Ally (verb): 1) to unite or form a connection or relation between, 2) to form or enter into an alliance with (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).
In the realm of social justice work, an ally is generally understood to be a person who takes these actions in relation to a group or groups who have been, and continue to be, in some way disenfranchised. Allies are necessary to any movement for equality, but sometimes self-proclaimed allies make serious missteps. The ally fails I’ve witnessed of late—and there have been quite a few—inspired me to begin writing this post. “What’s an ally fail?” you ask.
Ally Fail (verb): 1) to say or do something insensitive (aka boneheaded, aka uninformed, aka privilege-soaked) regarding a group or groups you claim to be allied with; generally accompanied by the refusal to acknowledge your mistake (aka spiraling into self-righteousness, aka da’ nile is not just a river in Egypt) (My Personal Dictionary).
Below are four quick and dirty tips that have arisen from my observations and conversations with others about what it means to be an ally in the wake of such fails. At the risk of violating some kind of copyright regulation let’s call this “Being An Ally for Dummies.” Feel free to suggest points that should be added and edits that should be made, this is by no means an exhaustive list but meant as a starter:
1. Privilege exists, and you have it. And guess what? That doesn’t make you a bad person; it makes you a person who has the social power to challenge inequality in ways that others perhaps don’t, and, it makes you a person who should take responsibility for having conversations about these privileges. I truly believe that anyone who wants to be an ally needs to start with some serious self-reflection. Try this, sit down with a piece of paper and make a list of the social privileges you have by no merit of your own. For example, white privilege, male privilege, hetero privilege, economic privilege, etc. Here is one from my list:
I have hetero-privilege and cis*-privilege—because my birth sex aligns traditionally with my gender identity as a woman, and because I am primarily attracted to people whose birth sex aligns traditionally with their gender identity as men. Thus, I have the privilege of living in a society that was built around the idea that people like me are the “norm,” while gay, lesbian, transgender, and other queer folk do not. These privileges allow me to be read as “normal” when it comes to my sexuality and physically appearance, these privileges reward me for the mates that I choose and allow me to proudly display both my gender identity and my significant other in public. These privileges allow me to pass without harassment around people and groups who feel fear, judgment, disgust, or hatred toward GLBTQ people and give me not only social but legal advantages like being able to get married in any state I want, file joint tax returns, and adopt children, just to name a few. I can access both physical and mental health care based on the needs of people like me. These privileges have allowed me to grow up in a world where my self-worth was never challenged on the basis of how I did or didn’t perform gender, and no one ever suggested that I should change how I identify or who I love in order to live a “normal” life. I did not earn these privileges; they were bestowed on me by a heteronormative, homophobic culture.
Now, does the fact that I have hetero and cis privilege mean that I do not also have marginal identities? Of course not, I am also 1) a mixed-race African American, 2) a woman, 3) a person from a working-class family. Thus, I can simultaneously experience marginalization because of my race, gender, and class identities and privileges along the lines of others. It is my responsibility if I want folks to recognize white privilege, male privilege, and economic privilege to also acknowledge the ways I am hetero and cis privileged. I must also be aware that privilege and oppression are very socio-historically specific and that none of my privileges and marginalizations are the same, nor do they equal each other out, which brings us to the next tip…
2. Don’t play the Oppression Olympics. Don’t. I know it can be tempting, but look, being an ally is not about comparing who has had it harder; it’s not about comparing my oppression to your oppression. Being an ally is about recognizing that even if you have experienced marginalization, that experience does not mean you are not responsible when you perpetuate the marginalization of others. For example, white women have been marginalized on account of being women, does that mean that white women can declare this marginalization the same as that experienced by the descendants of African slaves in the Americas? No. Plenty of white men grow up poor or working class, and these experiences matter and should be recognized in conversations on economic equality, but does their class background mean that they cannot be racist or sexist? Of course not. Some of the most obvious ally fails I’ve witnessed involve playing the Oppression Olympics. Just because you’re black doesn’t mean you know what it’s like to be gay, and no, gay is not “the new black.” Let’s stop with comparing, it feeds into the idea that social justice is a zero-sum game in which one group winning means another group must lose, and it’s not. No matter who you are or what your experiences, being an ally requires you to listen with compassion, not defense or one-upmanship, to those you seek to ally yourself with. Which brings us to…
