This post was updated on September 26, 2022.
Before being a WordPress ally, you need to become an ally.
Recently, I found myself explaining over and over again what my experience is as a black, queer1To me, queer represents any person who does NOT identify as heterosexual. Some people use this word because they prefer to not have a specific label, or because they are figuring out what label feels best., woman. It’s what prompted me to write this essay. And it was because people were asking me about it. It got me thinking about what it means to be an ally to someone like me.
I, personally, find the dictionary definition of the word “ally” to be quite lacking.
While both provided definitions are accurate, there is another definition that rings true. I quite like the definition provided by the Human Right’s Organization if you want something more thorough.
Simply put, an ally is someone who intentionally uses the privilege they have in order to support, assist, and stand up for those who don’t have that same privilege. An ally is not someone who supports a minority, only when and if it is convenient/cheap/easy/safe for them to do so. But they make changes, big and small, to support other people whenever they can.
In 2022, many people feel like privilege is some kind of slur. That somehow, it means you are automatically a racist. It is important to understand that everyone has privilege. Some privilege means different things to different people in different contexts.
I am black, female, and queer. But I am also able-bodied, light-skinned, and educated. Which means I have privilege. And while I can use that privilege to help others, other people do not value those privileges as much as they devalue the privileges I lack.
In the United States of America, being white, male, and straight are probably the most valued privileges you can have. They provide you safety in many places, higher pay, and kinder treatment. Even if you are underprivileged in any other way (poor, disabled, uneducated, etc.) you have to realize that you are also privileged. Both things can be true.
Once you understand that you can both have and not have privilege, you can understand that having privilege means having power and not having privilege means having perspective. Both situations can be used for good, if you decide that’s what you want.
Why Are Allies Needed?
Women needed men to get the vote. Black Americans needed white Americans to earn civil rights. Gay couples needed the efforts of straight people to be able to legally marry. Physically disabled citizens need abled politicians to lobby for accessible living spaces. No one ever accomplishes anything alone.
Someone asked me recently (respectfully, which is why I answered them) why racism is still such a problem in this country. If slavery was abolished in 1865 and no one still around were slaves or owned slaves, why are so many white individuals made to feel as though they have done something to feel guilty for?
The answer lies in the definition of racism itself: institutionalized oppression. To put it briefly, racism in and of itself is the systemization of putting others down and in place of others, creating an imbalance in values, which creates privilege. You can find this in the way many companies are run, in the way schools are still segregated, in the way that doctors treat patients, in the way movies and TV shows are cast.
This is why you cannot be racist toward white people. That’s called prejudice. Racism perpetuates ideas that are ingrained in our systems and institutions.
After slavery, almost every system in America was changed or created to make certain that black people were not allowed to move forward. That included every system from schools to banks. Because Black Americans were unable to do things like vote, own land, attend a good school, and have access to healthy food, they were unable to affect their communities, acquire and sustain wealth, acquire and pass on education, or fight chronic illnesses. All of these burdens were passed on through the generations and there is a ton of literature out there about it if you want to learn more.
Because of this institutionalized racism, the black community as a whole in the United States has struggled to enter government, create legacies, and remain healthy. Racism does not just mean disliking black people. Racism is the way that not liking black people is woven into our daily way of life so that black people are prevented from achieving equality.
Of course there are outliers; plenty of Black Americans find success despite of it all. But that does not erase the problem or the people who were – and still are – affected negatively.
Ignorance Breeds Hatred. On Both Sides.
With slavery outside living memory, it’s difficult to directly see the causes to these problems. This breeds resentment of those who have it better, or appear to have it better. Movies and TV show us, more often than not, that white people are the ones who live in large cushy houses in the suburbs and black people are the ones selling drugs or working in fast food. Popular media shapes the way we see the world and perpetuates invalid structures. It teaches us that yes, these stereotypes are correct and normal and it’s just the way things are and always have been.
Of course not all white people are rich and not all black people are poor. The existence of this imbalance is not 100%. There are obviously people of color2A person of color is anyone who is not white or of predominately European heritage. Someone of another heritage, mixed with European, is not a person of color. who are more wealthy or more educated than some white people.
