Community Q&A: As a white manager, how do I build trust and be a good ally to my colleagues of color?
DEI Coalition members talk about allyship in practice, acknowledging power dynamics, and building trust
When the DEI Coalition For Anti-Racist, Equitable, And Just Newsrooms launched in March 2021, we hoped to find a way for some of the Coalition’s privately shared knowledge to become public resources that could help everyone and uphold the established expectations of privacy and trust in our space. Today, we’re kicking off one iteration of how to make those conversations public while honoring our shared community agreements and values and the default off-the-record nature of the DEI Coalition.
In many digital community spaces, like our Slack, a lot of conversations happen as “Community Q&As,” where one person asks a question and multiple community members share their own questions, experiences, and perspectives on the topic.
To turn our conversation into a public resource, we asked everyone who participated for explicit permission to share their words. If a community member did not give us permission, we did not include their contribution below, even anonymously.
Both the question and answers have been edited for clarity and anonymization purposes.
I’m a white leader, and I’ve recently started working with a new reporter of color on high-level projects. I am trying my hardest to be an ally, and I know that I will mess up along the way, and that it’s my job to learn from my mistakes and do better. Is it helpful to communicate any of this to my reporter?
For example, while talking about dynamics in journalism and in the newsroom, is it obnoxious or helpful for a white manager to say something like: Look I know I am a white manager and have that built-in lens when I look at stories; if you see that happening and you don’t think I am seeing all sides, please let me know and don’t feel like you have to sit in silence just because of our roles.
DEI Coalition Community Responses:
Overall, the community shared that it can be helpful to communicate your intention to be more thoughtful and inclusive as you work toward being a better ally, but only do so if you are genuinely committed to taking consistent, dependable actions to help others over time.
DEI Coalition members (including the person who asked the question) had a great discussion touching on what allyship means in practice, what needs to be acknowledged in this situation, how to build trust as a leader and an ally, and the personal work you can do to show up for others.
What allyship means in practice (You’re probably already using some of these skills!)
“Allyship, like friendship or partnership, is a state of being — consistent, dependable action to help others over time.”
- You can think about it like this: “If an action is a one-off, even if it is positive, that’s when motives are questioned and you hear the term ‘performative allyship.’ Do you have your reporter’s back just in a one-on-one conversation, or do you also have their back in a meeting with the whole department?”
- “Consider why you’re feeling pulled to talk about your support for your teammate in these terms. For example, if it’s based on an ongoing commitment to use your influence, resources, and relationships on behalf of this teammate, that’s a green flag. If it’s based on feelings of fear or anxiety about your own reputation and how you’re perceived, that’s a sign to dig deeper on your own, or with people you trust, so you can better understand what’s going on internally first.”
Allyship is achievable and part of being a good leader or colleague. Consider the things you’re already doing that you can build on.
- “Allyship is … just part of creating good journalism and fostering environments where journalists can thrive. The allyship part that elevates it above being a good manager or colleague is the acknowledgement that the playing field is not level.”
- “Allyship, if you are not used to actively practicing it, is something you have to be deliberate about … but in practice, it doesn’t have to be so hard, especially if everyone is doing it. Then it’s just regular. It just becomes part of the work culture — because some of what we consider allyship of journalists of color is the same stuff white journalists have been doing for one another for years — mentorship, asking for feedback, etc.”
“Allyship is not the end-goal, it’s practicing your values effectively.”
- “The term ‘ally’ implies that white people’s contributions to making newsrooms better places for people of color are helping a cause that’s not theirs.”
- “Identifying what you want to see change in your thinking, your team culture, and your newsroom to better support your new teammate (and you, too) can help you follow through and cut down the level of awkwardness.”
What needs to be acknowledged
Knowing that you’re an ally could very well be welcomed, and it will probably help to say so explicitly.
- “From my brief experience as a white editor, there was a point in a project where I realized that I had been assuming that my reports knew that I was aiming to be an ally for them, but that wasn’t actually a fair thing to assume, and that I needed to say it. I could of course be wrong, but my interpretation of the reaction when I told one of them that this was one of the goals that was most important to me it A) needed to be said and B) was welcomed.”
- “I think so often in news there is extra scrutiny placed on any claim in our journalism that racism happend or racism is a factor or that we have to prove racism, so I think maybe it’s good to flip that around and assume that we have blind spots and make it explicitly clear we should flag it when that happens.”
Acknowledge the power dynamics. As a manager, asking an employee to tell you if you’re being problematic is a big ask.
- “One way that pops up is that the uneven power dynamics remain even if allyship is professed, so one way for that bad outcome to happen (i.e. “you didn’t follow through as an ally”) is failing to acknowledge that trust takes work over time or an acknowledgment of an uneven playing field. That doesn’t always neatly apply to one forward-facing project.”
- “I’m also cognizant that it’s a BIG ASK to tell an employee hey feel free to tell me if you think I’m being problematic — that’s A LOT TO ASK. And it definitely shouldn’t be on an employee to keep their boss from messing up. And the only way many people are going to be able to develop that trust over time is through that longer process.”
How to build trust as a leader and an ally
Once you share your intent, it’s crucial to follow through or it will make things worse.
- “While that’s a great message if you are truthfully open to learning and growth (which it sounds like you are!), often white people will say they’re trying to learn as a mask for bad behavior, or as a defense. If you’re gonna say this, make sure you’re ready to walk the talk! Otherwise your staffers of color are just gonna be disappointed if they do bring you a critique and it’s not received well.”
- “It doesn’t hurt to mention your intent out loud since newsrooms can be stifling in making space for these conversations to happen. But, I don’t know if mentioning intent is enough. I think you have to consider the power dynamics, and that your intent is only as good as your actions. If your actions reflect your good intentions, then I imagine that puts the other person at ease and models the sort of openness and dialogue you’re looking for. I’ve seen too many instances of what ends up feeling like performance when a white co-worker says they’re an ally but doesn’t follow through to reflect that.”
