The complexities of being an ally

It seems like recently tallyhe entire Democratic Party platform has been framed around the concept of allyship– being an ally for the poor, racial minorities, religious minorities, immigrants, women, the LGBT community, etc. You name the group the GOP is callously attacking (everyone except straight, cis, old, Christian, rich, American, White men, really), the Democratic Party is there to be an “ally”… and to insidiously court their vote. But are they really doing a good job of it?

Dear Democrats and all other “allies,” says an ally is “a person who associates or cooperates with another; supporter.” I mean, I guess that’s not wrong… but it’s not exactly right, either. In terms of social justice, an ally is someone who isn’t a part of a marginalized or oppressed group, but is working with them for the good of that community. They believe in the importance of the struggle for justice and are willing to use their privilege to further the cause. (Primers on privilege, oppression, and marginalization here and here; on microaggressions and prejudice here)

In theory, allies are able to sometimes communicate messages people are more willing to hear because people with privilege can more easily stomach lessons on privilege and prejudice from someone else with privilege. So White people can tell other White people they’re being racist without being accused of just being an “angry Black person.” A middle/upper class person can explain the importance of welfare to another middle/upper class person without being accused of just wanting handouts or being a social loafer. A man can explain to another man why sexism hurts without being told it’s “just your time of the month.” For whatever reason, ideas about ending prejudice just seem more valid from the mouth of someone with privilege. (This Daily Show with Jon Stewart clip nicely illustrates my point).

But in practice, a lot of allies are problematic. Because bad allies can be worse than your opponents– they’re supposed to be on “your side” but they’re not really acting like it. Think of a struggle for social justice like an actual battle. If your military allies are just horrible fighters– if you’re spending all your time and resources educating them how to use the weapons and keeping them from hurting themselves– or they’re ridiculously bossy and co-opt all the decision-making processes– they undermine your efforts and decide that they’re the expert on the issue rather than you who has been struggling through it your entire life– or they start working hard and then right when it gets tough, throw in the towel, leaving you to do more than your fair share… you might decide they’re doing more harm than good and that you’re better off without the alliance.

I’m no longer convinced there’s any such thing as a perfect ally because we’re human and we make mistakes (a lot). We’re also socialized creatures and our privileges tend to interfere with our social justice concerns. But that doesn’t mean we can’t struggle through our mistakes and misconceptions to at least try to be a good ally. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up on being a better ally to any struggle:

Recognize that you will make mistakes, and apologize when you do.
You will make mistakes. Guaranteed. You will be microaggressive, you will make poor decisions, you will just generally do something dumb. The important thing is you apologize when you’ve made a mistake and make a point to not do that thing again. Be accountable.

If you use microaggressive language, for instance, don’t argue with the person who points it out that it’s “not what you meant” or that they’re “taking it the wrong way.” Frankly, it doesn’t matter what you meant to say or do; only impact really matters. And if the impact was hurtful, apologize, learn from your mistake, and make an active decision not to do it again.

Hillary, for your mishandling of the “superpredator” comment, read this section again.

Understand your own privilege. You can’t be an effective ally if you don’t understand your own place in the struggle. That means recognizing your privilege and how it works. That also means being comfortable with the fact that you have that privilege so that you can use it for the benefit of those who don’t. (Super cool Buzzfeed article on this here)

Understand that having privilege doesn’t mean you didn’t work hard, doesn’t mean you don’t struggle through things as well, and it isn’t an accusation; privilege means there are certain things you don’t have to confront because of an identity you were born with. Understand so that rather than people spending their time educating you, they can spend it making change. Remember: if you have privilege, you are– by default– part of the problem. It’s up to you to do something about it. Don’t feel bad/guilty/sorry; do something.

Bernie and Hillary: actually using the word “privilege” when talking about it would be really helpful.

Listen. Listen. Listen.
If you’re an ally, your job is to use your privilege for the benefit of those without it. That means you don’t know what it’s like to not have privilege. To try to learn what that’s like, you have to listen.

You need to educate yourself. That requires listening to those people who live it day in and day out. You are not the expert. You will never be the expert. That’s not your job. Listen and learn. There are so many resources out there (what with the Internet and all) that can help you educate yourself, but you have to recognize your need to learn and take the initiative to do it.

But this does come with a careful caveat. Listening shouldn’t devolve into tokenizing. Remember that no one person can act as the mouthpiece for their entire “people” and shouldn’t be asked to do so. No group is a monolithic, homogenous entity; every group features rich diversity. Recognize that when you’re educating yourself.

Bernie and Hillary, you’ve both evolved in your understanding of #BlackLivesMatter after trying to listen to the movement, but there’s still room for you both to grow; Hillary, you a little more so.

If you are an ally, your job is not to co-opt the space– absolutely NOT.

