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How to Be an Ally to Black Women

September 21, 2021
12 min read

Disclaimer: The quotes and opinions reflected in this article are those of the interviewees, and do not represent the companies that they work for.

This is the second article in my How to Be an Ally series in which I interview people that identify with different minority groups to understand how they define an ally, why it’s important to have allies in the workplace, and what people can do to become allies.

One of the best parts about creating Dyversifi is that I’m always getting insight into experiences that I would normally not be privy to. What was interesting to me writing this article is that even though I’m lucky enough to interact with Black women almost everyday, I still learned a lot about their unique experiences through writing this article. I hope this piece has the same impact on you that it did on me.

P.S. — if you like this article, share it with someone! I think that your Black female friends would appreciate the spotlight, and your other friends could learn something from the perspectives.

Below are the bios for the people that I interviewed for this article:

Dumebi Egbuna — Dumebi is one of the Co-Founders and CMO of . She is also a Client Representative at IBM. Dumebi has a Bachelor of Business Administration from Emory University. Fun fact: she’s also my little sister.

Janel Monroe — Janel is a Director of Talent Management at Campbell Soup Company. She has experience in strategic consulting and diversity and inclusion. Janel has 2 Bachelor of Arts degrees in Organization Communication and Cultural Studies from UNC-Chapel Hill (GO HEELS!) and a Masters of Education from Lesley University.

Ndidi Obidoa — Ndidi is one of the Co-Founders of , a skincare line for Black women. Prior to starting Bolden, she worked in consulting and marketing. Ndidi received her Bachelor of Science in Business Management from Stony Brook University and her Masters of Business Administration from MIT.

1. What does it mean to be an ally? What are the qualities of a good ally?

“I prefer to use the word ‘advocate’ instead of the term ‘ally’ because of the way that ‘ally’ has been associated with the LGBTQ+ community. Good qualities [of an advocate} are being open and curious to learn about a group that is not your own. It also means being open to stand up against behaviors that are damaging to the group that you’re advocating for. Someone who is not going to be silent or complicit when things happen and is going to look for opportunities to demonstrate how to better incorporate African-Americans and the black perspective.”

— Janel Monroe

“The word that comes to mind when I think of an ally is someone who is very supportive and always looking out for your success. Recently, I chatted with a good friend from business school and mentioned that we had started thinking of seeking outside funding for our business. A few days later, she put us in touch with someone who started a few companies and ran an investment fund.
Being an ally can also be about being a great listener. People want someone to listen to their story. They may already know what to do, but need someone to lend an ear and hear them out. It is important to share your own experience as well if you’ve been through a similar situation to someone else. I feel like we’re all naturally allies by virtue of being human beings.”

— Ndidi Obidoa

2. Why is it important to you to have allies in the workplace?

“For marginalized groups, especially for racially-marginalized groups, the workplace is a place where people work to create equality, and not necessarily equity. Allies understand the need to create equity and that they need to differentially invest, differentially develop, and/or differentially expose marginalized groups to opportunities.”

— Janel Monroe

“When I think of allies, I think of someone that doesn’t identify similarly to me. In the workplace, the majority has the influence. So, if you escalate an issue, an ally is more likely to be able to draw attention to it because it’s likely that their peers identify similarly to them. Being able to talk to someone is therapeutic and brings me peace, so it’s good to have them in the workplace.”

— Dumebi Egbuna

Not a handout, but a hand up.

3. Who has been a good ally to you? What specifically did that person do/say that made him an ally?

“There’s an Accenture mentor of mine [Managing Director] who identifies as a white, gay male. He and I have really good conversations about the ways in which we’ve both been marginalized but also different ways to overcome some of those things. He has given me great feedback and advice on ways to show up and get my point across in the workplace. He’s done it in a way that wasn’t a handout; it was more of a hand up. When it comes to Inclusion and Diversity, he taught me to always make sure that there was a business case behind what I’m advocating for to make sure that it didn’t seem like the action wasn’t just for diversity sake.”

