REBOOT: What Happens if You Screw Up as an Ally?

Six steps to putting things right

Hello friends,

When I first published this post, very few people got to read, so I’ve added it to my reboot series, which will be published no more than once a month. I think this topic is worth resurfacing, because no matter what kind of discrimination you’re countering, being an advocate or ally often comes with missteps; it’s what we do after a misstep that counts…

What Happens if You Screw Up as an Ally?

Today I want to talk about messing up. It’s something we all do in this quest to be better anti-racists, and better human beings. You see, we don’t know everything, and sometimes we can tread on people’s toes without meaning to, or even say or do something really offensive. It’s practically a given that this will happen at some point in the journey, maybe even multiple times. I’m here to urge you not to give up, and to share some advice on how to handle it when it happens.

1. Acknowledge the harm done and the feedback

Remember, your intention pales into insignificance beside the impact on the person who’s affected. The first step in repairing the harm is to acknowledge the feedback they have given you and the harm they have felt. This should be immediately followed by step two.

2. Apologise, and mean it!

Say sorry and mean it. This has to be a real apology, not one with caveats, and not one that seeks to excuse. If the next word after I’m sorry is “if”, you’re already on the wrong track. Start with “I’m sorry that I” and you might give an apology the person wants to hear. A true apology acknowledges the harm and takes responsibility for it. You also have to promise not to do it again.

Update: It’s important to try to repair the harm, in a way that works for the harmed person. Note that the harmed person may not want anything from you - or to even see your face for a while - but it’s still essential to attempt to make it right, and to accept any discomfort that comes with that. Speaking of which…

3. Release expectations of forgiveness

Release any expectations of forgiveness from the person or group you're apologizing to (they don't have to accept it, and may feel so hurt that they're not in the right space to accept it). You also have to accept that they may never look at you or feel about you the same way, depending on the harm done. Silently acknowledge their right to feel that way, and if that’s how it shakes out, move on, and do better with the next person.

4. Process what you’ve learned

If someone has taken the time to tell you they’re hurt, they want you to do better. This is where you do your own work (don’t double down by asking them to educate you) and figure out where you went wrong. Maybe you have other people you could ask if you need help with this. Consider apologising again, and saying how you will do better. If anyone’s helped you with your learning, make sure to thank or compensate them appropriately. (Emotional labour shouldn’t be free, especially NOT from Black people.)

5. Avoid doing it again

Whatever you do, don’t make the same mistake again with the same person (or preferably, not at all), otherwise they’ll assume you don’t really care and that your apology was fake. For extra credit, share what you’ve learned with others on the same journey so they can avoid the error, too.

6. Don’t give up

When kids learn to walk, they fall a lot. Accept that mistakes are part of your growth, and keep going.

Update: I’ve certainly made mistakes and been called in before, and my aim is always to learn more and do better, so I can continue to level up as an advocate or ally. One resource I’ve found useful is the Allyship Guide by Amelie Lamont. In particular, the “boots and sandals” metaphor is a great way to think of how to respond when called in or out.

What tips would you add?

Thanks for reading,


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I am an anti-racism educator and activist, Co-Founder of Mission Equality, the author of “I’m Tired of Racism”, and co-host of The Introvert Sisters podcast.

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© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2024. All Rights Reserved.

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