Published: Jan. 24, 2023

As a part of the Buff community, there are things we can do to create and maintain an inclusive campus environment. When it comes to looking out for each other, both on and off campus,  here are some tips for being an ally and addressing harmful language or actions when you see or hear them.

1. Learn and listen

Begin with educating yourself about the lived experiences of others from backgrounds and identities different from your own. This includes people from cultures, ethnicities, identities and abilities that vary from your experience or familiarity.

Make an effort to be inclusive in your daily life—be mindful of the language you use and the content you share on social media. As you learn more, reflect on and acknowledge the advantages and biases you may have. Confronting our own biases is often challenging and uncomfortable, and necessary if we want to help create change.

2. Be an effective ally

It can be exhausting for people who have been marginalized to constantly feel like they have to address problematic comments or behaviors. Learning and practicing skills to address racism, sexism, homophobia or other abusive acts directed at people with marginalized identities is a critical way to be an ally. 

There are many effective bystander strategies that allies can use, and even subtle acts can have a big impact. It can be valuable to speak up without speaking on behalf of others even if it’s just to let someone know that you don’t agree with their actions. You don’t need to have the perfect response to show your support for someone who is the target of harmful words or actions.

3. Have the tough but important conversations

Addressing harmful language or actions may lead to some tough conversations with close friends, family members and colleagues. Yet it is important that we have these conversations. 

When addressing someone’s words or actions, you’ll want to be strategic about your approach. Think about what outcome you hope for from the conversation. Are you hoping to educate someone? Show solidarity with someone who’s being harmed or targeted? Set a boundary for future interactions? Before going into a potentially difficult conversation, it’s important to check in with ourselves about what we’re hoping to achieve and what might realistically happen.

It can help to approach the situation with compassion and curiosity, and assume that the person didn’t intend to be inappropriate or offensive. We can’t really know what is in someone’s heart.  If possible, avoid getting angry with someone who makes a one-off inappropriate comment. This could put them on the defensive, which reduces the likelihood that they will actually hear feedback. Regardless of their intent, showing compassion gives them the opportunity to save face and do better in the moment or in the future.

Here are some examples of how you could approach the conversation:

  • “You may not realize that the comment you made had a negative impact. I’m wondering if we could talk about it.” 
  • “I think we have really different perceptions about this issue. Could you help me understand where you’re coming from?”
  • “I hear where you’re coming from and I know some people feel differently. Would you be open to hearing other perspectives?”
  • “I don’t agree with what you said. I’m wondering what has led you to this belief.”

When we have tough conversations, they may become heated or escalate more than we had expected. If need be, ask to take a break and return to the conversation after everyone has time to cool off.

Change doesn’t happen overnight. Conversations may not always resolve the way we’d like, and sometimes seeing progress requires a series of conversations and a willingness to keep engaging. We can’t control the outcome, but we can control what we say and do.