— Janel Monroe

“One of the VPs at IBM has been a great ally. She’s a white woman and a mother of two who works in a corporate space. I’ve had a lot of questions about how to make sure men are looking at you for your work. Talking is a way that I work things out, so she’s been a great ally in that sense.
Also, two white men from a partner company have been great allies. They’ve recognized the good work that I’ve been doing, and they would come to me and say that they’ve been telling people about my work. They aren’t doing it because they see that I’m a black woman and a minority, but because they think that I’m good at my job. I’d 1000% percent rather have it that way.”

— Dumebi Egbuna

4. How can people earn your trust in the workplace?

“Integrity is doing what’s right when no one is watching. A great way to earn people’s trust is to sing their praises when you’re not with them and save criticism or feedback for when you are with them, individually. Knowing that someone has my back when I’m not around and that they’re going to save feedback for private moments is how people can earn my trust.”

— Janel Monroe

“People earn my trust by being honest and authentic. At my last job in Corporate America, my boss was the absolute best. He zeroed in on what each person was good at, and made sure these particular skills were well utilized. He was a great listener, and always encouraged us to take on more. He used to have these meetings where he would just check in with you in a way that felt authentic; I believed he was really interested in my wellbeing. I was the only Black woman in my group… but it was always about Ndidi, not about Ndidi, the Black woman. The only time me being black came up was when I came in with a different hairstyle and we all joked about the effort involved.”

— Ndidi Obidoa

5. Can you think of a moment when you felt isolated because of your race, gender, or both? What happened to lead to that? What could an ally have done to help?

“Times when I’ve felt isolated have rarely been due to my race or gender; but rather to my age. A lot of times I’m the youngest in the room, and being young, a lot of times people think that I may be inexperienced. A lot of times I feel my experience has to be validated.
One time being a woman has made me feel isolated was once in a room with a Senior Manager who gave me permission to add an analyst to the team due to workload, but only if it was a female. When I questioned the comment, he told me because females are good at corralling the men. I don’t think he meant it in a negative way, but it was totally a back-handed compliment. It was like when someone says ‘you’re pretty…for a Black girl.’”

— Janel Monroe

“At a consulting company I once worked at , a hiring manager sent an email to a group of people basically saying that an African American woman had just started and she needed someone to support her. I was barely a week into starting, and they already assumed that I needed help. It implied that I would not be able to manage the work, and it made me self-conscious. I ended up not performing as well. A better approach may have been to check in after I started the project to see if and/or where I needed help.”

— Ndidi Obidoa

“Last year I went to a conference for data and [artificial intelligence], and I was the only woman and the only black person in the room of 40 people. This is pretty common, especially in the tech space.”

— Dumebi Egbuna

6. Is there anything people can do to self-educate on being an ally?

“Educate yourself on the experience of being a minority. A lot of times, race is an uncomfortable subject for a lot of white people, but the only way to educate yourself is to have those hard conversations. For people trying to educate themselves without having to have someone teach you, there are plenty of books that you can read. A few examples are White Fragility (Robin Diangelo), Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates), and Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (Beverly Daniel Tatum).”

— Dumebi Egbuna

There isn’t a signup sheet. You have to earn that trust.

7. How can people make themselves more approachable to people of your race and/or gender?

“There isn’t a signup sheet. You have to earn that trust. It’s like any human interaction: once you have proven yourself to be someone that I can trust, then you become an ally. There’s not a step-by-step guide on how to do that. Trust is a big component. If I bring something to you, your initial reaction says a lot. Do you want to learn more, and do you keep asking questions? Or are you defensive, or do you try to twist my statement around?”

— Dumebi Egbuna

8. What types of language should people avoid? Is there anything that people say commonly that they might not realize is offensive?

“3 things come to mind:
When someone says: ‘You’re not like the rest of ___________.’
The term ‘people of color.’ That’s basically saying that you’re going to lump all people of color and compare their experiences to the experiences of white people. Imagine saying ‘as a company, we’re 4% Latino and 10% black, so we’ll lump it together and say that we have 14% people of color.’
Making comments about difficult names. ‘I forget her name because it’s so hard to pronounce,’ or ‘I gave him this nickname because his name is too hard to say.’”

