A series of interactions on Facebook and Twitter have left me a bit jaded and cynical when it comes to people who call themselves “allies.” It seems as though these people have missed some very important memos about what that word really means, so I am here to clear the air.
- You are not above reproach. Just because you’ve volunteered a few times or occasionally speak out against discrimination does not mean you can do no wrong. I’ve grown tired of telling so-called allies that something they did or said was problematic, only for them to say “I’m not being cissexist! I LOVE THE TRANNIES!” or “I’m totally not homophobic. I speak out against homophobia all the time.” You may speak out against discrimination, but having been socialized with privilege you are still bound to have some discriminatory ways. Own up to it and correct it. As a Twitter follower (@TheFireNexTime) said, “If you can’t take the criticism of your privilege, get out the movement.” Also, if you turn your back on the community because you were critiqued, you are not an ally.
- Having marginalized friends does not make you an ally. You have a gay best friend and sister-in-law who uses a wheelchair? Wonderful. I have one sock on as I write this. All jokes aside (though, I really am wearing one sock…), with the different types of diversity that exists in the world you are bound to know some marginalized people. Simply being nice to them is not enough to call yourself an ally. That is barely enough to call yourself a decent human being.
- You cannot appoint yourself an ally. In order to be an ally, people in a specific community must feel that you are one. Sometimes it happens that a few people in a community see you as an ally while others do not. This does not mean you ignore those who do not. It means you shut up and listen in order to become a stronger ally. You may get conflicting information. For example, one woman may say it is acceptable to call them “a lady” while another woman may find it demeaning. Doing one or the other in the presence of certain people does necessarily mean you are a bad ally. Remember that each person may view an issue differently. Monolithic (human) societies do not exist. As an ally, act accordingly.
- You are not a part of the community. This mainly applies to LGBTQ+ supporters who think adding an “A” for allies is a good idea. You may march arm-in-arm in the streets and even be accused of being LGBTQ+ because of your support, but at the end of the day, you do not share our problems and thus are not one of them. Even though you may lie down in the trenches with a community, at the end of the day you still have the rights they are fighting for.
- Your opinion is not and will never be more valid than a person from that community. While yes, it is true that at times allies can teach the community a thing or two, such instances are rare. Taking a Queer Studies course, or even majoring in it, will not make your thoughts on more homophobia or transphobia more important or valid than a queer person’s. Why? Because you read books and they have experience. I read an article on what it is like to perform open-heart surgery once. Would you let me work my magic on you?
- Marginalized people do not owe you an explanation. As an ally, you may strive to understand everything about the community you support. This is good. Demanding that that community breaks itself down for you to understand, however, is bad. Google exists. Utilize it.
- Remember: intersectionality. A White man who uses a wheelchair is waiting at a bus stop. A Mexican man walks up and waits with him. Who is more privileged? When the bus comes, the driver tells the Mexican man that “illegals” are not allowed on his bus and asks the Mexican man to move so that the White man may board. The Mexican man walks away. As the White man tries roll his wheelchair onto the bus, he gets stuck in the gap between the curb and bus platform. Realizing that he will be unable to board the bus, the White man rolls away*. Who is more privileged? Trick question. White people have race privilege over Latin@ people. Someone who is able to walk has able-bodied privilege over someone who uses a wheelchair. Although one person may hold privilege over others in one way, they may be oppressed by those same others in different ways. It is important to remember that intersectionality exists and plays a pivotal role in the experience of marginalization. Do not assume that a Black woman and White woman experience sexism in the same way and for the same reasons.
If you have ever broken one of these “rules”—and I’m sure you have—it does not mean you are a bad person. It just means you need work! No one is perfect. When born into privilege it can be difficult to see the world from another view. Part of being an ally, however, is consciously dedicating energy into doing just that.
Being an ally does not mean you have to march down the streets with “I’m an ally” pamphlets and paraphernalia. Many marginalized people would prefer that you didn’t, honestly. It’s obnoxious.
Being an ally means not only standing up for a community even when they’re not around, but:
- Checking your privilege at all times
- Understanding that knowing marginalized people ≠ being inclusive
- Not being upset when critiqued despite your attempts
- Acknowledging that “ally” is not an identity
- Knowing that your opinion takes a backseat to those with experience
- Remembering the intricacies of oppression
Being an ally is tough, but not nearly as tough as being marginalized. If you really want to use your privilege for good, memorize these seven simple concepts and prepare to learn a million more. I promise you’ll be thanked for it.
Just so we’re all clear, the Mexican man and White man who uses a wheelchair both find a new bus stop, where a wheelchair-accessible bus with a non-racist driver arrives and happily takes them closer to their destination. If only the world were so simple, eh?
Sarah Jackson of wanderinglove offers four more tips on being an ally in her piece entitled “On Being An Ally.” Remember that self-educating thing I mentioned…?