5 Steps to Becoming an Ally

It can be daunting to learn how to become an ally to minority groups, but in this episode, the Savvy Psychologist shows you that all you need is a little H.E.A.R.T.

Dr. Monica Johnson
6-minute read
Episode #356
The Quick And Dirty

5 steps to becoming an effective ally:

  1. Heed the call
  2. Educate yourself about systems of oppression, implicit bias, and areas of priviledge
  3. Accept, acknowledge, and apologize when appropriate for any harm you may have caused
  4. Rally for the causes that you care about
  5. Take care of yourself

Have you looked around and thought, “Geez, we really are serving up the planet flambé-style.” The ocean has literally been on fire. Violence continues against BIPOC people. Immigrants’ rights, women’s rights, and trans rights have all been under attack. This isn’t even a complete list! It can be hard to figure out how to be an ally when there is so much happening.

In this episode, I’ll be reviewing 5 basic steps to get you started and keep you going on the path of allyship.

The world is overwhelming. When my patients come in, they aren’t just experiencing depression, they're talking about how world events are affecting their mental health. They are opening up about how the various forms of oppression are impacting their daily lives. I have Asian patients who are afraid to walk down the street because of the rise in violence, and I live in NYC, which is supposed to be one of the most diverse and welcoming cities in the world.

When my patients come in, they aren’t just experiencing depression, they are talking about how world events are affecting their mental health.

I have black patients who are fatigued from trying to stay on top of it all and suffer from Superwoman Syndrome or John Henryism. I have white patients who are outraged about what they see and want to help but don’t know how. You also might find the prospect of allyship daunting, even if you have good intentions. I encourage you to take a deep breath, because all you need to be an ally is a little heart.

H.E.A.R.T is an acronym I created so that my patients could have a basic outline of the steps needed to be an effective ally.

Do you have H.E.A.R.T.?

H is for Heed the call

The first step is to not walk around pretending like these things aren’t happening. Perhaps you’ve heard the line, “silence is compliance.” Don’t let the cries of the oppressed fall on deaf ears. Don’t let headlines dictate what you care about. Many people do the opposite and create safety silos that keep them completely disconnected from what’s happening in the world. Please resist this urge, because it will give you a false sense that everything is OK when it’s not. Systemic oppression means that it’s in the foundations of our everyday lives. The same way that the Earth is constantly turning and you can’t feel the motion, the wheels of systemic oppression are churning and you won’t always hear the commotion.

E is for Educate yourself

There are many issues that you will need to educate yourself about and it can be daunting. This is why it’s important to think of this as a lifelong process. I work on this daily. You can break it down in ways that make it more manageable. I will sometimes ask myself: What is an issue at my doorstep (meaning my local community), nationally, and globally that I can learn about? For instance, when I lived in Arizona, I completed my dissertation on trauma and substance abuse in the Native American population. I did the same thing when I lived in Minnesota and started learning more about Hmong culture. I intentionally chose local communities of people who were different from me so I could expand my worldview, and, because I’m a psychologist, provide culturally appropriate treatment. Nationally, I might look to what happening with trans rights. For instance, barriers in health care and sports. Globally, you may choose to look to learn more about the effects of climate change (yes, you can be an ally to the planet). Whatever you choose is up to you.

Additionally, you’ll want to educate yourself about your areas of privilege and oppression. It is challenging to become brutally self-aware, but it’s necessary to truly be an ally. In this work, you will be confronted with biases that were outside of your conscious awareness and the fear of what other blind spots likely still exist. You might find that you have worries about what harm you may cause because of these unknowns. This is normal. In all my years of doing this dedicated work, I still have these blind spots and I remind myself that this work must be done non-defensively, non-judgmentally, and with compassion. Fear will motivate you to avoid the call, and I need you all to pick up the phone. 

It is challenging to become brutally self-aware, but it’s necessary to truly be an ally.