— Janel Monroe

“Lately, I’ve had a lot of experiences with white men talking about Black women’s hair. I just think to myself: ‘why are you talking about it?’
One of my co-workers wears a wig, and another co-worker saw her at the gym and came into our team room and said “oh, I saw you at the gym and you had a beanie on, and it didn’t look like you had any hair underneath it.” Our beauty standards are different from yours, so don’t ask too many questions.
For women especially, if you have something to say about her looks, it should be a compliment. Otherwise, don’t say anything at all.
Also, white people are really uncomfortable saying the word ‘Black.’ I don’t have a preference between ‘Black’ and ‘African-American,’ just say it with your chest!”

— Dumebi Egbuna

I love having a job, but not at the expense of my self-respect.

9. What types of behaviors should people avoid? Is there anything that people do commonly that they might not realize is offensive?

“Not speaking. Sometimes you’ll be standing with someone and a person will stop to speak to the person you’re talking to, and not even acknowledge the fact that you’re standing there. You then start to ask yourself why they didn’t speak. Is it because they don’t know you or because of your race or gender?”

— Janel Monroe

“A behavior I find really offensive was when I would say something and someone would cut me off mid-sentence. No matter how irrelevant you think what I’m saying is, hold your thought and tongue and allow me finish.
If you’re a manager or someone that judges someone else’s work, you have to mindful of the tone and manner with which you communicate. There was this one night we were working really late on a case. It was like 10pm, and a manager walked in with a very abrasive tone and said something like ‘what is this?’ to me. I love having a job, but not at the expense of my self-respect. At some level, you cannot be blatantly rude. I didn’t realize it, but I was actually shaking, so I looked up and said, ‘please don’t speak to me in that manner’. The next morning, he called me and apologized, and we moved on. It’s not so much what you say but how you say it.”

— Ndidi Obidoa

10. How can people recover from missed opportunities to be an ally?

“Apologize and admit that you missed the opportunity. It’s crazy to me how much people will try to explain away why they did or didn’t do something. I’ve had to apologize for things I’ve done. I’ve walked past someone and didn’t acknowledge them. I’ll go back to them later and say ‘hey, I realized I walked past you earlier and didn’t say anything. I’m sorry. I see it as 3 steps:
Step 1: apologize.
Step 2: admit the behavior that you realized was wrong.
Step 3: promise to not do it again.”

— Janel Monroe

“Going back to the wig comment, he should have pulled her aside, apologized, and said that he didn’t intend to make her feel isolated. Give her the opportunity to express why she felt the way she did, but if she doesn’t want to continue the conversation, accept that as well. You should know that you’re not entitled to her forgiveness. Don’t think that someone owes you forgiveness.”

— Dumebi Egbuna


1. In-group allyship — A theme that I noticed from these interviews was that many of the allies these women spoke about shared an identity with them — they were either also women, also black, or also Black women. When I think of an ‘ally,’ I immediately think of someone that doesn’t share the same identity traits as me. As a Black man, I can absolutely be an ally to another Black man or a Black woman. Often, if we don’t lift each other up, no one will.

2. Intersectionality — This is the first set of interviews I’ve done where the goal was to talk to people who are double minorities. Intersectionality is a thing, and the experiences of these three women is inherently different from a black man’s or from a white woman’s. Going back to Dumebi’s experience as the only woman and the only Black person at her conference, I wondered if there was part of her identity that felt more isolated, or if the feeling came as a collective result of her being a Black woman.

3. The difference between equality and equity — Janel elaborated on the difference between equality and equity by directing me to this . I’ve pasted one of the more striking illustrations below:

Image for post
An image showing the difference between equality and equity.

As Janel explained it, equality means that everyone is given one box to help improve view, but equity means that people are given enough boxes to compensate for certain advantages or disadvantages that they have. The slanted ground position could represent the poor school system that a candidate came from. The higher fence could represent external forces like impostor syndrome that take away from an employee’s ability to do her job.

A common opposing argument to corporate diversity is that it is reverse discrimination. The idea is that by creating programs that favor a group of minorities, a company is undoubtedly oppressing the majority group. The primary flaw with this thinking is that it runs on the assumption that all parties are on an equal playing field (see what I did there?). To create equity, not just equality, in the workplace, certain groups need dedicated resources.

Black Women are some of the most marginalized people in this country, and despite this, they continue to blow us away with their resolve and determination to succeed. February was Black History Month, and March is Women’s month. Take this time to reach out to one of your Black female friends or co-workers and get to know them better. You won’t regret it.

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