How to be an ally for your Black colleagues (review)

I used to think I was one of the good guys.

I’ve never said anything racist about a coworker. Never accused anyone of playing the race card or dismissed someone for being a token minority hire.

But I’ve stayed silent and never asked how or why.

How was it possible that I never had a Black professor or teaching assistant for any of the 32 courses that made up my undergraduate degree in political science? And why did our journalism school have just one part-time instructor who was Black?

And then looking back on my 27-year career in public relations with some of the region’s largest employers, how is it possible that:

  • I’ve yet to sit across from a hiring committee that’s had a Black member.
  • I’ve yet to report to a Black supervisor or serve under a Black CEO, president or executive director.
  • I’ve worked with only one Black PR colleague.
  • I’ve had less than a day’s worth of mandatory diversity and inclusion training and I once spent an entire workshop ridiculously stewing in White fragility.
  • I’ve yet to do a local media interview with a Black journalist.
  • I’ve been to events, summits, award galas, conferences and workshops where there have been no Black people in the audience, much less on the stage.
  • Of the 500 plus business books I’ve reviewed over the past 21 years, I could carry under one arm the books written by Black authors.

I believe diversity and inclusion make our workplaces better. I believe everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect and has the right to belong. I believe in following the platinum rule. I believe bigots, racists and white supremacists are idiots. And I believe I’ve worked with, and for, good people who’ve shared all of these same beliefs.

But here’s the uncomfortable truth. I’ve cared but just not enough when the racism has been systemic. I’ve never asked why there were no Black profs or TAs or why no one on the hiring committees, in our PR teams and out in the audience was Black.

Is someone said “our organization’s colour blind, we don’t see race and we only hire the most qualified candidate”, I wouldn’t push back. I wouldn’t point out the less-than-stellar White colleagues who prove the best candidates aren’t filling every position. And I didn’t suggest that maybe the best people for the job weren’t stepping forward as candidates because they saw a glaring lack of diversity and a superficial commitment to inclusion.

And here’s one other hard truth. I’ve never wondered how I would’ve fared at school or in my career had I not been handed a whole lot of unearned white male privilege right from the start.

Silence is no longer an option. We’re all seeing what’s fundamentally wrong and it’s time each of us start doing what’s right.

We can get started at work by becoming allies for our colleagues from underrepresented groups.

Karen Catlin's Better Allies - Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces.

“There are many opportunities in every workplace to listen, learn and take action as allies,” says Karen Catlin, author of Better Allies: Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces.

“Your first tip for being an ally is to be open to learning, improving and changing your opinion.”

Catlin says there are seven kinds of allies.

  • Sponsors vocally support the work of coworkers and help boost their standing and reputations.
  • Champions defer to colleagues in meetings, events and conferences to send a public and meaningful message.
  • Amplifiers make sure marginalized voices are heard and respected.
  • Advocates use their power and influence to bring peers from underrepresented groups into exclusive circles.
  • Scholars listen and learn as much as possible about the issues facing their colleagues, do their own research and seek out relevant information. Don’t dump this work on your Black colleagues – they’re tired of educating.
  • Upstanders are the opposite of bystanders. When they see racism and injustice, they make it their mission to eradicate it.
  • Confidants create safe spaces where colleagues can talk about their fears, frustrations and needs.

Catlin draws a distinction between allies and knights. If you opt for a quick, easy and simple one-off fix for a colleague, you’re being the knight in shining armour. Your colleagues don’t need a virtue-signalling White savior.

What they need are allies who’ll do what’s right rather than what’s easy. Ending systemic racism and building an inclusive workplace is hard work and demands a long-term commitment.

“Being an ally is a journey,” says Catlin. “This may seem frustrating at first because it’s tempting to want to earn an ally badge and consider oneself to be a lifetime member of the Genuinely Good Human Beings Club.

“Instead of feeling frustrated that you’ll never reach some mythical, fully fledged ally status, remember that we’re learning together. The ally journey is an enlightening and worthwhile one, even though it’s a perpetually ongoing one.”

Racism – whether it’s overt, subtle or silent – needs to end. Our colleagues and communities deserve better. We need to listen, learn and then act and advocate as true and trusted allies. Catlin shows us how to start the journey.

This review first ran in the June 13 edition of The Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books since 1999. Reviews are archived at