I have not always been a good ally.
That’s not always an easy fault to admit, especially if you’re a genuinely well-meaning person who wants to do right by marginalized communities. It’s not easy to invest yourself in a cause and genuinely believe you’re doing the right thing, only to be told that you’ve got it all wrong.
So what do you do?
Let’s say you’re cruising the Internet and you see a topic about cultural appropriation, a hot topic right now in a lot of discussions on race and culture. Another Victoria’s Secret model has been called out for wearing her hair in dreadlocks, even though she’s white. You roll your eyes. What’s the big deal? you wonder. It’s just hair. You decide to pose your question in the comments section.
Maybe you were expecting validation, for someone to reply to you stating their agreement and vindicating your perspective. Maybe you were expecting someone to chime in and gently explain what you don’t understand. Either way, you are taken aback when someone attacks you for posing the question!
Well, maybe “attacks” isn’t quite the right word. It would probably be more accurate to say that you’ve been called out. A person of color has confronted you in a long response about how cultural appropriation is harmful and how you have no right to claim that it isn’t. They include links to Google sources, and suggest that in the future you do your own research before you provide your two cents in the comments.
You’re put on the defensive, by the content, the tone, or maybe both. This wasn’t what you were expecting at all. “It was an honest question,” you say, and it was. “If you really want people to support you then you shouldn’t attack them for asking for information. That’s how you lose support.”
And that’s where you’ve got it dead wrong.
If you are only an ally when people agree with your perspective, you are not an ally.
If you threaten to revoke your support for a person or a cause because they call you out, you are not an ally.
If you suddenly stop being an ally because a member of a marginalized group said something that made you uncomfortable or unsettled, you are not an ally.
I see it on social media all the time— members of privileged groups (white people, straight people, men, and so on) trying to tell member of marginalized groups (people of color, LGBT+ people, women) how they are supposed to express themselves. You have probably seen it to. Maybe you have even been guilty of it yourself. You think that oppressed groups should speak in a way that is calm and rational, or risk losing support. The statement hovers in the air like a threat: That’s how you lose support.
Unfortunately, using support or allyship as a tool that can be used to encourage or discourage certain types of dialogue is a big part of the problem. If we act like marginalized groups only “deserve” support when they speak or act in a certain way, then we admit that we are not truly interested in them or their causes. It undermines the very real struggles faced by oppressed communities and instead centers the focus on the way that they respond to hatred and violence. We stop paying attention to the real issues and instead focus on the way we think marginalized people are “supposed" to act.
Consider, instead, why people from marginalized communities might be inclined to respond to aggression. If you decided to ask, “What's the big deal?” without doing any research first, imagine how many thousands of people have done the same. Now imagine being, for instance, a person of color, bombarded by questions from people who just don’t seem to get why their struggles are such a big deal. Imagine being a woman and having clueless men demand what the problem with catcalling is. Imagine being a non-binary person and having to explain, time and time again, that you exist.
Imagine how exhausting it must feel to constantly try to convince the world that you are a real person, and that your identity is valid, and that it is harmful for others to behave in ways that make your existence even harder. Yes, really.
Can you empathize with these peoples’ frustrations? Your question is not an isolated incident, it is an example of the kinds of question that marginalized groups face on a daily basis, both from individuals and from the media at large. Maybe this is why they aren’t particularly patient with you. Maybe this is why they don’t seem to take you seriously when you threaten to revoke your supposed allyship.
Because it’s something that they see every single day.
So, if you really want to learn and grow as an ally, what can you do? How do you avoid pitfalls that you may honestly not even realize are there? Here are a few suggestions that I’ve discovered over the years, both from my personal experience as a woman and from my efforts to become a better ally to other marginalized groups. This is far from a complete list, but it’s a solid place to start, especially if you know you’re not perfect but aren’t sure where to start.
1. Start with your own research.
If you dive straight into a comment section of a friend’s post without bothering to do any research first, you’re placing a huge burden on that person to educate you. You’re also more likely to say something careless without even realizing that you’re doing it. If there’s a subject that you want to know more about, start by doing some reading of your own. Go on Google, or explore journals dedicated to related topics. There’s a good chance that someone, somewhere, has already answered your question.
By doing this, you learn what you wanted to know without putting pressure on a member of a marginalized group to do all of your work for you. If there’s something specific you want to ask after doing your research, then a thoughtfully worded question may become appropriate, especially if it’s someone you know personally.
2. Don’t tone police.
Tone policing is the bad habit of trying to tell someone how they’re supposed to feel about a subject, or asking that they calm down if they respond to you with frustration or even anger. It’s natural to feel defensive if you feel that you’re being criticized, but it’s important to learn how to lay that response to the wayside. Instead of being offended because someone is frustrated by your question, really try to understand what it was about your question that frustrated them. Did you fail to do your research in advance, making them responsible for educating you? Did you use language that was offensive or inappropriate? Did you disregard the feelings or a marginalized group in favor of your own?
Being an ally means making the well-being of a marginalized group more important than your own feelings. Don’t shut down a productive conversation just because someone was irritated by your question. Remember, it may be the hundredth time they’ve had to answer it.
3. Be willing to apologize.
No one is perfect. Allyship is a constant process of learning good habits and unlearning bad ones. Do your best not to say or do anything overtly offensive, but if you do mess up, be willing to own your mistake. Instead of saying, “It was just a question!” try saying, “I apologize for my ignorance/carelessness. Thank you for taking the time to inform me.” Remember, people don't tend to get upset for no reason at all. Take responsibility for your error and learn from the mistake, so you’ll know better in the future.
4. Be willing to say thank you.
Educating people can be exhausting and overwhelming, especially for activists who are constantly having to defend their positions and explain continued social issues. If someone takes the time to answer your questions or take the time to explain something to you, remember to thank them for the labor that they put into educating you. Remember, no one is obligated to be your personal instructor, so it’s simply polite to show appreciation for those who are willing.
5. Know when to shut up.
This lesson was one that was particularly hard for me to learn. I’m a talkative and opinionated person, and it was hard for me to grasp that there are situations where my voice really isn’t necessary or wanted. However, it is absolutely essential for allies to understand that sometimes the best thing that we can do is be silent. If you have never lived through oppression, listen more and talk less. If you are a white person, you do not get to decide what is or isn’t racist. The best thing you can do in a conversation is make room for people of color and listen to what they have to say. Your perspectives may be interesting, but they most likely just take attention away from the people whose stories are most relevant.
6. Know when to speak out.
By the same token, part of your responsibility as an ally is to speak up if you see something going on that you know is wrong. If someone is saying something racist or sexist on a friend’s Facebook status, be willing to call them out on it, even if it might make you uncomfortable. This removes the burden from members of marginalized groups, saving them the significant time and energy it often takes to try to placate the trolls.
This principle is even more important in the real world. Violent words frequently turn into violent actions against people of color, women, and LGBT+ people, among others. If you are a person with privilege, have the courage to speak out on behalf of marginalized people. It’s an old but reliable mantra: if you see something, say something. If you have the power to do something and refuse to, then you are complicit in the consequences.
Being an ally is a constant process of growing and learning. It means challenging our own beliefs and implicit biases and working hard to unlearn the bad habits that we have picked up over the years. In the end, though, it will always be worthwhile. There is no humanity in living comfortably while others struggle just to live.