How to do your own work on diversity, equity, and inclusion as a white leader/ally

Three recommendations for ways you can activate yourself to affect positive change

The importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion are at the forefront of our conversations today. An attempt to shift the old exclusionary frameworks of the past is underway. Yet, even amid all the enthusiasm and educational resources, it can be confusing to truly understand what your role as a white leader and ally should be. One study found that 70% of white male respondents and 60% of minority and female leaders felt unsure as to the role that white men should hold in diversity initiatives.

You want to make an effort that will move the needle on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), but you don’t want to make the wrong move or take on a role that isn’t appropriate for you as a white leader and ally. By committing to put your energy to use for a more diverse, equitable and inclusive organization, and doing so thoughtfully, you’re positioned well to make significant changes in yourself and the organization you lead.

Here are a few recommendations you can take to maximize your role as a white leader and ally to affect positive, inclusive and equitable change. 

Critical analysis of your learning

You’ve done some of the recommended readings on antiracism, diversity and inclusion in the workplace, racial equity and justice. You’ve watched educational films and videos on racial inequities, racial justice, and DEI. The learning you’ve engaged in is important for you to get grounded in the reality of the systemic nature of racism, racial injustice, power imbalances, and privilege. It helps you to become more aware, be in a better position to grapple with the complexities of it all and how you have benefited from it. This learning is a starting point and something you’ll need to continue to do. If you haven’t already done so, return to your reading and watch lists, and ask yourself these questions:

  • Of the books I have read so far, how many were authored by White people, Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC)?
  • How did I respond to what the different authors presented?
  • How might my response to the different ways in which experiences, perspectives, and recommendations were shared, be rooted in my White privilege and/or experience with supremacy?
  • How have my mindset, decision-making practice, and/or behaviors changed as a result of what I learned?
  • What can I commit to doing differently going forward?

Reading and viewing films without a critical analysis of how you process what you’ve seen and heard limits the learning you gain from it. So, taking some time to work through your own answers to the above questions will be important for you to uncover any biases you might have that are serving as a block for you, to identify opportunities for your further development and growth, and ways for you to show up and be more inclusive and equitable as a leader.

Surface Your Bisases

An important first step you can take after analyzing your learning from the reading and watching you’ve done, is to do your own internal work. It’s common knowledge that people harbor unconscious biases, those biases can influence our decision-making and the way we interact with others, without our conscious awareness. You’ll need to tackle this major obstacle to creating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment — your own biases. 

As a white leader and ally, one of the most important things you can do for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is to ensure that you transform yourself into a tool for its proliferation. Create a mental practice of actively monitoring your thoughts and feelings for any biases that might occur. Do you tend to gravitate towards people that look like you when at an event? Did you assume someone’s role in a company based upon their appearance? These are small but significant ways our unconscious biases can influence us and create obstacles to promoting a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable culture.

When working to enact any change, one of the most crucial steps toward success is straightforward but easily missed. It’s difficult to attain a successful outcome without first identifying what obstacles you’ll come up against. As a white leader and ally, don’t make the mistake of jumping into action without considering what barriers you’ll encounter. Spend a bit of time simply considering what obstacles may be in place that block diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, whether within your own personal life or your workplace. 

  • How is a homogenous culture in your workplace cultivated and/or safeguarded? For example, company events planned around certain interests (sports, catering service, and/or restaurants of particular cuisines, and so on).
  • Would a sudden effort at diversifying your own social circle make someone from a different background feel out of place, as if they were only a token of diversity?
  • Do you tend to take on a singular decision-making role rather than seeking input from a variety of others, including those of diverse backgrounds?

By spending time giving thought to and mapping out the obstacles you’re likely to come across in your efforts to promote DEI, you’ll be better prepared and positioned for a successful outcome. You’ll also become more knowledgeable about the difficulties that BIPOC often face when trying to break into exclusionary spaces and be better equipped to use your power and influence to remove those barriers.

Be willing to follow and support BIPOC leaders (not limited to official titles)

When maximizing your role as a white ally and leader, it’s important to be versatile and not to get stuck on one interpretation of what you feel an ally should be. What constitutes ally-ship and DEI-minded leadership can change depending on the circumstances. In some situations, speaking out and taking a strong leadership role is necessary, yet in other situations, this role can be counterproductive. There are situations when being an ally and leader means taking a backseat and allowing someone else to take the lead. It’s important to be open to the various types of ally-ship and leadership that may be required of you in any given situation. 

A good rule of thumb when considering what you can use your own platform and role to accomplish in championing diversity, equity, and inclusion is to let your role be determined by those you’re attempting to assist. Rather than offer predetermined assistance, be open to hearing from BIPOC leaders (whether in title or role) how you can best be of service in that situation. By allowing yourself to be open and take instruction from those you’re attempting to support, you’ll be ensuring that your efforts are closely aligned with their needs rather than with your idea of what those needs might be. 

Practicing inclusive and equitable leadership requires you to engage reflectively and intentionally with BIPOC colleagues and leaders. You’ll need to have brave and candid conversations about what their experiences have been at the organization and what opportunities they have their eyes on. Learn more about what barriers exists for them and if they’d like your help with gaining access. If your support is welcomed, use your position, decision-making power, and influence to open doors and opportunities for those diverse leaders.  You can facilitate connections between key decision makers and diverse leaders that may not yet exist or help to strengthen ones that do exist. You can serve as a bridge for those diverse colleagues and leaders who are usually on the periphery of social networks and working groups that most often serve as spaces where future organizational leaders are groomed. 

This leader and ally work can seem complex, but if you think about the way you’ve learned new business skills and mastered them, you’ll recognize that effort pays off.  You will see and experience change in your organization only after having done the work on yourself to better understand how systems are set up to be exclusionary, surfaced your own biases, done the work to shut those biases down, stepped aside to enable BIPOC leaders to lead, follow their lead, learn about their goals, and facilitate connections. At Thriven Partners, we provide specialized coaching to help you uncover the blind spots in your life and unlock the power you have to be an outstanding ally and leader.

Melissa Álvarez Mangual, Ed.D

Dr. Álvarez Mangual is the founder and executive coach of Thriven Partners, LLC. She has over 20 years of workforce and talent development experience that has intentionally centered inclusion, equity, and justice.

Thriven Partners LLC

Thriven Partners, LLC is a woman- and minority-owned limited liability company.