- Try not to make this about you and your success at being an ally: “As a white editor, at the end of the day I don’t think I’m the person who gets to decide if I followed through, but that was certainly the goal.”
How to build trust incrementally and act authentically
- “There’s an incremental way you build that trust up, and build a practice of having these conversations together. I could see this first being about a story someone is working on. For example, something like, ‘I know that I have a built-in lens, especially about this story about TK and if you think my edits have blind spots I want you to tell me because I want your story to serve the community as much as possible etc.’ Then, after a few of those conversations, the next conversation could be about career paths or something else you choose.”
- “There’s a lot to do (even in a subtle manner) to defuse the interpersonal tension in these situations. In my past, I feel like bringing your authentic, emotionally intelligent self has been a difficult thing for some editors to do. But if an extension of allyship is supported by someone who’s actively being friendly, affable, and supportive in other ways and contexts, that puts me at ease as a BIPOC journalist. That means they’re actively trying and that allyship isn’t being imposed on them as some external mandate.”
- “I have an editor who asks at the end of every check in, ‘Is there anything I can be doing differently to better support you?’ and the first few times I was like hmmm is this a sincere question, but she asks it every time and so I started trying out ‘easy’ asks and when she followed up, I trusted that this is in fact sincere for her, and knowing the question is going to come up regularly means I can prepare for it. I’m grateful for her consistency in this regard.”
“I agree that some of this needs to be incremental and that to build trust you have to not just talk about it but be about it, especially in a way people can see. This is particularly important in your actions outside of just a one on one with a direct report.
For example, if you amplify them in a meeting (Jenna, that’s an interesting point. Tell us more…) or call out an interrupter (George, I don’t believe Jenna was done with her point. Jenna, why don’t you go ahead…) that goes a long way to building trust. Like, oh, this person actually means it. Also if you express in a group setting that you want to be called out on blind spots, and then you also do it one on one, I think that makes people feel more at ease. Because I have definitely had the experience of a manager or peer asking for my feedback and then just not being able to handle it when I give constructive criticism in even the most diplomatic manner.
One last thing is acknowledging that positive or negative, what you say is amplified by the privilege of your position as a manager. But I definitely believe saying out loud that you are open to feedback helps — and even better showing in examples. Like: ‘Am I missing anything with this turn of phrase?’ ‘Do you think we need to add some context to this part?’ ‘It’s important to me that we get this right and the folks we’re writing about feel this story is for them.’”
Personal work you can do to show up for others
- After one person shared about dealing with a lack of self-confidence and underestimating their own power, another member of the Coalition said, “…I wonder about the personal work here that isn’t necessarily explicitly about race, but influences your ability to show up for colleagues in the trustworthy, confident way you want to. I’m doing this coaching program right now and a lot of the conversations have been about how to use your power and talk about/respond to things (sometimes related to race or discrimination, but often not). I wonder if your hunch about confidence could also be another way to explore this question, building up your strength there in general, and then being able to use those strengthened skills as a manager/ally/accomplice!”
- “Highly recommend Finding Freedom: White Women Taking on our Own White Supremacy as a place to lean into the confidence and the racial, class, and gender dynamics that shape how we show up, the agency we feel, and the change we can make.”
Leaders who want to be great allies to their colleagues of color first need to build trust. Start by working through the usual barriers that prevent us from being open with each other. Do not make assumptions about how easy it is to speak up and actively work to upend the power dynamics or blind spots that get in the way.
Trust also isn’t established overnight. Leaders should incrementally build trust over time, such as by holding themselves publicly or privately accountable, or by also putting their own reputation on the line to support their colleagues (ex: call out interrupters in a meeting or amplify the ideas and work of your colleagues of color).
Being a good ally (and a good leader) is an active process of building confidence in everyone involved, including the leaders themselves. Allyship is a state of being and everyone can practice allyship skills every day. Many of these skills, such as asking for feedback and amplifying colleagues, are already skills journalists use on a regular basis. Keep building momentum, by honing these skills and expanding them to others in the newsrooms who could use the support, and they will continue to become second nature.
This public resource was created out of a conversation between some members of the DEI Coalition Slack. We asked everyone who contributed to the conversation for explicit permission to share their words, and if a community member did not give us permission, then we did not share any parts of a conversation, even anonymously.
Contributors include Caroline Chen, Ashleigh Graf, Lizzy Hazeltine, John Hernandez, Erika Owens, Destinée-Charisse Royal, Sisi Wei, and many others. This public resource was compiled by Sisi Wei and edited by John Hernandez.
- DEI Coalition Guide on Source — This guide is a collection of any public resources Coalition members create, which includes resources like this one, as well as pieces that share the Coalition’s structure and process.
- Sincerely, Leaders of Color: What white allies can do — Sincerely, Leaders of Color is a Source column by Emma Carew Grovum and P. Kim Bui that’s written for everyone in the journalism industry who cares about creating a more supportive environment for journalists of color to do their best work. As they’ve shared in this piece: “We’re often asked by well-meaning white allies what they can do to support our work. Here’s just a few places to start.”
- Join the DEI Coalition. Interested in having conversations like this one, sharing knowledge, and taking concrete action in service of a more anti-racist, equitable and just journalism industry? Join us!
The DEI Coalition For Anti-Racist, Equitable, and Just Newsrooms consists of more than 1,000 members of the journalism community dedicated to sharing knowledge and taking concrete action in service of a more anti-racist, equitable and just journalism industry. Join the DEI Coalition Slack or check out our Public Resources.