Ally Smells: Fear of Speaking Up


I recently covered a bunch of "bad ally" behaviors. Some of the items on that list are downright awful, and some of them are more akin to the ally equivalent of a "code smell". They're not that awful in isolation, but they are often a sign of deeper problems. The more they occur, the worse those problems probably are. I am working on exploring some of these "ally smells" in more detail.

Today I want to talk about "allies" actively and publicly talking about being afraid to discuss issues related to diversity and oppressed groups. Often they're not clear about why exactly they're afraid, leaving others to try to draw conclusions. I am going to address some potential sources of these fears and why they can be ally smells.

Fear of othering

One potential fear is being labeled as a "diversity advocate" or a "white knight" or one of a hundred other names that read as other. Fear of getting a reputation and all of the potential consequences that come with that. Once they are labeled, they may lose some of the benefits their privilege gave them. It's a risk.

I can see where this fear comes from. It is essentially the fear of being treated like the people they are allied with. They see them being targeted with abuse for talking about these issues or even just for living their lives. They assume the consequences may be the same for them.

However, the consequences often aren't the same for them. A woman says something, and she's seen as difficult. A man says the same thing, and he's praised for how thoughtful he is. This isn't always the case, but it's common. Some outspoken allies have noted that they never or rarely receive threats. They get called a few names while their friends receive threats of violence. Not exactly the same scale of danger.

Allies often have an easier path to take a break from these things. They can decide it's too much, back off, and return to normalcy. It's not the same for those they are allied with. They are directly impacted by the issues they are speaking about. Often even their presence is seen as a problem. They can stop being outspoken, but they can't stop being who they are. Again, not the same risks being taken.

The ally smell here is in drawing a false equivalence between the risks and fear for allies and for those they are allied with. They're not the same. They're usually not even in the same ballpark. It can be frustrating to hear someone claim they know and share your struggles when they've only tasted a tiny part of it. It can also diminish those struggles in the eyes of others when discussed publicly.

This doesn't mean allies aren't allowed to be afraid because others have more to be afraid of. By that argument, women in tech shouldn't complain because women in other countries aren't allowed to work or leave the house. Someone somewhere is almost always fighting a harder battle. However, it is important to keep all of this in mind when discussing these fears publicly.

Another danger with talking publicly about this type of fear is being too vague. People can assume you mean one of the other more problematic fears I discuss later on. An excellent way to discuss this is: be clear about what you're afraid of; mention that it is even worse for others; and target the culture, people, and institutions that generate that fear.

Fear of making mistakes

Another potential fear is the fear of making mistakes. This is an incredibly rational fear. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone. The fear isn't the ally smell. It's the public complaining that is.

There are plenty of axes where I am the privileged one. I'm white, able-bodied, and cisgender, just to name a few. I'd be lying if I said I was never afraid of making mistakes, but I try to keep those fears to myself or discuss it quietly with friends. Why? Because that fear is small, and it is mine to work on. It’s not worthy of advertising to the world like I deserve pity for it or it’s someone else’s fault.

I have made mistakes. It's unpleasant. That drop in your stomach when you realize that you said or did something harmful when you were just trying to help. The urge to explain that you didn't mean it. Wanting someone to comfort you about how awful this feels and remind you that you're a good person. But you can't do those things because it would be digging in and making it about your feelings instead of the harm you did. All of this feels awful, and that is appropriate. Harm was done, and actions have consequences. I'm afraid of feeling that badly again, but it's a helpful sort of fear. It's a deterrent from repeat behavior. A reminder to think before I act.

Complaining about this publicly can suggest you think you deserve to make mistakes without consequences. This does not reflect well on you. Instead, focus on learning how to make mistakes well. It is an important skill that everyone should learn.

Fear of disagreement

Fear of disagreement is yet another potential issue. People with this fear want to share their thoughts and are afraid of being told that they're wrong, particularly if the message isn't delivered with a spoonful of sugar. They often see disagreement as unwillingness to listen to varying viewpoints. The curt, dismissive, or even hostile deliveries of that disagreement is seen as an overall hostility to that person's demographic or people who don't comply with a specified agenda. They would be wrong about this in most cases. So let's break down what's actually going on here.

