As a person with many identities that are marginalized in our society, being Afro-Latina, femme, and many others, I search for support within my communities, and at times outside of my communities. In these communities I have had to build a rapport with what we call an ‘ally.’ An ally is defined as, “combine or unite a resource or commodity with (another) for mutual benefit.” “Mutual” being the operative word in the context of spaces for marginalized folks and their place within systemic oppression, but when the dynamic starts to benefit the ally more, then there’s a problem. An ally’s help and desire to do more is should not be based on what that ally would receive from the marginalized group.
This post is not meant to chastise or make the reader feel inadequate about their ally skills, but instead the reader should reevaluate how they may be harmful to the people they think they are helping. Here are 7 ways allyship can go from genuine helping to dangerous hovering.
“I just wanna offer my voice to those who don’t have one!” Translates to: Silencing others who never asked you to voice for them in the first place.
Although there are allies who truly want to use the privileges they already have for good and to help in spaces where they have more agency in comparison to the marginalized groups they support, those spaces are made for them (i.e, spaces where there are predominately white people, those who are financially affluent, a men’s locker room).
And to that we say, “Awesome, Thank you Ally! But here in this space (wherever space that may be for the marginalized group to speak out on our own issues like a rally, a parade, a conference) we are ready, willing, and perfectly able to speak on behalf of ourselves. We know what our communities are lacking, what issues we have, and things we need to change, better than anyone could ever know, so wouldn’t it be a little silly for someone who had no idea to talk for us? We got this.”
More Radical Reads: Over the Word Ally: 9 Ways Solidarity Is An Act of Radical Self Love
“What has this world come to? I feel so sad and unsafe, why do they keep doing this to us?” Translates to: Disclosing your feelings/thoughts/opinions on matters that you think affect us as a society, but in reality affect singular groups.
If I had a dollar for every time I saw a facebook post that revolved around the feelings of someone who benefited from systemic racial oppression and how sad THEY were about things like police brutality targeted towards the black community, or injustice towards the queer community, etc., I’d be able to pay off my loans for undergrad.
Yes, the opposite of these facebook posts are worse, but then I ask myself why they both bother me just as much. It is because i’m seeing another white/cis/straight/male/etc etc etc making a tragedy that happened to my or another’s community, about how THEY feel about it, or even worse, an opinion on what WE can do to stop it.
Yes, an ally can have feelings and thoughts, because we are humans and that’s how we are programed. But if the only thing you are offering to me or any other community is how you feel, I’m not gonna call you an ally, but I will suggest you get yourself a diary to note all these feelings and suggestions you have.
“But I’m okay right? I’m good?” Translates to: I wanna seem as unproblematic as much as possible, but don’t really wanna do the work
“Ally” is a verb not a noun (relax English majors); it’s not what you say, but what you do that makes you an ally. You think everyone should be treated equally no matter what their race/ethnicity/citizenship/age/gender/sex/size/ability/all that? Great! Now, what are you doing to make sure that happens more on a regular basis? Allyship is about action, or even inaction if the situation calls for it and simply playing nice and giving out tired cliches on what you think our communities want to hear simply isn’t enough. Allies need to listen with open hearts, actually pay attention, ask what they can do to be of help and not just assume that their presence is wanted, and understand that there will be a time where an ally will be most helpful, if they’re not around at all. A knight never deemed himself a knight, and neither does an ally, you have to do the work.
“I don’t really care about this community too much/This person who is part of this community disrespected me, so therefore I will not support them or the community” Translates to: I will only give my support if there is mutual gain for me.
I would say this is the worst and most damaging thing an “ally” could do for any community. Having selective and conditional support is truly dangerous and shows that a potential ally may not really care about the cause, but may only care about mutual gain and acceptance. Meaning that if a marginalized group cannot offer anything to the potential ally, then the group does not deserve attention OR, if someone from a group has a negative situation with a potential ally, then that ally will generalize an entire group (like, ya know systemic oppression and prejudice) and refuse to support them. No, you may not get along with every person who is Latino or gender non-conforming, but that shouldn’t mean you don’t believe they all deserve basic human rights.
I understand your feelings towards [insert systemic marginalization] because I hurt too. Translates to: “I want to COLUMBUS on your feelings of this tragedy or injustice because that’s the only way I’d really care”
Similar to voicing a feeling or opinion on a social injustice, co-opting or columbusing on a tragic event or systemic injustice poses a problem. An ally may think they are connecting and relating to others and forming a bond “because I, too, have suffered as much as you because our suffering is exactly the same.” No it is not.
An ally’s attempt at empathy can turn into the trivialization of marginalized folks issues and experiences. Instead of holding on to the concept that “Everybody hurts,” an ally must listen and pay attention to marginalized folks and realize that Everybody hurts, but in different ways and spectrums.
More Radical Reads: Ally Etiquette 101
“I understand what you’re saying, but you don’t need to be so mad about it.” Translates to: Your passion and anger towards the treatment of your community that you are currently exhibiting is making me uncomfortable and I won’t listen to your testimonies unless you tell me nicely”
(See: Tone Policing)
When a person is under constant attack in their everyday life just for simply existing, anger and frustration tend to be a default emotion, and rightfully so. Me expressing my anger, frustration, sadness, any range of emotion (in a non-abusive manner of course)should not come across as me trying to make my ally feel alienated or guilty. It is me showing my ally how important my and others’ issues are, because these systemic problems are our constant reality. Taking a personal offense to “how I am relaying this information” is again, making the situation about how the “ally” feels instead of focusing on the real tasks at hand. Social injustices and people being angry about them make you uncomfortable? Just imagine the constant “discomfort” folks experience everyday, and then ask yourself if it’s even comparable.
“Hey, you’re [insert marginalized group here], how do you feel about this” Translates to: “I want to emotionally burden you with questions about things that may trigger you”
Yes, it is important to have a discussion about issues and to ask what you can do to be a better ally. In fact, this is the best way to get things done, by having a dialogue. But what an ally needs to understand is that a person may not have all the answers to issues about their community because:
- They are a single person and it is impossible, unfair, and one dimensional to speak for their entire community.
- They may be emotionally exhausted from certain events and injustices that have happened within their communities and may need time to cater to their self care, and may not be available to give you whatever information you are demanding. Along with this, many questions about things like police brutality or sexual assault may be extremely triggering for some folks.
- Or they simply don’t want to give you this information, because it is not their responsibility to do so. They may be your only black/brown/bi/trans friend, but they do not have all the answers. Google is your friend.
Asking questions isn’t the issue; it is how you go about it and how you receive this information is what matters. At the same time, an ally must be respectful of personal space.
Is true and healthy allyship possible? By all means. Is allyship wanted in some spaces? At times, yes. Is allyship needed? Absolutely. Allyship allows for those, who have the upper hand in our jacked up system or those with privilege, to push our agendas onto those who refuse to even see us as people, let alone listen to our voices. Allyship is crucial to any movement, that cannot be denied; but what can also not be denied is that every ally has a specific role in a movement and more often times than not, that role can be small and even silent. Doing more than what marginalized folks of a movement are asking of you, may make it appear like you as an ally, are going the extra mile, but you need to take a second to think if whether or not you’ve gone too far.
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[Feature Image: A person with dark hair pulled back. They are wearing sunglasses on top of their head and silver earrings and a black tank top. Source: Chris Hunkeler]