There is a lot of discussion these days about the role of allies in social justice movements. Allies are people who do not suffer directly from an injustice, but make it their duty to see that the injustice is addressed. Some examples are straight, cisgender, and normative allies of the LGBTIQ community, documented and citizen allies of the movement to end immigration discrimination, white allies of the anti-racism/BlackLivesMatter movement, men who are allies of the movement to end discrimination against women in the workplace, and able-bodied allies of the movement to end ableism or discrimination faced by people with disabilities. There are many different kinds of allies, and there is no right way to be an ally. Many allies have expressed frustration and confusion about what their roles should be in addressing issues of social justice and several articles have been posted online criticizing allies for various things. Being an ally is a really difficult thing to do, so here are five things that everyone should know about being an ally.
1. Being an ally is hard work.
Anyone who makes being an ally look easy has likely been an ally for a very long time. If you’re new to a movement, don’t be too hard on yourself. There is no right way of doing it. You’ll get heat from every direction, and you’ll often be confused about what your role should be. You’ll likely get it wrong many many times, but you have to keep trying. You’ll get better with time.
2. You’ll be criticized by non-allies.
One of the reasons that being an ally is difficult is because friends and family may not understand your decisions. Your recognition of your own privilege will almost certainly make them uncomfortable. Sometimes, depending on where you’re from, you may even temporarily lose some of your privilege in certain groups. And any sense of community you felt with those groups will be gone as well. When this happens, take refuge with other like-minded people.
3. You’ll be criticized even within the movement.
Lonnie King Jr., a civil rights activist from the Atlanta chapter of SNCC once said, to a group of students at a demonstration for undocumented college students, that sometimes during any movement for social justice we forget who the real enemy is. We get so caught up in the fight that we turn to the people next to us and criticize their battle techniques. He called this the circular shooting range. During the same lecture, Loretta Ross, the National Coordinator of SisterSong, talked about how to tell the difference between an enemy and a problematic ally and how important it is to pick your battles. This was fantastic advice. However, people don’t pick their battles, and your job as an ally is to take the heat and keep on fighting. When you’re an ally, you’re going to be criticized regardless of your good intentions. You’ll likely never fully earn the trust of every person that you work with. Your motives will always be questioned, and you’ll have to prove yourself again and again. You’ll likely face prejudice from the very people you wish to help. You’ll be told that you shouldn’t take part in certain things because you’re just an ally. You’ll be told you are part of the problem, that you aren’t doing enough, that you’ll never truly understand the struggle, etc. The sad thing is, most of these things will probably be true in some way, and that will weigh heavily on you. Recognizing the truth in the criticism you face is part of acknowledging your privilege. When this happens, always keep in mind that this weight is nothing in comparison to what people who are systematically oppressed face every single day. As an ally, it’s your job to realize this and to keep fighting and keep proving yourself.
4. Sometimes being in the minority will be uncomfortable for you, especially if you’re not accustomed to it.
For anti-racist white allies, for allies of the LGBTIQ community, for feminist men, and for any group of allies who are usually in the majority, being the only white person, the only straight person, or whatever it may be can be awkward and confusing at first. You’ll get used to it, and soon enough you won’t even notice anymore. Take this as a learning opportunity!
5. It’s part of your job as an ally to recruit other allies.
Use your privilege to facilitate hard conversations. One of the most important differences between the original civil rights movement and the anti-racism movement that’s happening today is that the goals for the first one were entirely policy-based. Most modern systematic oppression isn’t written into law the way segregation and discriminatory voting policies were. Most systematic oppression happens because of the way we perceive people based on the color of their skin. Certain people are perceived as dangerous or criminal and therefore are subject to more encounters with racist police, harsher sentencing at the hands of racist judges, and more deaths at the hands of officers—and with no justice served because of racist juries. Most of these people who I’m describing as racist are probably very decent people. But they’re products of our society, a society where we are socialized to have certain perceptions of people based on how they look. It’s not a conscious decision, and many of us would like to believe it isn’t true. We can’t change this by passing laws or waiting on legislation. That’s what makes this movement different and why allies are more important than ever. While some groups are organizing to change laws and lobbying for better police officer training, most of the changes that need to be made have to start with hard conversations.
As an ally, you should use your privilege to make those conversations happen. People listen to speakers whom they identify with. Regardless of what movement you’re an ally with, having difficult conversations with other privileged people is a great way to benefit the movement. It’s also one way that almost no one within the movement is going to criticize you for. Unlike many of the tactics for showing solidarity, openly critiquing one’s own privilege and educating others is almost always seen as an appropriate act for an ally.
In conclusion, being an ally is a very tough thing to do. It’s a full time job, but the rewards are extraordinary. There is no right way to do it, so someone will always be criticizing you. One important thing that you can do is listen. Find out who you trust and whose criticism matters. Always remember your original motive, and remind yourself of it when the going gets tough. Take solace in the community that you build with like-minded people. These are the people who matter. Everyone else is an ally yet to be recruited.
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