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I’ve seen various posts and articles online written about “how to be an ally” or “how not to be an ally” to marginalized groups. I thought I’d contribute my thoughts to this debate. Many people are no longer fond of the word ally. I find it problematic in certain circumstances but potentially useful in others. These are my own thoughts on being an ally and I am not attempting to speak for anyone or any group of people.
First, I think of the word ally as a verb, not a noun. Ally is an active state, not a static one. In order to be an ally, you must be continually working, learning, unlearning, listening to and magnifying the voices of people and/or groups you hope to work in allyship with.
I’m going to give some examples of how NOT to be an ally. I’ve recently experienced issues with men calling themselves allies to women and declaring themselves feminists, without ever actually asking if they are working together with or supporting women.
1.Do not independently declare yourself an ally.
Generally, I consider myself an ally only when the person or group I’m working with considers me an ally. In other words, my actions on their own don’t constitute being an ally unless the person or group I’m working with considers those actions positive, supportive or productive. If you think you are being incredibly helpful, but the person you are trying to ally with thinks you are being a privileged idiot, then you aren’t an ally. It’s not possible to be an ally in isolation.
2. Do not speak over or speak for marginalized people or groups and label that “being an ally”
If you are a man, working to end sexism, it is not your job to speak for women or about women’s experiences. Speaking for women is not feminism. Ways to speak out as an ally to women might include calling out male friends/coworkers/acquaintances on sexist behaviour, starting discussions with male friends about ways to reduce toxic masculinity, stepping in as a bystander to prevent street harassment by telling men this behaviour is not cool and so on.
3. Do not attempt to explain an oppression that you do not experience to those who do experience it. In other words, no mansplaining, whitesplaining etc!
If you are in a position of privilege with respect to an experience do NOT try to explain that experience to the person who is being oppressed. White folks, do not try to explain racism to People of Colour! They experience it every day. Men, do not try to explain sexism to women! They experience it every day. Don’t argue that a woman couldn’t possibly be experiencing sexism in a given circumstance. If she feels something was sexist, that is her experience and it needs to be validated and believed. Instead, stop and listen to the experiences of marginalized groups. This includes reading articles, books and consuming art or media created by marginalized groups and groups you are not a member of. For men, this includes talking to your male friends about unlearning male privilege. This includes white folks talking with other white folks about deconstructing white supremacy.
4. Do not ask the person experiencing a certain oppression to spend large amounts of emotional labor explaining their oppression (or even worse your privilege) to you.
This is why the internet and libraries exist. Do your homework. Educate yourself. Spend time reflecting on your privilege. This does not mean it is always inappropriate to talk about oppression you don’t experience with someone who does experience it. But please don’t expect that person to hold your hand and walk you through 101 level knowledge of their own oppression. This also applies to asking 101 level questions about systemic oppression or systems the perpetuate oppression. Do your research first. It can be okay to ask a friend specific questions about their personal experience with oppression or specific ways they would like you to act as an ally, but respect their right to say no to these questions. It’s not their job to educate you and they may not have the emotional energy to answer the questions at that moment. Remember, that person is likely experiencing that oppression on a daily basis and this can be exhausting. A man needs to respect that a woman may not have the energy to explain her experiences of sexism to him. As a white person I need to respect that a Person of Colour may not have the energy to explain their experiences of racism to me. Don’t expect people experiencing oppression to take care of your feelings related to your privilege. Being an ally is not about you.
5. Do not lump all people experiencing an oppression together and expect their experiences to be homogeneous. Diversity exists within marginalized groups.
An example of how not to be an ally to women:
“Well, even feminists don’t all agree on what feminism is! How do you expect men to listen to women if you can’t even agree yourselves?”
Stop. Just don’t do this.
There are as many different types of feminism as there are women on Earth. Not ALL women agree on every aspect of every type of feminism. That does NOT mean that feminism is inherently flawed or that women need to just “get it together” before men can work to end sexism. It also does not mean that sexism does not exist. The same goes for other types of oppression. People do not exist in boxes and are not single story, monoliths. A trans woman of Colour who identifies as queer, will experience sexism and oppression in a different way to a white, cis-gender straight woman. Some folks are facing multiple types of oppression and that is their lived reality. It’s important to respect people’s diverse identities and experiences while acting as an ally.
6. Do not expect a cookie, pat on the back or gold star.
Do the work of allyship and unlearning privilege because it’s the right thing to do. Being a good person and working to end oppression isn’t a badge of honor. You don’t get a reward for not being a racist. Men don’t get praised for NOT being a toxic, sexist animal. Doing the bare minimum of not being a shitty person isn’t enough. Also, don’t go around proclaiming yourself ally of the year. Being an ally is not about you, it’s about working to end oppression.
For more information about allyship and anti-o work, please check out this amazing resource The Anti-Oppression Network:
Or this amazing post by blogger Mia McKenzie: