How to be an “ally”

First of all, let me acknowledge that some have valid objections to the word “ally.” Not the idea, the word itself and the way many feel it’s been cheapened over time.

For sake of convenience, I shall use “ally” in this post though, with the hopes of reaching a broader audience.

We all have some benefits because of health, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc. This is also called privilege (which isn’t “bad”).   I’d venture that we all belong to a minority group,too.

Let “G” =  marginalized group.

Allies get down and dirty.

Allies constantly work to educate themselves on issues affecting G.

Allies educate others. It’s sad, say, that when I reported sexual harassment, the institution took the word of men over mine. “OH, MEN saw this happen so it must have occurred.”

As an ally, you should always challenge yourself. Recognize your limitations–you will and can never know what it’s like for G. (And that’s not good or bad, that’s just how it is.) 

Listen to members of G regarding their personal and institutional experiences of marginalization. Think about how your privileges (again, NOT a “bad” term) impact your life in a given situation and then just think about how it is for members of G. Multiply it by 10.

What you can imagine is most likely not even close to what members of G must endure, and often endure on a daily bases.

Be vigilant. When you’re at the store, wonder what this trip would be like if you were a member of G. Did the clerk listen to you or follow you around because of your skin color? Wonder about it at work: would I be promoted for the amount of work I put in or would I have to work a lot harder, often times for less pay?

Ponder which stereotypes are applied to you  now and what stereotypes would non-G folks apply to a member of G? To use race, one thing that’s always struck me as terrible is that white-skinned people aren’t called “white professionals.” White people are just doing what they’re “supposed” to be doing.

So why the term “black professional?”

Being an ally isn’t always comfortable and sometimes, you, as an ally, must draw the attention back to a member of G, say, if they’re making a damn fine point, etc.

Notice the diversity of groups to which you belong. All white? Why? No women speakers? Again, why?

Allies align themselves publicly and privately with members of target groups and respond to their needs. This may mean breaking assumed allegiances with those who have the same privileges as you.  Don’t underestimate the consequences of breaking these allegiances, and be sure to break them in ways that will be most useful to the person or group with whom you are aligning yourself.

An ally is not a rescuer. Members of G don’t need “rescuing”–that’s too Savior Complex. Work with us.

Be mindful that the G member you’re allying with could be at risk of a demotion or some form of retaliation. Be aware that the G member you may draw attention to (“X has a good point, why don’t you finish that idea for [whatever]?”) may not be delighted by your well-intentioned action. Explain and apologize. (Keep your explanation short, or you risk sounding like you’re preaching at the person.)

TALK about the fact you have privileges others don’t. Openly acknowledge this. And no, you don’t have to use the word privilege, since so many people shut down when they hear that term.

Being an ally takes personal growth, and with growth comes growing pains. If you say something supportive and a person of G responds negatively, pause and reflect. No one is perfect. Dig deep to the root and try to figure out if it was your delivery, you messed up, or they did.

Know what internalized oppression. Sometimes internalized oppression is like kudzu.

As an ally, share how oppression of G is something you may have inadvertently benefited from.  Let’s say you are running for office. A member of G has to think about public office more than you do. I mean, look at Sarah Palin. There’s plenty to dislike about her political views, but the media seems so focused on her hair/appearance. Same with Hillary and her “cankles.” That’s not cool.

Allies will make mistakes. Expect this. YOU WILL MAKE MISTAKES.  You are learning, after all. Allies should help promote a sense of justice and inclusiveness.

Humor can be a method a survival, both for G and allies.

Feeling safe if not a realistic expectation; a good ally learns to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Again, growing pains. Allies understand that emotional safety is not a realistic expectation. Act to alter the too-comfortable when necessary.

(When I write, “feeling safe,” I mean more “KNOW your boundaries will be pushed, and some biases you may not be aware of may surface.” It’s very uncomfortable realizing you have a bias against something–but you can’t fix something you don’t know is broken.)

If you take anything out of this:

  • Educate yourself. It’s not the job of G to educate you, though listening to stories has helped me in the past. You can easily read stories online. Check out microaggressions. Read blogs of marginalized groups. Read the news and ask yourself questions via thought-experiment. (“If X was a member of G, would they really have gotten probation for rape? Denied bail for protecting their children?”)
  • LISTEN. I cannot emphasis this enough. LISTEN thoughtfully and with your full attention.
  • Accept that you will mess up, and then learn from it. Apologize. I’ve messed up, and I’ve learned. I’ve apologized.

And we then laughed about my gaffe.

This is by no means all-inclusive, so any ideas, suggestions, corrections are happily welcome in the comments.

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