How to be an ally to marginalized coworkers

Show up for your colleagues by showing that you see them and their struggles

A handshake.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

America has a long way to go toward truly protecting marginalized groups in the workforce. Many industries remain dominated by white men, and discrimination still runs rampant in hiring and promoting practices. And in many industries, including STEM, agriculture, medicine, and corporate law, the odds of being in a majority-white workplace go up as one climbs the professional ladder, increasing the likelihood for racism and ostracization in the work setting. Indeed, studies show the more education a person of color has, the more likely they are to experience discrimination: According to Pew, 71 percent of college-educated Black people feel that they've been met with suspicion, and 68 percent state that they have been treated as though they weren't smart. Fifty-eight percent report being the butt of racial jokes or slurs.

On a macro level, policy changes and hiring practices can make employees of color and other marginalized groups more comfortable, and diversity training can further create a more unified environment. But solving workplace racism doesn't stop at management. How colleagues behave toward BIPOC employees matters, too, and our peers can often be a source of various micro-aggressions.

Here are a few ways you can show your marginalized colleagues that you are on their side:

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Educate yourself about racism. It's important to start by educating yourself about the history of discrimination and white privilege in America, and there's lots of media at your disposal that can help facilitate this process. Books like How to Be Antiracist or White Fragility push beyond the discomfort white people may experience discussing race, and can be downloaded and listened to if you don't have spare reading time.

NPR's Code Switch podcast gets everyone involved in conversations about current events and their intersection with race. It even goes into "positive" stereotypes, like the idea that Asian Americans are model minorities. The Small Doses podcast, the brainchild of comedian Amanda Seales, uses humor to make difficult topics — ranging from tokenism to feminism to adulting — easier to digest. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Pod for the Cause seek to inspire activism, with episodes that teach people the importance of voting for change.

While movies about slavery show the harsh realities that Black people have faced, some people might find it's easier to relate to more modern examples of racism. Movies like Hidden Figures and Something the Lord Made show Black men and women who have had to fight for recognition for their achievements. Just Mercy shows how the justice system has historically not been on the side of people of color, and how many are treated as guilty until proven innocent.

Know the facts. People who don't experience the discrimination or micro-aggressions that those in marginalized groups experience often have a difficult time relating, or believing that these instances can occur. UCLA's CIvil Rights Project puts legal proceedings and studies within reach in order to deepen readers' understanding. Details of modern and historic instances of discrimination and racial disparity —from Brown vs. Board of Education to the DREAM Act — can be found here.

Acknowledge your privilege. Often the first step in addressing racism, sexism, and other discriminatory behavior in a workplace but also in society as a whole is acknowledging the privileges that exist in one's own life. Recognizing this can help you focus, with empathy, on what can be done to improve life for everyone. It's fine to say you don't want to get involved in politics, but this in itself is a privilege — it means the laws and regulations in place don't harm you. In each election, minority, female, immigrant, disabled, LGBTQ+, and poor individuals see issues pertaining to their well-being dragged into debates and voted on by policy makers who often do not look, act, or live like them.

Become aware of micro-aggressions. Micro-aggressions are small, repeating actions meant to disparage or tear down a marginalized person or group. They can be hard to spot, because they don't always appear outright mean or negative. That's what makes them so insidious. For example, when someone calls a successful and educated Black person "eloquent," that's a micro-aggression. Joking that your Asian colleague probably won't enjoy happy hour drinks after work is a micro-aggression, too. Interestingly, technology has made it possible to check your language. The Upstander app was created for teachers to help their students understand and address micro-aggressions. This tool goes beyond a classroom, and can help you to understand why certain jokes and phrases can hurt marginalized groups.

Be willing to collaborate with someone who is different from you. We can't help who we gravitate towards, but we can be aware of our implicit bias and be willing to partner up with someone who isn't our go-to person. And if you see your colleagues being targeted, bullied, or treated differently, stand up for them. Show up for your colleagues by showing that you see them and their struggles, and that you can be counted on as an ally.

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Tonya Russell

Tonya Russell is a freelance journalist covering mental health, culture, and wellness. She an avid runner, yogi, and traveler, and she resides in the Philadelphia area with her four fur babies and fiancé. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.