Ally-ship for beginners, or: how not to be a dick

I do not think of myself as an ally. It’s not a label I apply to myself or ask people to apply to me. I am a person who tries to fix broken things. Chances are that if you’re reading this, you feel similarly – you don’t want a label or praise, you just want to get your hands dirty and make things better. This post is not for you, but this post might be for a few people in your life.

The word “ally” used to mean someone who supported a cause with which they did not directly identify. Unfortunately, as with many good things, it has been co-opted by people who think social justice is an opportunity to gain a little street cred. These days, plenty of serious discussions are derailed by (sometimes) well-meaning “allies” blundering in, trumpeting their own opinions over those of people trying to share their lived experiences. Thankfully, not all of those people are beyond redemption. It is for them that I present the following:

Ally-ship for beginners, or: how you’ll learn to stop interrupting and love thy neighbour

1. Sit down, shut up and listen.

If you only learn one thing about being an ally, let this be it – most of the time, what people need is for you to sit down, stop talking, and let them share their stories. A great amount of awareness is raised through the telling and re-telling of people’s lived experiences. There is literally nothing you can do to aid this except to listen, learn from what you hear and signal-boost so that the message gets out to as many people as possible. No, this is not the time for you to tell your trans* friend that what they experience daily is just like that time a guy didn’t give you a free drink because you wouldn’t flash your bra at him. This is not the time for you to interject that you’ve never seen an example of what someone is describing. (What, you think they make this stuff up? Why would they want to?) Sit down, get out a notepad and start taking notes. Here are some people taking the time to educate you about the way the world is. Show some goddamn respect.

2. Would you want someone asking you that? If not, don’t ask someone else.

It’s awesome that you want to learn more about the people you want to help. But there are some things it’s just not okay to ask unless someone gives you their express permission. If you’d be offended if someone asked you a question, chances are the person you’re about to ask is gonna be offended too. Remember – the people you’re helping here aren’t freakshows. They’re not novelties. They don’t exist for your entertainment or to satisfy your curiosity. They’re living, breathing people with thoughts and feelings, and they deserve humanity, dignity and respect. How would you feel if a stranger expected you to divulge your entire medical and surgical history to them? How would you feel if someone asked you probing questions about your sexual experiences? You’d be offended, right? So don’t do it to anyone else. Treat others as you’d like to be treated.

3. Your privileged existence does not trump their lived experience.

Sure, maybe you’ve never seen someone reach out and touch a black woman’s hair without asking. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Have you considered that maybe the reason you don’t see these things daily is that you don’t have to live them? Have you thought about how your privilege might insulate you from the bad behaviour of others?

I have seen this time and time again in online discussions – someone will share a story of something harrowing that’s happened to them, and an “ally” will pipe up with a comment like, “I know you have things hard, but that sounds like exaggeration to me.” Think through that for a second – you’re suggesting that the folks you supposedly support aren’t oppressed enough, so they have to make up stories to make their cases convincing. And you want a pat on the back for deigning to hang out with them? Please. They’re the ones doing YOU a favour.

The lived experience of oppressed people trumps pretty much anything in discussions about privilege and oppression. Learn it, live it, love it.

4. You are not owed entry into minority spaces.

You want to help out? Great! But please understand that dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people before you have said that as a way of gaining entry into safe spaces and proceeding to make them unsafe. But even disregarding the fact that oppressed people need to look out for their health and well-being, have you thought about the fact that you’re not actually owed anything? Nobody owes you entry into their spaces. As a privileged person, this might be hard for you to swallow, but it’s true. I could make a group for bisexual Muslim women and decide I don’t want anyone but my fellow Muslim bi gals there, and that would be my right. Safe spaces are important – they give people a place to seek shelter from the daily abuse they face, a place where their experiences and stories won’t be questioned. If there’s a chance that you’ll make a space unsafe – and to be frank, if you’re privileged, there’s always a chance – then no, you are not automatically owed entry. Work on proving yourself through your actions and people might trust you – might. But get used to the idea that you’re not entitled to barge into a space and make it your own just because you want to be there.

5. You’d better not be doing it for the praise.

As an ally, you will go through a lot of thankless things. You’ll be abused, reviled and mocked for associating with people society oppresses and marginalises. It’s not easy. You might feel like you deserve some kind of pat on the back for your hard work and perseverance. I mean, you could just turn around and walk away at any time, right?

Well, guess what? You know the jeers and mockery you put up with? That’s just a fraction of what oppressed people get every single day of their lives. I’m serious. You’re trying to help people who live in fear of violence, harassment, abuse and worse, and you want a cookie because you didn’t run away the first time someone called you a pussy? Seriously?

Grow up. This isn’t a game, and you’re not going to get brownie points for grinding your mad ally skillz. This is real life. Put up or leave.

6. Be prepared to call your friends out.

As an ally, you’re busy trying your best to erase slurs from your vocabulary, support oppressed people and reblog posts that, like, totally moved you. Your friends? They’re probably the same ignorami they’ve always been. You’re gonna need to do something about that.

Yeah, it’s hard calling your friends out when they make nasty jokes around you. Nobody wants to be That Guy (or That Girl, or That Gender Non-Conforming Person). I get it. But if you don’t actively do what you can to combat oppression, then you, my friend, are part of the problem. No two ways about it. That means calling out rape jokes, saying something when a friend uses the t-word and throwing shade at your friend who spews old stereotypes about black people. It means sometimes being unpopular for the sake of sticking up for people who don’t have many other people to stick up for them.

Yes, it’s hard. If you expected it to be easy, you really have been living under a rock.

7. At the end of the day, This Is Not About You.

I can’t stress this enough. You’re an ally, all right? You’re someone helping out people who are seriously hurting in a number of really nasty, life-affecting ways. This is not about your feelings. This is not about your moment in the spotlight. This is about doing work that needs to be done because somebody needs to do it and you were a decent enough person to volunteer. That means sometimes sidelining your hurt feelings when you aren’t instantly welcomed into a community. That means holding your tongue when people who are so often rendered voiceless finally get the chance to speak. That means reminding yourself, every second of every minute of every hour of every day, that these people you’re trying to help are your equals, and you’d damn well better treat them as such. If you can’t commit to that philosophy – if you can’t live it in both word and action – then you might not be cut out for this activism lark. Them’s the breaks.

8. Even if you do all of this, you’ll still make mistakes.

I’ve been in the activism business, such as it is, for a long time now. I still get called on my mistakes near-daily. I’m not perfect, and neither are you. Nobody is, and nobody’s expecting you to be. You will make mistakes, and that’s fine. What people will care about is whether or not you learn from them. If you keep on making the same mistakes, issuing false apologies and refusing to learn, people will catch onto you pretty quick. Learn humility. Acknowledge that you don’t know everything. Be prepared to have things turn messy. It’s how you’ll learn. At the end of the day, what’s more important than your wounded pride is the struggle to make the world a better place for everyone. That’s the big picture; the rest is just filling in the details. Don’t lose sight of that goal, and you’ll probably do just fine.

Welcome to the fight. There’s a place in it for all of us. Time to find yours.

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7 thoughts on “Ally-ship for beginners, or: how not to be a dick

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