Everyone has their own approach to being an ally. I’m not here to say who is right and wrong, just to share what I’ve learned in the course of trying to be a better ally, myself. Becoming better is, honestly, all there is: you will never be perfect, or at a point where you can stop improving. It’s a lifelong process. To stand still is to fall behind.
It might help to start with a definition. What is an “ally”? An ally is a person who is relatively privileged (see: straight white able-bodied cisgender male) who supports the efforts of less-privileged people to achieve equality and justice. There are as many ways to support those efforts as there are people supporting them. To be clear, here I am addressing people much like myself, with similar levels of privilege. By no means am I out to lecture everyone else. That said, I’ve found the following advice particularly helpful:
Remember Why You’re Here
You are here to help, not steal the show. It’s not about you and it’s not about me. You’re not doing it for the rewards–in fact, you might end up paying significant personal costs. Depending on how outspoken and active you are, you might lose your job, friends, or more. In some instances, you may be risking injury or even death. No matter what level of risk you decide to assume, remember that you aren’t owed any gratitude for it. You’re doing it because it’s right, not because you want a cookie.
You’re also not here to rescue people. You are not taking up the White Man’s Burden. You are acknowledging that deep, systemic injustices exist, that you benefit in some way from those injustices, and you are seeking to have those structures dismantled. Your job is not to apologize for being privileged or talk about how you feel guilty.
Amplify Other Voices, Not Yours
Use your privilege to elevate the words of the people you’re allied with; don’t speak for them. They can speak for themselves! If a camera or microphone is pointed your way, do whatever you can to amplify a marginalized voice. Put them front and center and step off to the side, yourself. That’s one way to use your privilege.
It’s worth mentioning the irony in me saying this on my own blog where (currently) no one else posts. When speaking on social justice issues, I try to make a point to link to people who can speak more directly to the issues I am addressing. I intend to act as a gateway, rather than a destination. Don’t listen to just me, and don’t take my word over someone who actually faces these injustices every day.
Accept Criticism Gracefully
You will mess up; everyone does. If you are called out because you said something insensitive or offensive, don’t become defensive and turn it into a full-on conflict. Stop and examine your own behavior. Is it possible the person taking issue with your behavior is acting badly? Well, sure. It’s possible. Is you blowing up at them going to help matters? Not at all. And remember, as an ally, you are a guest to the proceedings–those actually facing oppression and seeking justice for themselves have a right to that space. It is not your place to challenge them when you’re criticized.
Step back, sincerely apologize, and try not to repeat the mistake.
Don’t Hijack Others’ Anger
This one can be hard and it’s one I have struggled with myself. Seeing how other people are treated can be extremely upsetting, even enraging. You want to do something about it, and you want to express that anger. You might look for people saying the wrong things so you can unload on them. But, in the end, you are not the one being oppressed–you don’t have the right to take the experiences of others, the stories that fueled your anger, and turn it into a weapon. Of all the criticisms of “outrage culture” or “political correctness run amok” (topics for another post, I’m sure), this is perhaps the most valid. It would be easy for me to use my anger over these issues to exercise my privilege and silence people for minor transgressions, and even be actively oppressive without really meaning to. I’ve certainly been guilty of this and it’s something I try to be much more aware of going forward.
Boiled down to a quip: before telling someone else to check their privilege, make sure you check your own, first.
Be Intersectional and Avoid “Oppression Olympics”
Social justice issues are messy and it can be difficult to know how to navigate different kinds of oppression in relation to one another. There’s sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia–the list goes on. Someone may be dealing with more than one of these issues at a time. Be aware of this complexity and how different forms of oppression interact and intersect with one another (hence, intersectionality). Does a woman of color face more obstacles in life because of her gender or the color of her skin? The truth of the matter is that it varies: sometimes one is more important than the other, depending on the situation, and sometimes the combination of both is what limits her possibilities. In such an instance, then, it doesn’t make much sense to focus solely on racism or sexism–both matter!
By the same token, don’t play “my oppression is worse than your oppression” games. Lots of people have had hard lives for a variety of reasons. Some have surely been harder than others. But there’s nothing to gain by this kind of one-upmanship when the goal is a just society. Others may prioritize their efforts differently from you and that’s OK. Justice is not achieved all at once, but in bits and pieces. Let each person do their own part.
Educate Your Peers, But Be Careful
If you’re in a position similar to mine (that is, relatively privileged), it might be a good idea to try to educate or even police your peers. This is a particularly fraught area, since it does carry risks. Snapping at your boss for telling a racist joke, for instance, could cost you your livelihood. With that in mind, I can’t dictate what anyone is obligated to do in this area. Everyone must evaluate their own tolerance for risk and act accordingly. But if you feel you can speak up, do so! Just be careful about how you do it. Combining the above points: be tactful, and don’t use your own privilege to bludgeon people. This doesn’t mean you should soften your words to avoid offending the person, but that it’s better to be clear that you are criticizing what someone said/did, rather than who they are as a human being. They may not take well to the critique either way, but at least you’re clear about what you are criticizing and why.
In a more public venue such as a social media page, firm criticism of oppressive behavior can have a chilling effect on others who might be inclined to make similarly troublesome comments. There is no guarantee of this, of course, but if it cuts down on the volume of such material, that’s a plus.
And remember, while people fighting their own oppression aren’t obligated to educate others, you are not being as good of an ally as you could be if you aren’t using your position to do so. Try to discuss calmly and avoid personal attacks–you are criticizing words and behavior, not people. You may or may not get through to people. What’s important is that you gave it the effort. And I can say with some confidence that, even if one or two (or more) conversations don’t get through, you may plant seeds that sprout much later. The person you are trying to educate may later think more about what you said, even months or years down the line, and rethink their perspective. In a lot of ways, that characterizes my evolution into the person I am now. It didn’t happen overnight but over a long period of time, with many steps along the way. You never know if you might help someone take that first step to being more aware of the world around them, and the oppressions and inequities that others suffer which may be invisible to you.
Once again, I am neither the first word nor the last on this subject. Don’t take my word for everything. Educate yourself, and act!
For further reading:
* [10 Things All "Allies" Need to Know](http://everydayfeminism.com/2013/11/things-allies-need-to-know/) * [How to be an Ally if you are a Person with Privilege](http://web.archive.org/web/20161012090339/http://www.scn.org/friends/ally.html) * [The Do's and Don't's of Being a Good Ally](http://theangryblackwoman.com/2009/10/01/the-dos-and-donts-of-being-a-good-ally/) * [12 Ways to be a White Ally to Black People](http://web.archive.org/web/20160430013519/http://www.theroot.com:80/articles/culture/2014/08/ferguson_how_white_people_can_be_allies.html)
Photo by Ted Van Pelt