A is for Accept, Acknowledge, and Apologize when appropriate

What are you accepting? You are accepting that you have the ability to cause harm, that you have caused harm, and that you will cause harm. Acceptance is not condoning these facts, it is the first step forward. You have made mistakes and you will make mistakes. Mistakes are a part of growth. Acknowledge that there are ways in which you have been complicit with systems of oppression. In many ways, it may have been largely unavoidable, but now you know better and you'll make attempts to do better. Acknowledge when you are confronted with your own biases. Simply admitting that you need to learn more about a particular issue is OK. And lastly, apologize when it’s appropriate. Importantly, do so without requiring that the harmed party take care of your ego, let you off the hook, or express gratitude that you took the time to say sorry.

R is for Rally for the cause(s)

Choose ways to actively participate in dismantling the systems that support oppression. Remember that systemic oppression rests on our backs and when we stand, it falls! You do have power as an individual and that power is multiplied when we work together. There is no job too small in these efforts. Pick roles that play to your strengths. I’m a gamer, so I often think in terms of my RPG (role-playing game) party. In these types of multi-player games, you need a well-rounded team to defeat the enemy. There is a multitude of ways that you can support the causes that are important to you.

Keeping with the RPG metaphor, are you loud and handle confrontation really well? Then you are likely a tank (basically the person who can take a lot of damage from enemy attacks). If that’s you, you likely do well with protesting and that may be one of your main strategies. Do you like providing direct care for those who are vulnerable? Then you might be in the healer class. Perhaps you volunteer at a homeless shelter, or, like me, work as a healthcare professional to battle the short and long-term effects of discrimination.

If the pen and envelope are your bow and arrow, then you might be an archer, and letter writing is your game. Are you charismatic and have the ability to influence others? Then you’re a bard, and perhaps you should consider political involvement, whether that is phone banking or running for office.

When I teach this topic, I always stress the importance of matching your allyship strategies to your strengths because endurance is needed when battling systems. For instance, if you asked me to protest several times a week, I couldn’t maintain that consistently because that doesn’t match my natural abilities. It’s a role that I can only play occasionally. In the healer position, I am able to contribute on a daily basis and fill other roles as necessary, which means my cumulative impact over time will be greater, without overwhelming my resources...Which brings me to the T.

T is for Take care of yourself

I break this up into three categories related to your body, mind, and emotions.

Taking care of your body involves eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep. An exhausted ally isn’t an effective one.

You also need to take care of your mind. There are times when the onslaught of violent imagery, heart-stopping headlines, or Twitter beefs runs our emotional bank into the red. It’s okay to take a brief time out to recoup your mental faculties and get back into the ring. Again, consistency is key, so this approach is better than becoming burned-out and unable to show up. Remember, coming up for air is keeping you from drowning.

Lastly, take care of your emotions. This can involve a mindfulness meditation practice, journaling, finding supportive groups, and having a therapist. When choosing a therapist, you may want to find someone who not only has experience with treating mental health diagnoses like depression, but also someone who can also help you process vicarious trauma or stressors related to your own areas of oppression. This will deepen your personal experience and aid in your allyship with other groups.

Let me know your ally superpower by interacting with me on Instagram @kindmindpsych, via email at psychologist@quickanddirtytips.com, or leave a voicemail at (929) 256-2191.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Dr. Monica Johnson

Dr. Monica Johnson is a clinical psychologist and owner of Kind Mind Psychology, a private practice in NYC that specializes in evidenced based approaches to treating a wide range of mental health issues (e.g. depression, anxiety, trauma, and personality disorders). Additionally, she has a focus on working with marginalized groups of people including BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and alternative lifestyles to manage minority stress. She is also dedicated to contributing to her field professionally through speaking, training, supervision, and writing. She routinely speaks at conferences, provides training and workshops at organizations, supervises mental health trainees, and co-authored a book for professionals on addressing race-based stress in therapy.

Dr. Johnson earned her bachelor's degree from the University of South Carolina, completed her Psy.D. at the Arizona School of Professional Psychology, and completed her postdoctoral training year at Cherokee Health Systems in Knoxville, TN. She currently lives in Manhattan where she indulges in horror movies, sarcasm, and intentional introversion. You can find her on Instagram and online at kindmindpsych.com

Got a question that you'd like Dr. Johnson to answer on Savvy Psychologist? You can send her an email at psychologist@quickanddirtytips.com or leave a voicemail for the Savvy Psychologist listener line by calling (929) 256-2191‬.