Priority for discussions of issues impacting a group and how to address those issues should be given to members of that group. They are the best equipped to understand their lived experiences, the issues impacting them, and what they need to improve the situation. They also have a very obvious and direct stake in the outcome.

Members of these groups and some of their allies spend a great deal of time doing research, writing about these issues, and actively working on them. It is frustrating when someone with little to no experience jumps in and demands their ideas be given equal weight and attention. This is especially frustrating when similar ideas have been been repeatedly addressed in the past, and it becomes clear the person hasn't done even a modicum of research. This isn't unwillingness to listen to other ideas. It's unwillingness to listen to the same poorly researched ideas over and over again.

An analogy might help here. Imagine if someone came upon your open source project, didn't check your README or contributor guidelines, did no background research, and demanded you add a bunch of features that made no sense or have already been discussed ad nauseam. You'd be annoyed. Some people might be kind and discuss it with them. Some might gently point them at documentation. Others would tell them to RTFM (read the fucking manual). Now imagine this happens on your project every day or even multiple times a day. Over time, the RTFM response becomes more common as people run out of patience and energy.

Another problem can be ideas that make a lot of assumptions about the lives and experiences of the people directly impacted. Telling people how they should respond to or feel about situations you've never experienced is incredibly presumptuous. If they respond with frustration, this isn't hostility to dissent or your demographic. It's hostility to your arrogance.

Your thoughts and feelings about these issues are not a priority, and sometimes people will disagree with you about it. Complaining about being afraid of that makes you look insecure and incapable of handling disagreement. Taking the time to educate yourself, do research, and listen to those directly impacted would be a much better use of your time. Then you will have a good background to share helpful input.

Fear of anger

The fear of anger is often a continuation of the fear of disagreement. This tends to focus on the especially hostile forms of disagreement and responses that aren't so much disagreement as telling someone to fuck off. Anger can be frightening, and these people are afraid of having it directed at them.

The anger certainly exists. Myself and others have told people to fuck off or responded in other hostile ways. This hostility is usually words telling people they're wrong or to leave someone alone. The most they are usually in danger of is some shouting or profanity. In contrast, members of the oppressed groups often receive serious threats of violence just for talking about these issues.

The important thing here is to consider what sorts of "discussions" of diversity issues tend to result in anger. People aren't usually responding to "I care about diversity" with "FUCK OFF YOU PIECE OF SHIT!!!" The anger is nearly always in response to a rude, dismissive, derailing, or hurtful comment from someone. Often the first response was polite, and the anger only followed when someone insisted on digging in. You're not entitled to be an asshole or to have zero consequences for doing so.

Some people might claim they don't realize they're being a jerk. I am pretty skeptical of this, but even if it's true, that's no excuse. It's not up to other people to teach you manners and appropriate behavior. If you're so afraid, take some time to do research before you join these conversations. My 101 off limits list might be a good starting place.

Fear of public criticism

Last, but not least, is fear of public criticism. There are certainly cases where members of a privileged group have weighed in on issues impacting others and received a torrent of negative public responses for their efforts. However, I think it's important to think critically about what happened in those cases before claiming they create a culture of fear.

In almost all these cases, the privileged person acted publicly and/or was in a position of power. When you act in public, there is a reasonable expectation that your actions may be criticized in public. Most of these cases also aren't tiny mistakes. These are people actively saying racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic/etc. things in public. These are people threatening, dismissing, or otherwise being awful to members of oppressed groups. These are people repeatedly hitting on previously mentioned ally smells and other problems to the point where it indicates a pattern of behavior that needs to be addressed. Public criticism doesn't come out of nowhere, and there is a reason for it.

It's also worth noting that in most of these cases, the person targeted with the public criticism is mostly (if not totally) ok. Even Pax Dickinson still has a job.

Fight your fears

The best inoculation for these fears is understanding the arenas you are entering. Running into a situation you don't understand swinging wildly is likely to lead to bad consequences in any part of life, not just diversity discussions. Take the time to research the issues, educate yourself, and listen to others who understand these issues more than you do. Complaining about these fears instead of doing these things makes you look bad and makes you a poor ally. You can have something valuable to add, but you need the baseline knowledge and an understanding of how the environment works first.