In 2022, allyship won’t be enough. We need something more
When Doris Miller — a son of sharecroppers and grandson of slaves — joined the Navy in 1939, he was relegated to cooking, cleaning, and laundry. At that time, this was about all a Black man could do in the highly segregated U.S. military. But when a Japanese torpedo struck Miller’s ship on December 7, 1941, whatever lines may have existed between Black and white sailors all went up in smoke.
Scrambling for orders, Miller eventually found himself behind a .50-caliber Browning machine gun. When the ammo was spent, Miller made his way to the ship’s boat deck, pulling sailors from the flaming waters. One of the last three men to leave his ship, he swam roughly 400 yards, narrowly avoiding gunfire from Japanese aircraft. When he got there, Miller stayed and helped injured sailors to shore instead of running for cover.
Miller was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism. His story is just one brilliant example of the countless Black men who jumped into the fray of World War II. These heroes willingly took up arms to defend an ideal of life, liberty, and justice that they had not yet experienced in America and were unlikely to see even if they did win the war. Why? Because when the bombs were dropping in Pearl Harbor and bullets were flying in North Africa, these brave men said to themselves, “This is our problem, our ship. We’re in this together.”
The Trouble With Allyship
In recent years, several spotlights have shined brightly on the struggles faced by women and people of color in the workplace. In large part, thanks to social media, Americans have come to see the problems that lay hidden in plain sight for so long. In response, many have stood up for their coworkers and friends by becoming “allies.”
Tsedale M. Melaku and her co-authors helpfully define allyship as “a strategic mechanism used by individuals to become collaborators, accomplices, and coconspirators who fight injustice and promote equity in the workplace through supportive personal relationships and public acts of sponsorship and advocacy.”
Allyship is a beautiful thing for which I am grateful, but I don’t think it’s enough. For one thing, much of it ends up being just for show. Even when it’s not, white allies often perceive themselves as more of an ally than they genuinely are.
Again, I’m not out to critique allyship. But even when it’s done well — when allies truly seek to lift their marginalized coworkers — allyship presupposes the lines that divide us. It casts intolerance, discrimination, and harassment as “their” problem and the ally as an empathetic outside supporter rather than a sympathetic co-laborer. We need something more than allies.
From Allyship To Ourship
To empathize is to see the pain of others but not feel it. To sympathize is to enter in the fray and suffer together. If we’re going to enact real change and unify our communities, workplaces, and nation, we need more of the latter. In a word, we need “ourship.”
Ourship is not opposed to allyship. Instead, the former perfects the latter as it encourages allies to lay down their privilege and power for the sake of their marginalized neighbors. Ourship is not just about standing by them; it’s about standing with them. It’s about seeing their problems as our problems and genuinely sharing the power to move forward.
Making It Our Problem
The best examples of ourship that I’ve seen recently come from those corporate leaders who’ve decided to lay aside their privilege to elevate minority leaders to power. To name just one, Reddit’s founder and former CEO, Alexis Ohanian, stepped down from the board last June to make room for a person of color. He also vowed to contribute future gains from his company’s stock to invest in the Black community. This is the essence of ourship: giving away power and privilege instead of holding onto it and trusting that, together, we can affect more change than we ever could apart.
What would this look like for you? Follow these three steps, which can be remembered with a simple acronym OUR:
Own your power. What do you already have at your disposal? Are you in a position of leadership at work or in the community? Do you have the authority to rewrite and/or enforce policy? Are you an influencer? We all have some measure of power that we can share for the good of others.
Uncover the powerless. Look around. Who are the marginalized people around you? How does their lack of power keep them down? If you were in their position, what would you need to improve your position? Identify the areas in which you can join others in their distress and empower them to move forward.
Relentlessly persevere. If you make others’ problems your own and deliberately share your power, you will find yourself suffering alongside them. Don’t give up; this is very much the point of ourship. In this community of suffering, we’re forced to work together to make a better place for everyone. Don’t give up on the way to that crucial goal.
In the early 1940s, Doris Miller had no institutional power to speak of, but that didn’t make him powerless. The thing that saved his life and the lives of so many of his fellow sailors wasn’t a temporary alliance; it was a life-or-death acknowledgment that they were all — regardless of skin color— in this together.
We all have immense power and privilege, but you may not be sure how best to elevate those around you who’ve been underestimated and held down. Allyship may be the first step, but it’s only when we all make the fight for inclusion and belonging our fight that we will finally win the battle.
This article was originally published in Forbes.