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Allies: Don't Go Chasing Red Herrings

A red herring, according to Oxford English Dictionary, is something that intentionally or unintentionally misleads or distracts from an important question. A fun etymology chasing exercise seems to place this phrase with William Cobbett, a journalist in the 19th century, who used the term for stylistic flair to describe how easily misled the journalists of his time could be (that's not on the nose at all two centuries later).

When I was a boy, we used, in order to draw oft’ the harriers from the trail of a hare that we had set down as our own private property, get to her haunt early in the morning, and drag a red-herring, tied to a string, four or five miles over hedges and ditches, across fields and through coppices, till we got to a point, whence we were pretty sure the hunters would not return to the spot where they had thrown off; and, though I would, by no means, be understood, as comparing the editors and proprietors of the London daily press to animals half so sagacious and so faithful as hounds, I cannot help thinking, that, in the case to which we are referring, they must have been misled, at first, by some political deceiver. – William Cobbett, February 14, 1807

Like the hound chasing the scent, we are compelled by and attracted to the red herring. It invites us to follow it down a pathway to a conclusion that promises to be as compelling as the chase.

And herein lies the fallacy, because red herrings were never meant to lead us to where we need to go, but only where we were willing to go.

In the work to build more inclusive spaces, red herrings also exist. Companies may identify a real goal that promises to shift the culture or encourage belonging, but the journey between starting and finishing leaves plenty of room to be led astray. A red herring may present itself when taking the right path feels harder, longer, or requires more skill to traverse. Similarly, as individuals, we may be able to identify unfairness, inequality, and moments to step up as allies; however, a red herring may present an alternative way forward that feels more accessible than where we really need to go.

Building inclusive communities and spaces take consistency and work. It takes a daily commitment to a set of principles and values at organization and individual levels that help us peel back the filters we see people and the world through. It takes honesty and accountability when those values aren't met. And it takes a willingness to step beyond what is comfortable when supporting the needs of others.

If you want to build inclusion, then don't go chasing red herrings. The nature of a red herring makes them both compelling to follow and also hard to identify. However, I want to talk about three that feel more pervasive and also lead to the quickest exit from the turnpike that is our journey toward real progress and change.

Now Performing the Part of Ally Is...

When you speak up on behalf of what's right, does it feel good? Does it make you proud?

These moments can be great achievements, especially if it results in impact or real change. It can also feel rewarding to live our convictions; however, if that is our primary motivation, then we're missing the spirit of the work.

The endorphins boost of a "job well done" can easily lull us into the false reality that this work is not easy and also does not come without sacrifice. Sacrifice rarely feels good in the short term, even if we can rationalize the benefit with a long view or strategic vantage point of what matters. Being an ally actually requires getting comfortable with the discomfort of going against a pre-established norm. Feeling uncomfortable also rarely feels good. If our signal for doing good work is rooted purely in the rush of gratification or self-fulfillment, then we will shy away from the moments where the work requires more of us - to push beyond the edge of our capacity and accepted norms of behavior and grow into the moment.

Seeking positive reinforcement also centers the ally, rather than the community that looks to the ally for support. Rather than asking the question, "what does this community need?", seeking affirmation shifts the question to "what am I willing to do?" These may be congruent sometimes; however, when they diverge, the individual centering the community will be responsive to the needs of the marginalized or historically underrepresented; the individual centering their feelings or needs will revert to what feels reasonable to them.

This type of allyship is often labeled performative; it is a signal or show of support that absolves people of the feeling or expectation that they could be doing more. It's sharing with the world that you are down with the cause with the least amount of effort possible. It's seeing the problem from the lens of convenience and ease.

Performative allyship is resharing #blacklivesmatter while scrolling through your feed and then going on with your afternoon of cat videos and Spongebob memes. It's canceling the latest celebrity with a history of homophobic statements and then not speaking up as your family dehumanizes trans individuals and their experience. It's wearing a shirt saying "I support women" but not challenging your manager who wonders if your female teammate has the "executive presence" to be effective and well-liked in her job.

This is not a knock against speaking up in all the ways we can in solidarity and support of others. Movements have started with a hashtag and awareness through virality is what elevates the conversation beyond a community complaint to a social ill. However, awareness is the first step. The building blocks of allyship require a commitment to awareness, but also behavior change and consistency.

I Need You To Handle Oppression Respectably, Please.

Activist and writer James Baldwin said -

To be a negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time - and in one's work. And part of the rage is this: it isn't only what is happening to you. But it's what's happening all around you and all of the time in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference, indifference of most white people in this country, and their ignorance.

How often have we been in situations where we let our emotions overcome us? We yell out in a rage? Lash out from the pain of the offense, soothe the wounds of our pain with sometimes destructive passion?

We are all human, and yet, when it comes to the conversation around what it takes to move the country toward equality for all, too often the conversation spends more time dissecting the tactics rather than the truth of the pain or wound? We, who may be easily thrown off balance by an inconsiderate driver cutting us off on the road, cannot seem to make space for the anguish of and reaction to being cut off repeatedly for over 400 years on the highway of life, where the ask is simply to see us and acknowledge us on the road.