Regarding allyship with Muslims, Zoha Qamar says: “You are here to speak UP, not OVER… Just listen. It is the foundation of allyship.” Let me just repeat that: up, NOT over. That difference often comes down to whether you are silencing the voices of the community or whether you are, at their behest, helping to amplify them.

Regarding allyship with trans folk, Hari Ziyad writes:

“Speaking for trans people when they can speak for themselves further robs them of an often disallowed platform and voice… It also insinuated that I [an ally] can say better what they can about their own lives, or that it is more important coming from me. It reinforced the idea that a non-trans person’s existence has more meaning, the very thing a person seeking solidarity should be fighting against.”


If you are an ally, you need to defer to the decisions and the wishes of the marginalized group engaging in the struggle.  It’s difficult because according to society, you are in control (that’s privilege); but if you’re being a good ally, you’re deferring to others and giving them control. Your job is not to be in a leadership position making decisions on their behalf. Because, again, you– a person of privilege– haven’t experienced the struggle.

You will never fully understand the struggle of an individual facing prejudice, and you should never pretend that you do.
No matter how passionate you are about the issue, no matter how much literature you’ve read on it, no matter how long you’ve been involved with the cause– you don’t understand what it’s like to live without that privilege. Logically, theoretically, you might “get it.” But it’s still just an intellectual curiosity without the experiential component. Having privilege means that you don’t have the life experiences of living with prejudice.

Qamar says: Sympathy, not empathy.

“Your support is key, but in your sympathy, please don’t pretend to be exercising empathy. It’s really simple: if you’re not Muslim, you don’t know how it feels to be Muslim… Acting like you completely get the issues at hand may illustrate you as trivializing or narcissistic, and thus alienate you in ways. Just avoid it… There are so many ways to show sympathy without fabricating your version of empathy into the equation.”

Bernie’s trying to wrap his head around that with his commentary that White people can’t understand racialized poverty but still mistakes Black=poor=ghetto (which is a fallacy).

Frankly, a lot of being an ally is just being ready to stand up to the bullsh*t. You have to have a zero tolerance policy for prejudice. And that means BS from Drumpf/Cruz/Rubio, but also your good friend Bob. Which can be uncomfortable, but it’s really important. Because think how much more uncomfortable it would be if the prejudice was actually directed at you.

Sometimes it’s unsafe for the people who directly face the prejudice to confront it themselves. Sometimes it’s really just too emotionally exhausting to confront it. Plus, sometimes people are willing to say something prejudiced to another person of privilege that they would never say to anyone else. For instance, the “diet racist” won’t actually say the horridly racist thing they’re thinking… until they sidle up to another White person and spill it all out. It’s critically important that you make it very clear that you won’t stand for that prejudice and explain why it’s wrong.

Also! FYI: it’s not “just a joke.” It’s never “just a joke.” It’s something that makes a space hostile, dangerous, and threatening. That’s not an excuse for prejudice.

Qamar on stopping BS:

“Call it and kill it. Don’t stand for it. This applies especially to halting hate-talk by people within your own racial sphere and realm of privilege. Read: white allies, shut shit DOWN. Please. There is so much utter intolerance spewing from so many kinds of people on so many kinds of platforms. Your objection and denouncement could hold a very serious hand in halting much of this hate.”

And finally, being an ally isn’t an identity, noun, or hobby. It has to be an active, on-going thing. A verb. Allyship requires continuous deliberate action. As an ally with privilege, society has given you the opportunity to defer your allyship to tomorrow or the next day or the next week or the next year– or never again– and you won’t suffer for it. As a good ally, it’s your responsibility to continue to be an ally even when it isn’t “convenient” for you.

Part of that is not giving up or backing down even when it’s tough. Because if you’re facing prejudice, you can’t just bow out and decide “meh, I’m not feeling like being Brown/Black/female/trans/Muslim/impoverished/etc. today.” That’s not how it works. And if you’re trying to be a good ally, recognize that. And then keep going.

But that also means that you continue to actively improve your allyship. If someone says you did something crappy or that you’re being a bad ally, don’t be defensive. This goes back to my first point: you’re going to make mistakes– it’s inevitable. You have to learn from them. Own up to your mistakes. When someone says that what you’re doing is problematic or that it hurts/offends them, don’t tell them they’re wrong. Apologize, ask what you could be doing better, and then do it.

Bernie, Hillary– whoever ends up in office (because I’m praying it’s not any of the GOP candidates)– make good on your campaign promises. Make more promises, better promises. And deliver. Constantly.

Now, a lot of other people have plenty of other tips for allies or have said some of the same stuff as I have in other words or in the context of other struggles; you should check out the previously mentioned links and also this awesome video, this GLAAD resource, and this fabulous how-to guide.

There’s no such thing as a perfect ally. But that doesn’t mean we stop trying.