However, there are many different types of privilege. Some you’re born with – like the color of your skin. Some are earned – like money. Some are passed on to you – like social class. We all have some kind of privilege. Some privileges matter more than others in different societies and different parts of the world.
All straight people have straight privilege because that is the privilege that matters to homophobes. All men have male privilege because that is the privilege that matters to sexists. All white people have white privilege because that is the privilege that matters to racists.
I myself, being of mixed race, have experienced white privilege even though I have brown skin. The popular term “oreo”, used to describe people who are half black and half white, illustrates that you can be “black” on the outside and “white” on the inside. With some people, I speak and dress “white enough” to somehow be acceptable. It’s confusing and unfair. But it exists.
Privilege Affects All Underserved Communities
Once you understand what privilege is and where it comes from, you see that allies are necessary because privilege is power. When a black individual points out oppression, others may see it as “just a black problem.” When a woman points out sexism, people may call her whiny or a bitch. It’s not always easy to take yourself out of your own sphere of influence and look at an uncomfortable truth through someone’s eyes. But when you do, you are saying “this is a problem that affects us all.”
Allies are not just needed when it comes to racial inequality. Not by a long shot. Allies are necessary for every single community which is underserved or under-represented. That includes the mentally or physically disabled, the mentally ill, people on the LGBTQ spectrum, and those who don’t fit into traditional Western body types. Ask yourself – are those people you think about when you design software or download stock photography for your marketing?
A man seeking to harm a lone woman in a parking lot would think twice seeing another man walking with her. That woman could be a professional UFC fighter and her companion may have never had to defend himself physically in his life. But sexists only see that one is a woman and one is a man. They have created that imbalance in your favor, which means they have given you a tool to fight it.
Allies to the LGBTQ+3Stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and more. The more can include pansexual, asexual, demisexual, gender fluid, nonbinary, and a few others. community are a fairly new idea. But the concept is exactly the same. An ally to this community uses their straight privilege to help protect members of the LGBTQ+ community, to amplify their message, to police harmful rhetoric or insulting language, to raise/spread awareness, or just to normalize the existence of non-heterosexual individuals.
Lately you may have noticed more LGBTQ+ characters on TV and in movies, in music videos or commercials. This is due, in some part, to straight allies who have used their jobs as directors, producers, casting agents, etc. to normalize LGBTQ+ faces and stories. The more these kinds of characters are featured, the more normalized their existence and humanity becomes, which directly fights homophobia over time.
Why are Allies Needed in WordPress?
(sources for this section are all at the bottom of this page)
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that the tech industry has not been the friendliest of places to minorities. In general, white straight males are the largest demographic. Here are some numbers for you:
of all computing jobs are held by men
is the tech job turnover rate for women (17% for men)
of IT patents are owned by all-female teams
of executive positions in silicon valley are held by women
of tech executives are white
of Apple employees are POC, white the rest are white
of LGBTQ people cite bullying as the reason why they quit a tech job
of US states do not have a ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity
of disabled individuals are unemployed, compared to 3.7 of the generation population
In general, the WordPress community can celebrate a decent amount of diversity. But we still tolerate a lot of hate, ignorance, and complacency within our community. Much of it is swept under the rug, ignored, or passed off as inconsequential. And the results mean that our software and community is more stunted than it could be.
The WordPress community needs allies because we are still a part of an industry and a world which suffers overwhelmingly from intolerant behavior. Given that WordPress powers so much of the web, I believe we have a moral responsibility to set the example for what is acceptable and what isn’t. We already have a leg up with the community-focused mentality that open source creates. The door is already ajar for us; we can throw it open if we choose. If we can foster an environment of tolerance and acceptance, it will bleed out into the rest of the industry and the rest of the world.
In the video below, popular WordPresser Andrew Norcross provides some examples of the type of abuse that minorities have been faced with in our community. It’s startling to see, laid out in front of you. And even though you may know that you would never speak to someone that way, it’s important to 1. Realize it happens and 2. Respond to it when it does.
