Developing Emotional Intelligence for Allyship

As we talk about issues of social justice and equity, there are often skills/abilities that undergird and compliment being a good ally. Of these complimentary skills, emotional intelligence is instrumental to developing more meaningful allyship by teaching us how to counteract emotional responses based in privilege and address the unequal weight given to privileged groups’ emotions. If you are a staff member, faculty member, or graduate student interested in learning more about this topic, we encourage you to attend our upcoming workshop, featuring Justin Woods of EQuity Social Venture, on Friday from 10:30-11:30 a.m. via Zoom.

Reflect: How are Emotions Tied to Social Justice and Equity?

Consider a time when your emotions went unrecognized, such as when you experienced pain. How did that make you feel? Why was emotional recognition important to you in that moment? How do you think repeated, generational denial of your emotions would feel? When we talk about developing emotional intelligence, we must keep in mind that not all emotions are treated the same. People with marginalized identities are frequently penalized for processing their feelings after experiencing discrimination (Jacobson, 2021), while also often dealing with stereotypes about emotionality (e.g., women being discredited for being “emotional” or the effects of the “angry Black Woman” stereotype). This punishment is especially prevalent when the feelings of a person with a privileged identity are deemed more important than those of a person with a marginalized identity (Matias, 2016; Turner, 2015). EI not only helps us disrupt privileged responses to discomfort around allyship, it also helps us fight for an emotional justice that has long been denied to marginalized communities (Paul, 2015).

Learn: What is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence (EI) can be broadly understood as your ability to manage your own emotions and understand the emotions of others. Unchecked negative emotional responses to discussions of oppression show how people with privilege hold onto prejudice (Bonilla-Silva, 2019; Talaska et al., 2008) while seeking ways to avoid responsibility/downplay oppression for emotional comfort (Watt, 2007). This lack of EI in the face of the realities of oppression can rise to the level of systemic policy that structures our daily lives, such as the current push in Florida to legally ban lessons about racism that might lead to "discomfort" for white people. Counteracting this phenomenon by developing emotional intelligence teaches us to accept accountability for our behavior, even when we don’t feel comfortable, and begin to break down the privilege that we have been socialized with. Research suggests that EI promotes commitments to social justice and equity (Cartabuke et al., 2019), as well as creates a stronger likelihood for allies to speak up about injustice (Grant, 2013). When we can step back from an autopilot of emotional responses that have been formed in the context of inequity, we can begin to see where our privilege prevents us from being allies and actively contributes to furthering oppression.

Change: How can we develop emotional intelligence?

  • Put Emotional Intelligence into Practice: While we advocate for taking the time to develop your EI, it can be hard to know where to start. The Six Second Model from sixseconds can help us develop EI to learn better allyship, needing only six seconds to step back and interrogate our privilege. Tune in to your emotions and reactions, asking where they come from. Assess when your reactions are actively contributing to oppression and choose, instead, to react in a way that emphasizes the humanity of the other person. Connect and learn about the lives of people unlike yourself, so you can better understand the diversity of societal experience. This practice can help us better identify privileged behaviors that prevent us from owning up to our mistakes, instead choosing empathy, humanity, and justice when faced with discomfort.
  • Call Out the Downplay of People with Marginalized Identities’ Emotions: EI requires that we work to be accountable for our emotions and exercise empathy, which means we should address when others are using emotions to actively marginalize others. If you hear someone say “calm down” or “stop making a big deal out of nothing” when a person with a marginalized identity expresses their feelings about a discriminatory incident, discuss how putting down these emotions contributes to oppression by minimizing the reality of living with discrimination for marginalized communities. Calling others out also includes when they covertly use the privilege given to their emotions to manipulate others. An example we have previously discussed is the use of tears by white women to avoid responsibility for racist behavior (Accapadi, 2007; Hamad, 2018; Phipps, 2021). Follow up with people and have conversations about how they can learn to interrogate their privilege and respond with empathy in the future.