Recent history has been particularly fraught with hatred and prejudice. And while discrimination is anything but new, the conversation on how everyone can make a meaningful difference is taking a firm hold in a fresh, encouraging way. One way to truly make a difference is allyship.
By definition, an ally is an individual who speaks out and stands up for a person or group that’s targeted and discriminated against. Allies work to end oppression by supporting and advocating for those who are stigmatized, discriminated against or treated unfairly.
While everyone should strive to be an ally, it’s important to note that “ally” is not a title you can claim for yourself. Being an ally is an action, not an identifier. It’s exemplified by the way you live your life. It’s fine for members of traditionally excluded communities (think: BIPOC, LGBTQ+, those with disabilities, etc.) to refer to others as allies. But it’s not something that you should walk around calling yourself; the statement ”I am an ally” is in itself performative. Performative allyship is arguably just for show, and awarding yourself the title of an ally does nothing to further the causes of the actual communities you claim to care about.
If you’re wondering how to be an ally, it’s clear that you have good intentions and want others to know you’re on their side. However, one thing to be particularly mindful of when thinking about how to best show up and do the work is to remember that it’s not about “helping” other people. This is oftentimes where the white savior complex comes in. The white savior complex is defined by Layla Saad in her book, Me and White Supremacy, as “the belief that people with white privilege, who see themselves as superior in capability and intelligence, have an obligation to ‘save’ BIPOC from their situation.” Simply put: The goal of being an ally is mutual liberation, not savior-ism.
To summarize the mindset necessary to approach the work of being an ally, we turn to Lilla Watson, an Indigenous Australian activist, academic and artist, who delivered the following quote at the 1985 United Nations Decade for Women Conference in Nairobi: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Now, what it means to be an ally (and how to be an ally) to specific groups is going to vary depending on the group. For example, being an ally to members of the LGBTQ+ community will require different actions than being one to the Black community. Sure, there may be some overlap, but different groups have different experiences and unique needs and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to allyship.
That being said, there are a few universal steps to take to be an effective ally — no matter the community.
Injustice occurs everywhere and, oftentimes, you may not understand or know the history or nuanced nature of complex issues. The essential part, however, is that you take the time to educate yourself on those topics. That does not mean relying on members of oppressed communities to be your teachers—unless, of course, they offer it. It’s not anyone’s responsibility to be your teacher. So, being a good ally means taking the time to do the research, learn the history and build your knowledge of different groups then and now. With so much information available, it can be hard to decipher what resources to trust. One of the easiest ways to determine accurate information is to follow reputable social justice educators and platforms. Many of these accounts provide education themselves and share incredible resources, as well.
Gathering more knowledge allows you to develop a better understanding of the history and complexities around how marginalized people experience the world, but the reality is, you’ll likely make mistakes along the way. When that happens, the best thing you can do is resist the urge to get defensive, and take responsibility for your mistakes, as well as use the experience as an opportunity for growth.
Examine your privilege.
Regardless of identity, everyone possesses a varying level of privilege—some have more than others. And with more privilege, comes more responsibility. When you approach the work of being an ally, it’s important to remember your position in the world and take an intersectional approach. This means examining the things that allow you to navigate your life more easily. (That’s not to say you don’t have your own challenges, but you might be better positioned and equipped to overcome those difficulties more seamlessly than others.) Your privilege often allows you to speak up, disrupt and interrupt injustices with a level of safety that those more intersecting identities simply don’t have. You can acknowledge that protection as a form of privilege, and then use it as leverage to help take meaningful steps toward change.
You can examine your privilege by taking an honest inventory of your life. You can start with a self-assessment, thinking about how you identify (race, nationality, sexual orientation, gender, ability status, etc.) and if any of these identities are characterized by stigma, systemic oppression or barriers to access. This practice can help you begin to recognize the privilege in your life—the keyword being “begin,” as examining your privilege should be an ongoing process forever. Everyone should actively consider their positionality and privilege in every situation, and recognize that these factors play a large role in creating a vastly different experience in the world than that of others.
And while on the topic of privilege, let’s remember that the end goal is not to “use your privilege” for good, as that insinuates a desire to maintain the privilege that you possess. Ultimately, your goal is to dismantle the systems of oppression that allow these privileges to exist in the first place.
