I Need You To Stop Right There: Calling Out Bias and Other Actions for Allies

Each week, Karen Catlin shares five simple actions to create a more inclusive workplace and be a better ally.

Better Allies®
5 min readSep 18, 2020

1. Know when to call out bias, even in public

Early in my career, I learned to “criticize in private, praise in public.” That said, there are times when I need to let someone know in the moment that their words or actions are unacceptable, regardless of whether it’s a one-on-one conversation or in a group setting. I have a feeling I’ll be doing more of this as part of my personal goal to be anti-racist.

Most recently, this happened when I was enjoying a socially-distanced outdoor dinner with some friends. At one point, someone said something racist, and I simply couldn’t let the conversation continue. I called them out. In public.

As I continue to my journey to be anti-racist, I’ll leverage Interrupting Bias: Calling Out vs. Calling In by Seed The Way, a firm focused on anti-bias curricula and equity literacy for educators. They recommend calling out bias when:

  • We need to let someone know that their words or actions are unacceptable and will not be tolerated
  • We need to interrupt in order to prevent further harm
  • We need to hit the “pause” button and break the momentum

Their handout also has suggested phrases allies can use to call someone out: Here are just a few:

  • Wow. Nope. Ouch. I need to stop you right there.
  • I need to push back against that. I disagree. I don’t see it that way.
  • Okay, I am having a strong reaction to that and I need to let you know why.

Let’s all choose one of these phrases to use the next time we need to call out bias.

(Many thanks to newsletter subscriber Liz Blickley for bringing this handout to my attention.)

2. Use “exempt” instead of “grandfathered in”

In policy and law, situations that are exempt from a new rule are referred to as being “grandfathered in.” This phrase is related to poll taxes and literacy tests some states used to prevent Black men from voting. While these states couldn’t ban Black men from voting in the nineteenth century, they could make it difficult. They used a “grandfather clause” exempting white people from the taxes and tests if their ancestors had the right to vote before the Civil War. (Want to understand more about this history? Check out this ten-minute video from the Washington Post.)

Unfortunately, this phrase is still popular today, even though it’s referencing a terrible part of our history.

Why are we not using “exempt” instead?

(I learned about the Washington Post video from Danielle Coke’s weekly Patreon newsletter. Thank you Dani.)

3. Encourage male colleagues to take parental leave

This week, Reddit cofounder and venture capitalist Alexis Ohanian wrote an opinion piece for Fast Company Why now is the time to destigmatize paternity leave, for good. He did so after reading about a business leader allegedly disparaging a male colleague who was contemplating taking leave. After sharing his personal experience taking four months of paternity leave, he went on to say,

“The implication that paternity leave is unimportant sets a dangerous precedent, one that suggests fathers are not an integral part of the child care unit, and perpetuates the antiquated belief that mothers alone should be the primary caregivers.”

Folks, let’s not disparage male colleagues and other non-birth parents for taking parental leave. By contrast, let’s encourage them.

4. Use stock images featuring people from underrepresented groups

After the publication of my first book, Present! A Techie’s Guide to Public Speaking, my coauthor Poornima Vijayashanker and I created a presentation to share its key messages and drive awareness (and hopefully sales). After we outlined our talk, I dove into designing a slide deck, using stock photography and other images to reinforce our speaking points. I purposefully chose images of women, taking the opportunity to showcase diversity — or so I thought.

I believed I’d done a good job with our slides, until my daughter Emma saw me deliver that talk. Afterwards, she pointed out that all of the stock photography was of white women, many of whom had blond ponytails. Jeepers. I hadn’t even noticed. (As you might have guessed, I immediately changed the slide deck to reflect more diversity.)

Here’s a reminder to allies everywhere: representation matters. It may be understated, but the simple act of using stock images of people from underrepresented groups makes a difference. There are many resources (some of which are free) to make it easy for you. I’ve listed several of my favorites here.

Make them your go-to websites for finding stock images whenever you need a photo or illustration.

5. Share mistakes you make on the journey to be a better ally

As you’ve just read, I share the mistakes I’ve made trying to be an ally. If you’re a regular reader of my newsletter, you know I do this often. In fact, I count myself as a member of the imperfect ally club.

Now here’s something I learned this week about why we all should share our mistakes. In an article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Leading Edge CEO Gali Cooks wrote about how surprised she was to discover a lack of psychological safety in her organization. She values inclusion, yet by focusing on promoting a positive culture, she unwittingly created a workplace where employees didn’t feel comfortable giving each other constructive feedback or sharing unpopular opinions.

Cooks goes on to explain that sharing mistakes and what we learn from them is one way to increase psychological safety on a team. Doing so normalizes failure, which encourages more people to step outside their comfort zone and try new things, knowing they’ll be supported if they make a mistake.

In her book Dare to Lead, Brené Brown wrote,

“People are opting out of vital conversations about diversity and inclusivity because they fear looking wrong, saying something wrong, or being wrong. Choosing our own comfort over hard conversations is the epitome of privilege, and it corrodes trust and moves us away from meaningful and lasting change.”

Let’s all put in the effort and be okay with making mistakes. Share any you might make along the way. By normalizing it, you may inspire others to join you on the journey to be a better ally.

(Thanks to the Aleria team for sharing Gali Cooks’ article in their weekly newsletter.)

That’s all for this week. I wish you strength and safety as we all move forward,

— Karen Catlin, Founder and Author of Better Allies®

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