Ally 101: Fundamentals Everyone Should Know
“How can I be a better ally?”
That question is on the tongues of many people participating in social justice efforts. People want to know how they can help. If you’re one of them, here are six ways you can do just that:
1. Keep that privilege checked!
First and foremost, it’s important to learn what social capital and power you hold over folks who’re more marginalized than you are. Always keep these privileges in mind when you engage in discussions. Learn when it is (and isn’t!) your place to chime in. Noticing your privilege internally, as well as externally, is crucial.
2. Don’t call yourself an ally.
When discussing ally-ship, you’ll notice that some people call themselves allies. While this may seem harmless, it’s actually very dangerous. “Ally” is a term that should be given to you by the marginalized communities that you’re attempting to support.
You can’t just wake up one day and announce you’re an ally for the transgender community. While you may have good intentions and genuinely want to help, there’s much more to being an ally than simply agreeing with the ideals and principles of a movement. You don’t get to determine what’s “enough” work to be considered an ally. It’s something you earn when marginalized people feel that you’re putting in the proper amount of, and right kinds of, work.
Many folks who claim to be allies are harmful, problematic and even violent. Many of these “allies” will use their “ally-ship” to gaslight or silence people. (For example: “I’ve been an ally for [x amount of years], don’t tell me I’m wrong!” or even speaking for communities simply because they feel they’re an ally.)
Equally as important, never expect a marginalized person to give you ally “cookies.” If you educate someone else on power/privilege dynamics or agree with something that supports the liberation of marginalized people, don’t expect special treatment, approval or thank-yous from that community.
3. Understand your complicity.
If you hold privilege and/or power over a marginalized group, you are complicit in those power structures. In most cases, you will always benefit from that privilege and hold institutional power over that group. For example: I’m Latinx, therefore I am inherently anti-Black and I will always benefit from anti-Blackness, in every way imaginable. I am complicit in this system of oppression.
All of us are complicit with one system of oppression or another. It’s vital that we acknowledge that, because it shapes how we foster another community’s liberation while holding ourselves accountable. Only when we acknowledge and accept our complicity can we move forward.
4. Don’t take up space.
This means: don’t invade the safe spaces of communities we’re not a part of, and don’t speak over those with less privilege. This includes when they’re talking about their experiences, voicing their grievances with us, or discusssing ways we need to work better as allies.
Feeling we need to invade these spaces, interrupt these grievances, denying that we have work to do and even derailing discussions (in person or online) are all forms of taking up space. They’re all acts of violence.
5. Attention and affirmation.
When a marginalized person is explaining something to you, calling you out, or correcting you, etc., devote as much attention as you can to them. Don’t speak over them or interrupt. Let them know that their labor isn’t in vain. Thank them for taking the time to educate you or call you out, even though it’s not their job.
Don’t ask too many questions, as it can be exploitative of their time and energy. Affirm them for exerting their mental, emotional and/or physical energy to educate you or anyone who holds power over them. Validation and affirmations are far more important than they may initially seem, and they can tell a person quite a lot about your character and how you value those who hold less social capital than you.
6. You’re no one’s savior.
Finally, recognize that you’re no one’s savior. There’s a severe White Savior Complex going on, almost globally, in some shape or form. It’s great to help, but at the end of the day, that community and its people are in charge of their own liberation — and your voice shouldn’t be centered. Marginalized folks don’t need you to rescue them. To assume they do because of your own guilt, or for any other reason, is entirely reductive.
If you’re at a rally, you should be at the back of the crowd. That same concept applies in discussions, community organizing, education, media coverage on matters affecting the particular group, and so on.
All of these principles can be applied and adapted to just about any situation or community. It’s imperative for all of us to understand where our place is, inside and outside of social justice spaces.
We need to acknowledge our complicity; don’t argue it. We need to de-center our voices and give the mic to the folks who are directly affected by particular systems of oppression. Keep intersectionality in mind. Always think about how these movements are bigger than ourselves. It’s not just about us, it’s about our collective struggle. We need to do what’s best for collective liberation, not what assuages our guilt or makes us comfortable. We can’t keep doing what feels safe. Safety has gotten us nowhere.
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