We do not get to claim “ally” without putting in the work it takes to actually be an ally. As a woman and a feminist, I know what it’s like to deal with people who claim being “ally” to my cause only to disappoint me (sometimes multiple times over). As a feminist I realize that I must also be an ally; I am a white woman who is ally to the anti-racist cause. Fighting against inequality is not enough, life is more complicated than that. Being female means being part of a marginalized group. Being a woman of colour, or a disabled woman, or a queer woman means being part of a marginalized group within a marginalized group. For true equality, for true freedom, to ever exist we must recognize the struggles of those who are facing marginalization for various reasons: sex, race, gender, economic status, disability, age. Without allying ourselves to those who are facing added marginalization because of any of these factors, our causes will never fully succeed.
If one claims to be an ally then they also need to be prepared to walk the walk. Here are some tips so you don’t make an ass of yourself:
1. Call out oppressive ideas and language within your group(s) of privilege
Do not let oppressive ideas towards marginalized groups go unchallenged. Let them know that they are using language that is harmful, tell them their ideas are perpetuating continued marginalization of a targeted group. One on one confrontation is usually the most effective, but if that does not work or is not an option you may need to do it in a public arena. This also means honest self-reflection when you find yourself wanting to shrug off the complaints of an oppressed group as being “over-sensitive” or “irrational”.
2. Acts of solidarity do not grant anyone a permanent seat at the ally table
Calling people out on their oppressive ideas is fantastic, thank you for your solidarity. But those few acts of solidarity alone do not make an ally. We want equality, we want fairness, we want freedom… and all that shit is an ongoing process. Going on Facebook or your blog to tell your racist/sexist/homophobic cousin that they were wrong for saying something stupid does not mean you get to pat yourself on the back forever. A single act is not enough. As long as you are claiming to be an ally you need to be doing the work of an ally.
Privilege comes in many forms, and knowing where you are privileged and how this affects the way you understand the world is key in being an effective ally. Being part of a marginalized group means that society as a whole will treat you differently based on your marginalizing factor. Being privileged means that you will never have to experience life from that particular positive of oppression. Often, this will mean that people in a privileged position cannot understand the complaints, the anger, the reactions, of the marginalized group. If you are an ally then you will recognize that there are times that you just do not understand, but that does not mean that their complaints are invalid. Do not minimize the feelings of an oppressed group by telling them that they should not be so angry/sad/upset – this is a betrayal to the marginalized group that you are claiming to be an ally, it is a break in trust that can be very difficult to repair.
Someone from a marginalized group said you are not an ally, and they called you out on saying something that aligns with maintaining oppressiveness. Often this will cause the ally to react in defensiveness: they will trot out examples of when they acted as an ally, they will tell the accuser that by publicly calling out an ally they are simultaneously pushing away other allies, they will tell the accuser that they do not understand the complaint therefore accuser is being over-sensitive or they are concentrating on the wrong issue. The supposed ally is facing cognitive dissonance – they think of themselves as an ally, it has become a part of their identity which is now being challenged. They take the easier road of denying any wrongdoing on their part, but this always leads to minimizing the issues of the marginalized group. Worse, it often leads the “ally” to utilize silencing techniques (though it is not typically a conscious move).
If a person accuses you of acting in a manner that does not align with being an ally, the best thing to do is listen. Most people want to be heard, but sometimes your voice, your feelings, are not the most important. When someone is telling you that you have hurt their feelings, the appropriate response is not “but what about *my* feelings?”. As much as you want to respond and be heard in that moment, the best thing you can do is take time to really think about the complaint being made about you. This is potentially the greatest test to face any ally, and this can be a make or break test in trust between the ally and the marginalized group they claim to stand in solidarity with. If one takes the time to be introspective, to consider the complaints, research the issue, to listen to the person who has challenged your position as an ally – yet after all that they still feel like they were in the right – then approach that person in private to talk about it. Do no risk alienating yourself from an entire group by shifting the blame – basically this makes you look like an asshole (see, “You’re Not Being A Team Player“) who would rather remain blind to their own privilege than to self-reflect to benefit others.
5. You will not do it for a Scooby Snack
This is important: if you call out oppressive ideas with the hopes or expectations of getting acknowledgement from the marginalized group – you are doing it wrong. People of marginalized groups do not owe you anything for being an ally. If you are waiting for acknowledgement from the people you are standing in solidarity with, then you are not actually an ally: you are being a user – you are using oppressed people to reassure you that you are a good person, and that is a total bullshit move. If you are an ally for any other reason besides wanting to end oppression, creating equality, and wanting a better society, then go home. Come back when you are ready to put your self-indulgent crap to the side, and be a real ally.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, it is just a few tips based on behaviors I have noticed in my experience as a woman and a feminist, and that piss me off about self-proclaimed allies. These tips can are not limited to being an ally to feminism, they should be applied to any caused where one is an ally. Are you willing to do the work that it takes to be an ally? Before you call yourself “ally” please recognize the responsibility involved in standing in solidarity.