How Can You Be An Ally?
And it’s easy to pop pronouns in your Twitter bio, add a rainbow emoji to your name in June, and call it a day. But that is not allyship. It’s key to understand what problems face underserved communities, so you can be an ally by acting consistently in their best interest.
When people don’t understand the problem or feel awkward asking questions, people tend stay silent and complacent. Here are some actionable things you can do as an ally, not just within the WordPress community, but wherever you go.
If you identify as male, cis4Cis or cisgender is a term used to describe a person whose gender identity (man/boy or girl/woman) matches the sex they were assigned at birth (female or male). A trans or non-binary person is not cis., or white, you have most likely heard or seen someone say or do something disparaging, rude, cruel, or snide to a woman or person of color. You may have even said or done something insensitive yourself.
Being an ally doesn’t mean you need to pick fights or break ties with anyone who makes an off-color joke. It does mean pointing out harmful language and unfair practices. It means stepping in if you notice someone is being made to feel uncomfortable. It means notifying people in power if someone does or says something offensive. It means complaining about oppression alongside those are being oppressed. Remember that your privilege gives you credibility and your voice may carry more weight than you think.
I have encountered people who make certain excuses, like that they don’t want to get involved in something that isn’t their business or that they don’t want to fight someone else’s battles. To that, I say: If you aren’t ready to speak up, then you probably have a lot more listening to do.
I know, I know. I tricked you. But hear me out.
Listening is always the very first step to being a good ally. But it’s often the hardest one. In the video above, Andrew Norcross makes the excellent point that being right is one of our strongest imperatives. It is hard to admit that you don’t know something, especially if you have spent your whole career sailing by on the fact that you know a lot.
Sometimes, the best thing that you can do for a person who is a part of an underserved community is to step out of the way. Don’t chime in. Don’t share your opinion. Let them have the moment and actively listen to the story that they have to tell. You may think that because you read a book about racism or watched a TED Talk about accessibility, you have something to say. But there are so many unique and specific stories that are not being told, but need to be heard. And those people deserve to be heard.
Many people are wary of people who call themselves an ally, but don’t really stop to listen and understand the plight they are trying to help. A good ally listens. A great ally provides an opportunity or platform for others to tell their stories. It’s one thing to appreciate the struggle that someone has gone through. It’s another to use the privilege you have to spread their story to others for your benefit.
Create Safe Environments
Safety can often be a huge concern for minorities in public spaces. Sometimes, it’s not about sticking it to a racist or proving a point about LGBTQ+ rights. Sometimes it’s about making it through the day unscathed. Allies can create and/or encourage areas for safe conversation and that can make a huge difference.
If you own a business or work as a supervisor, you must be prepared to take complaints about an unsafe environments seriously. That can start with taking sensitivity training or end with firing employees who make other employees feel unsafe or threatened. Maybe you run a conference: have enforceable Codes of Conduct and prioritize conversations about diversity and inclusion.
Be mindful of the environments that other people create in public spaces. If someone is being harassed, physically escorting the harassed person away is often better than engaging in an argument or fight with the harasser. Remember that bullies love having their flames fanned; what they cannot stand is being ignored.
No matter where you go, foster an environment that is open and welcoming in order to make minorities feel safe about sharing information about harassment. That may be your business or your Slack channel.
Be aware that not everyone in the LGBTQ+ community feels safe sharing their orientation publicly. Some of us shout it from the rooftops, whereas some of us are just figuring things out. Let someone you know or believe to be queer announce that themselves before bringing it up in conversation; you can easily out someone and put them in danger otherwise.
Safe spaces are where underserved people have choices. That be the choice to share their preferred pronouns, the choice to take religious holidays off work without judgement, the choice to breast-feed without shame. It’s all about dignity and respect.
Ask Questions and Educate Yourself
One of the best ways to say something and say nothing at the same time is to ask questions, and then listen thoroughly to the answer. You cannot expect to be an effective ally if you don’t understand the problem. You will want to be mindful of the questions that you ask, however.