Actively unlearn your biases.
Being a good ally requires constantly working to unlearn your own biases. When your biases are left unexamined and unchecked, you’ll likely cause harm to others even when that’s not your intent. You can mean well, but unexamined implicit biases in your life can still inform the way you do the work and the way in which you interact with others.
The first step to unlearning your biases is to recognize and identify them by questioning the initial thoughts that pop into your mind. These are the thoughts that are often easy to ignore but need to be interrogated. Another super-accessible way to begin to recognize your biases is to take some of the Implicit Association Tests created by Harvard University. These tests cover a range of topics, including gender, sexuality and religion as well as race and weight, and were designed to help individuals recognize their stereotypes.
Once you begin to develop a better awareness of your beliefs, you can work to replace behaviors that naturally stem from these biases with fair and equitable actions—all while also unlearning your previous social conditioning. Throughout this process, it’s important to remind yourself of what you really believe and value; pay attention to what is true instead of what you fear based on any stereotypes and biases. Examining and unlearning your biases is also a lifelong process that you need to continue working on for the long haul.
Be mindful of language.
In your quest to be a good ally, you have to think critically about your word choices, as what you say has a huge impact on people’s experiences in the world. You’ve likely adopted certain phrases and terms and have become so accustomed to using them as slang that you’re disregarding the problematic or painful origins of these words. Some examples include savage, spirit animal or tribe.
Thinking critically about your word choices can have a substantial impact on other individuals during, and after, your interactions. Additionally, ensuring that you’re being inclusive in your word choices and taking the time to learn the best (and worst) terminology is a necessary component of being a good ally. For example, instead of using heteronormative gendered language, try to adopt gender-neutral vernacular as a matter of practice.
Avoid performative allyship.
Sharing information (such as on social media) is important, but far more important is the way you are engaging in real life. The work of being an ally requires action; it must go beyond just sharing. It involves speaking up about prejudice when you see it (yes, even in the moment), and believing that you have the power to affect change. You can’t be a good ally if you’re silent in the face of discrimination. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
What’s more, people don’t benefit from hearing you self-identify as an ally. They benefit from the collective power of individuals taking action in the face of injustice. It’s easy to talk about being an ally, but when you don’t back up your words with action, you fall into performativity. Actual allyship also may require sacrificing personal gain at times. If you’re not willing to pass up opportunities, money and perhaps even relationships to demand justice and equity for members of traditionally excluded communities, you may need to question your commitment to allyship.
Similarly, as tempting as it may be to share with the world how you’re a good ally, it’s important to recognize that being an ally is not something you treat as a game of show and tell, especially for members of the dominant group. Allyship is not something that deserves praise or kudos. If you’re ever expecting recognition or gratitude for your actions or service, that’s a good indication that you’re working toward allyship with the wrong mindset. The best way to be a good ally is to do the work without talking about the work.
Resist the urge to be an expert.
While it’s exciting to learn new information, it’s important that instead of being the expert on a topic, especially for an identity you don’t possess, that you support and elevate the works of others with those identities. For every marginalized identity or experience, myriad people have already been educating and advocating for their community. Besides having the actual lived experience, they have also done the work long before allies. Instead of centering yourself, it’s imperative that you amplify the work which is already being done. Members of traditionally excluded communities aren’t lacking leadership or educators. The issue historically has been the silencing or erasure of their messages.
It’s also necessary to understand that learning about concepts is far different than having actual lived experiences. So, when you’re working to be a good ally, you should ask yourself if you’re listening to and centering the right voices. And remember that regardless of how much knowledge you possess, you likely don’t know what is best for a community of which you are not a member.
Being an ally is not warm and fuzzy work. It requires a diligent and ongoing effort that most often will be uncomfortable and inconvenient. Additionally, it involves you continuing to unlearn and dismantle white supremacy in your own life. The words of Gandhi reflect the spirit of being an ally: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Being an ally always begins with introspection. You have to constantly ask yourself what are the ways in which you’re being complicit, and question how you’re taking action that is leading toward greater equity for traditionally excluded communities.
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