is eating–weight doesn’t impact how well someone does their job, and that weight discrimination in the workplace is real, so it’s important for us to counter that instead of playing into it.
That’s one small conversation, but it can show the other person that they’re not alone and that they are valued for who they are, not for their weight.
Allies are people who use their voice to create more respectful communities–because we all have something to offer and to learn.