As 2020 has erupted with unrest over the repeated injustices that power has perpetrated on those outside its influence in the form of police brutality, violation of black and brown bodies, and suppression of historically marginalized voices, what I've heard too often is "but why must they vandalize? That approach will only antagonize the people they want to listen and change!"

Setting aside the problematic narrative that all protestors for black lives are synonymous with anarchist and left-wing agitators, to that sentiment I reply: because saying stop wasn't enough; because voting wasn't enough; because well-articulated statements weren't enough; because kneeling wasn't enough; because we are still having the same conversation every year, of every decade, of every century of our American history.

Demanding marginalized and disenfranchised communities voice their grievances in a respectable manner within a pre-approved system absolves those in power of the responsibility to listen to and see the pain behind those voices. Your convenience becomes more important than their suffering. Your fragility becomes more acute than their pain. Your feelings become more important than their bodies.

Your lives become more important than their lives.

Rather than asking the question, "WHY DO YOU DO THAT!?", the real question to ask is "WHY MUST YOU DO THAT?" Why must some protestors channel their rage into property destruction and vandalism? Why must protestors reject the ordinances mandating curfews and the laws that govern them?

Activist Kimberly Jones says it best: we need to be asking the right questions.

All We Really Need is Diversity of Thought.

It feels good on the surface. We learn and challenge ourselves when we expose ourselves to people's ideas that are different than our own.

However, the red herring underpinning this thinking is that it can be divorced from representation.

Each experience we have in our lives shapes how we will see our environment around us. If you grow up in the South, for instance, you will understand the magical powers of sweet tea. If you grew up anywhere else in America, you would have fooled yourself into believing that unsweetened tea is anything more than dirty water. The impact of our geography on our thinking and habits around what is okay to serve as a beverage cannot be understated. We cannot separate our ways of thinking from the influence our environments have on us.

As we add additional layers - socioeconomic, household dynamics, education, immutable characteristics - each further refines our paradigm for making sense of the world. How we think about the world cannot be separated from how we were treated, what we had access to, or who the world saw us as at different points in our lives.

So when organizations create diversity statements elevating diversity of thought, or individuals cling to the rationale that their own uniqueness as endorsed by mom (mother knows best after all) is enough, we dismiss the importance of identity — our journey in this world as a certain race, gender, sexuality, age, affluence, ability — on the way that we now see the world, and the way the world sees us.

Diversity of thought might be an outcome that can be achieved in different ways. Maybe.

However, why not start with representation? There is already so much research out there about diversity helping to challenge groupthink and homogeneity, encourage innovation, and help teams perform better. Diverse thinking is a byproduct of diverse representations of identities. If diversity of thought truly is the goal, shouldn't a focus on representation be the most efficient way to get there?

Diversity of thought can quickly become an excuse. An excuse for not acknowledging the reality: your diversity efforts aren't yielding results. An excuse that absolves you of blame or responsibility. An excuse not to do the harder work.

How We Deal With Red Herrings...Throw Them Back In The Ocean

Red herrings are, by their very nature, distracting and tempt us to shift our focus, if only for a minute. The first step then is really about recognizing when you may be in the presence of a solution that smells like one. Diversity of thought, respectability politics, and performative allyship are three that come up often in conversations about diversity; however, they won't be the only ones. To make sure you aren't caught off guard, as you do this work, you should always be asking these three questions:

  1. Does this feel easy? When you are stepping up to right a wrong or to balance the table, you will meet resistance. Allyship is meeting that resistance so that marginalized communities don't have to. While change is the only true constant, it also is something that so many of us abhor. If your act of allyship was easy to do or get people to support, then you should question what the end goal was supposed to be and whether you truly achieved that outcome.

  2. What am I being asked to change? Movements for change aren't only about the system; they are about us as well. If we change the laws, dismantle the system, and declare publicly that everyone should have access to the same opportunities, but still think that certain groups are inferior or undeserving of what we have access to, then our work is not done. Supporting a movement is about more than being on the right side of the conversation. It's also about confronting those truths about ourselves that the movement has made us feel guilty, shameful, anxious, or self-conscious about, then doing the work to confront it. If you come through the other side of an act of allyship and you are the same person you were when you started...then do not pass go, do not collect $200.

  3. Would I be satisfied in the same situation with the solution? Empathy, in particular compassionate empathy, is about us not only seeing what someone else sees and feeling what they feel but also being compelled to act in support of them.

As we work to address situations where fairness and equality are at issue, we need to lean into empathy. It's not enough to consider whether the solution and response to a problem make sense to us. If you are not trying to understand the solution from the point of view of the marginalized community or the person being treated unfairly, then any attempted allyship will miss the mark. I love this question from educator Jane Elliot, known for her Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes experiment. To an audience of white people, she asks: "if any white people in the audience would be okay with the treatment black people receive in society, would you stand up? [After no one stands] We know what is happening. We know what we don't want. So why are we so comfortable allowing it to happen to other people?"


If you are serious about this work., don't be misled when given the opportunity to take the path of least resistance. In other contexts, we accept that building our awareness and knowledge, shifting behavior and learning a new skill, and forming consistency around new habits requires commitment and effort.

Showing up as an ally requires that same commitment to awareness, behavior change, and consistency.

Don't chase red herrings. Stay the course, and do the work.


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