Asking someone what their preferred pronouns are is a good question. Asking someone if they have preferred pronouns is a great question. (Some people may not want to share their pronouns with you or feel safe enough to do so – again, choice is everything!)
Asking the question “what are you?” or “where are you from?” if you are not sure about their country of origin can come from a place of general interest, but 99% of the time, it’s jarring and off-putting. Personally, it makes me feel like an alien and the person is asking me what planet I came from. Asking what someone’s heritage or nationality is can be a better way to phrase it. (I would recommend not starting off a conversation with a stranger in this way!)
Asking someone if they are gay or a lesbian or transgender flat out is pretty much never the way to go for the following reasons:
- It’s just not your business.
- No one likes to be treated like a zoo animal or odd novelty on display.
- They may not feel safe revealing that information publicly.
- They may not know the answer themselves.
But providing people the opportunity to celebrate or display their pride – such as providing rainbow versions of your conference stickers – means that you are promoting acceptance, normalization, and a sense of community for those individuals. Say it with me now: choice is everything.
I myself identify as queer. Since this used to be a slur, people have asked me what this word means now. Even though I was happy to answer because it spurred on a good conversation, Google is free! I admit, there are a lot of terms (LGBTQ+ is just scratching the surface). But there are tons and tons of resources, glossaries, and YouTube videos that explain them.
Expand Your Sphere of Influence
One of the funny things about friendship is that we tend to find it easier to be friends with people who think, look, act, or speak like us. Since the majority of the people in the community are white males, chances are, if you’re a white male, so are most of your friends. But common goals, interests, and experiences are also seeds for friendship.
I was told recently about a person who was putting together a panel for a conference. They are a cis white male. When they put out a call for panel members, almost all of the applicants were also cis white males. This upset them; they knew that a diverse panel would be better. But they were uncomfortable sending out a bunch of Twitter DMs, saying “Hey, I need a woman for this panel, please apply.” Isn’t that pandering? Isn’t that a little too much like affirmative action or tokenization?
When we realize that our sphere of influence, our chosen circle, is not diverse enough, it can be tough to be intentional about making a change. It may feel forced. It may feel inauthentic. If it does, it means you’re coming at it from the wrong angle. Making a new friend who is different from you shouldn’t be a chore, it should be an opportunity to find a unique person who has differing perspectives than you, but probably also has a lot in common.
Here are some actionable ways to widen your sphere of influence without unfairly tokenizing peoplle.
- Next time you’re at a WordCamp, or any other sort of conference, go to a talk about diversity or accessibility and just listen. Invite your friends to attend with you. Chat with other attendees or the speaker afterwards.
- Instead of always hanging out with the same people at lunch just because they are familiar, jump into a new group of people who don’t all look like you. Listen and ask questions.
- Ingest content written or created by women, POC 5POC stands for people of color. This describes any person who is not white. Black, asian, latino, and mixed race people can identify as a person of color., LGBTQ+ individuals, disabled individuals… anyone who may not share your experience. (You’ve already started on that path by reading this essay – than you!)
- Simply follow and engage with more women, POC, and LGBTQ+ individuals. It doesn’t have to be about the fact that they are a woman or POC – in fact, it probably shouldn’t. Just try to find common group. You’re bound to find some good connections.
If I were that man putting that panel together from the earlier example, I may have reached out to someone I knew who was not a white male and said something like:
“Hey, I am putting together a panel and diversity is important to me. I’ve noticed that so far, my only applicants are straight white males. I was wondering if you would share this post with your audience so that I can get this opportunity in front of a wider pool of people?”
We follow those with whom we share beliefs, not just those who do cool things. With this brief message, you are:
- Identifying that you are experiencing a problem.
- Asking for assistance.
- Explaining that you have a goal that they may share.
What you aren’t saying, but which usually gets said accidentally, is that you’re throwing a woman or a black person a bone by inviting them to participate.
Some Ally Resources
To close out, here are some links, resources, and recommendations to help you be a better ally. If you know of anything that should be added to this list, leave it in the comments!