How to Be an Ally When You’re an Introvert

introverts are allies

Introverts, we need your voices out there.

Pandemic restrictions are starting to lift across the United States and other countries, and many of us are beginning to emerge from our introvert caves after months of sheltering at home. It feels like we’re entering a brave new world. Demonstrations ignited by George Floyd’s murder have erupted all over the world, prompting many of us to take a harder look at the systemic racism in our own countries. 

As an introvert, the turmoil, heartache, and anger in the Black Lives Matter movement resonate deeply with me. I want to stand in allyship with the black community, and in a way that’s effective, respectful, and responsible. Yet, as an introvert, I struggle with how best to do so.

So here’s what I’m learning about making my (quiet) voice heard. If you’re also an introvert who’d like to be an ally, read on.

As an Introvert, I Feel Comfortable Behind the Scenes

In the past, I’ve been comfortable serving as a supporter behind the scenes. I’ve donated, voted, written letters, and educated myself through reading. I list these activities not as an act of performative allyship, but simply to describe what I’ve done. As an introvert, these activities feel safe as I can engage in them without face-to-face interaction. I don’t have to worry about feeling overwhelmed. I can do them at my convenience and without venturing into the outside world (thank you, absentee ballots). Although these kinds of activities are important, it no longer feels like I’m doing enough. 

I’ve never marched in protest. Large crowds make me uncomfortable and send me into sensory overload. I’ve rarely called out my racist relatives when they say, for example, that black people complain too much or that immigrants are taking our jobs. I become emotional during confrontations and fear that I’ll clam up when put on the spot. Deep in my heart, I know these are excuses. It’s all too easy to hide behind my introversion, especially given my identity.

Who I Am

I am a biracial, middle-class, brown woman. My mother is Mauritian of Indian descent, and my father is white of English descent. My parents met in the late 1970s when they were both working at the American Embassy in Mauritius — she as a secretary and he as a Marine security guard. When they moved to Minnesota in the early 80s, my mother struggled to find work. With her dark skin tone, people saw her as foreign, and she believes racism ultimately prevented her from being hired. 

After years of applying, my mom finally landed a job as a concierge at an international hotel, where her name, accent, and skin color made her less of a liability. She kept this job for the rest of her working years. Although she applied half-heartedly to other companies here and there, she maintained that no one else would hire her. Her “otherness” made her too much of an outsider. 

My mother’s struggles informed her perspective of being brown in America. For her, it’s a white person’s game, and all we brown people can do is keep our heads down and play by their rules. And for most of my life, I’ve played by the rules. I’ve accumulated degrees. I wear preppy clothes. I’m seen as approachable and “articulate.” Although I’m not white-passing and am clearly a person of color, I am white-adjacent.

For a While, I Played the Game

In the past, I’ve followed her advice. I kept my mouth shut when a white coworker said to me, “Of course we’re a diverse organization. We have you.” I kept my mouth shut when my white supervisor remarked, “I don’t get why it’s so hard to be a person of color. As a white guy, you don’t get anything.” I kept my mouth shut when a manager said, “Don’t worry about [insert name of black coworker] getting laid off. They’ll probably just keep him around for the optics.” Apart from a few moments of courage, I have mostly remained silent (and therefore complicit) in the racism I’ve witnessed. 

I believed that as long as I was not hurting anyone directly, I could still play the game. I made safe choices that elevated me from a working-class childhood to a middle-class adulthood. I believed that being a person of color (and having experienced racism myself) absolved me from any culpability in the system. That I didn’t have the political capital to risk by outwardly calling attention to inequities. Any bigotry I experienced along the way was simply an inconvenience. I could be a silent ally and still benefit from the game.

And here’s the insidious truth about systemic racism: You don’t want to change the game when the game is working in your favor.

Now the Stakes Are Clearer

With the murder of George Floyd, the stakes of the game have become all the more apparent. If playing the game ultimately leads to murder, and results in the oppression of millions of black and brown people, it’s a game I no longer wish to play. 

As I contemplate going back out into the world, post-quarantine, I will no doubt encounter racism again, in person. Will I hide behind my introversion and my tendency to stay in my head and keep to myself? No. I have the choice and the ability to speak up.

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How to Have Difficult Conversations About Race

I believe one of the best ways we introverts can be allies is to not shy away from difficult conversations about race. If you haven’t engaged in these conversations, or perhaps had a negative experience with them, they may seem scary. They’re scary for me, and I certainly don’t have all the answers.

All I know is that when I approach them looking to prove my point and needing to have the perfect retorts at the ready, I bring stress, competition, and ego to the table. When I do that, they’re less productive and more likely to turn into an argument. Instead, I’m learning to reframe them as opportunities for learning.

It’s okay for them to be messy. And when I remain calm, receptive, respectful, and authentic (which we introverts can excel at!), I set the stage for meaningful dialogue and ultimately take a small step toward dismantling ignorance.

Thankfully, there is a wealth of resources available from people or organizations with far more expertise than I have. For example, I’ve worked through the Difficult Conversations: Self-Assessment from Teaching Tolerance to help me think about how I can better participate in these conversations in the future. While this guide is geared toward educators, I found the perspectives and strategies useful. Based on my self-assessment, here’s an introvert-oriented approach I’ve adopted:

Step 1: Take a breath.

I tend to internalize conflict and respond emotionally. By taking a breath, I can give myself an opportunity to calm down. In this way, I can enter the conversation from a proactive, rather than a reactive, place. Taking a breath also allows me time to gather my thoughts before speaking — which is crucial for us introverts.

Step 2: Lean into the discomfort.

Like many, I have avoided race-related conversations for fear of saying the wrong thing. What if I accidentally say something racist, too? It will require courage to overcome my fear and discomfort, and I will remind myself that the potential for meaningful dialogue and the chance to confront racism (including my own) is worth it.

Step 3: Seek to understand, then to be understood.

If I reiterate what the other person said, I can clear up any misunderstandings that may have been the result of simple miscommunication. Once I understand the remark and give the other person space to share their intentions behind it, we are both more likely to be receptive to further conversation. For example, this might look like, “So when you asked me where I was really from, what you’re saying is, you wanted to know about my ethnic background?”

Step 4: Speak authentically and from my own perspective.

Speaking authentically allows me to set the tone for having an open and honest conversation. If the remark is about me, it’s important for me to focus on how it impacts me personally (e.g., “When you say that you see me as white, it makes me feel like you are discounting my experience as a person of color.”).

If the remark is about someone else, I should still focus on the impact it had on me. We have to be mindful of speaking for marginalized groups, as doing so is a form of oppression in itself. 

In this way, I can challenge the remark and its impact, not the person who said it.

Step 5: Seek additional resources, if necessary.

In a perfect world, these conversations would all end with a sense of mutual understanding. However, depending on the context and outcome of the conversation, other steps may be warranted (e.g., a follow-up conversation, documentation, contacting HR, etc.).

By using this approach, I’m hoping I can feel more primed and prepared when I do encounter racism. It’s just one step on my journey toward becoming anti-racist and a more outspoken introvert. I hope these steps inspire you to develop your own approach and to feel more confident in engaging in these challenging conversations. Introverts, we need your voices out there.

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