3. Listen. This may be the hardest part of being an ally. Listening to people whose experiences are different than yours, valuing these experiences as equal to yours and being self-reflective is a requirement of being an ally. These things are not only required when those who you consider yourself an ally to are criticizing larger structures or individual actions and people you see as “the problem” but also when they’re criticizing you. Yes, you. It’s often easy and comfortable for allies to believe themselves to be “above” the type of behavior that marginalizes others. Allies pride ourselves on not perpetuating the –isms we are concerned with (racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, etc.) in our everyday lives, but guess what? Allies are human. You are human, I am human, and we are all capable of missteps. We are all capable of inadvertently saying or doing something that is less than sensitive and less than progressive, and when we do, we should welcome the criticism of those who recognize these actions, for often we cannot see them ourselves. When a member of a group you consider yourself to be allied with calls you out on something, resist the urge to say indignantly “BUT I AM NOT THE ENEMY!” It is likely that the fact you are being called out means the person knows you are not generally the enemy (or they wouldn’t bother), but the second you deny the possibility that your social location allows you privileges that may lead you to say or do things that are marginalizing to others you become a part of the problem, you start to act suspiciously like the enemy. (Feminist media critic Jenn Pozner recently tweeted a nice set of criteria she tries to stick to if, and when, she makes mistakes in her attempt to be an ally which you can check out here.) Which of course, brings us to…
4. Act. Act often and act much. Here’s the thing, being an ally and being in support of something are two different things. There are plenty of people who can say they support gay marriage, support civil rights, support equal pay for equal work, support sexual assault education, etc. Unfortunately, merely saying you support something is not enough to make you an ally. Allies act. Allies look like Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman who recognized that as white men the privileges they were allowed would play a significant role in drawing cross-racial attention to the cause of civil rights. They did not try to take over the cause; they showed up for the cause and learned from those who they were allied with. They understood that the second they joined the march for racial justice they were giving up some of their privilege. They temporarily gave up the privilege of being able to walk down the street or ride a bus without harassment to make a point that everyone should have those privileges, and in their case, this ended up meaning they gave up the privilege of their lives. I’m by no means saying you have to die for the things you claim to support in order to be an ally, but would you? Would you at least be willing to use your privilege to have conversations that might make your friends, family, and coworkers feel uncomfortable? Would you be willing to take action that could lead to losing relationships? Would you be willing to risk losing customers and be subjected to hate speech by kicking a hate-spreading senator out of your place of business? Would you be willing to be seen and treated differently by people within your in-group? Be called a “sell-out” or a “mangina’ or a “wigger?” (And, yes, these last two are actual terms that men I know who are feminist allies and white people I know who are racial justice allies have been called by their friends and families). Allies are willing to do all these things, and as an ally you must be willing to recognize that your status as such is only as good as how you are acting right now. If you’re straight and you march in the pride parade every year and cast votes in support of gay marriage, but right now you are saying something transphobic, trans folks have a right to call you out on not being a good ally. It you’re a man who avoids using sexist language and encourages other men to consider the limiting nature of traditional gender roles, great, but if right now you compare something you disagree with or find unpleasant to rape, don’t be surprised if the women whose side you thought you were on suddenly question if you really are.
Be aware of your privilege. Don’t play the Oppression Olympics. Listen compassionately. Act even when it’s difficult. Cop to your mistakes. These are my suggestions on being an ally.
*cisgender is a term used to describe people whose biological sex aligns along traditional lines of gender identity; for example a person who identifies as a man and is biologically male. The term arose from the necessity of describing the taken-for-granted experience not available to transgender people, whose biological sex and gender identity don’t “match” traditionally constructed norms, for example, a person who identifies as a woman and is biologically male. Cis should not be confused with hetero nor should trans be confused with gay/lesbian as the two latter both refer to sexuality while cis and trans refer to gender identity.
Sarah Jackson is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Northeastern University in Boston, MA. Her research and teaching focus on how media discourses of race, class, and gender reinforce and/or challenge concepts of national belonging. Outside her academic life, Sarah volunteers with youth in educational equity programs, does a lot of yoga, and fantasizes about being an artist. Read more of her writing on Wandering In Love and follow her on Twitter @sjjphd.