What does it mean to be an "ally"?

You won’t ever hear me refer to myself as an “ally” to a cause. While I intentionally work to support the efforts of people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups in their fight for equity, I don’t think “ally” is a title that I should give myself. I interact with the world as a cis-gender, heterosexual, middle class white lady. No matter how much work I do or how much I learn, I will always view the world through that lens and I will always be able to retreat to my privilege when it serves me to do so. Because of that, I am resistant to calling myself an ally. Who am I, as a person in a position of privilege, to tell a marginalized person that I am their ally? They should have the opportunity to give me that label should they find my actions to be in alignment with their cause. What a privileged thing it is for me to label my own actions and define my own character in relation to such deeply personal work, speaking over a marginalized person’s experience of me.

Too often in our nation’s history, people in positions of privilege have told people in marginalized communities that they were on their side when in reality they were there for much more nefarious reasons. Too often people in positions of privilege have acted in ways that we thought were in alignment with a cause, but were actually damaging to it. Too often we get caught up in labels and our willingness to serve as an ally becomes more performative than it is substantive. Too often we are willing to serve as allies when it is convenient and safe for us to do so, but then retreat to our privilege when we actually stand to lose something.

I recently got entangled in a situation where I had to really confront my willingness to use my privilege to further a cause. It was the first time in a long time that I really felt like I might lose something significant if I chose to take a stand. The easier and safer thing to do would be to keep my mouth shut, to put my head down and pretend that I didn’t see this particular injustice. This time, I chose to fight, but I wonder how many times in my life I have retreated to my privilege because I was afraid of losing my sense of safety, stability, or comfort- luxuries I am only afforded because of my identity.

At the end of the day, the title doesn’t matter to me. The work matters. So I don’t care what people call me as long as my actions always speak into my desire to fight for justice and equity.

If you are a person in a position of privilege, I would urge you to do a few things:

  • Consider what you are willing to risk for the sake of a cause. If you are not willing to “go to the mat” on an issue, if you are not willing to actually risk something of value, are you really an ally? There are lots of ways to get involved and many of those do feel safe and comfortable, but marginalized people desperately need people in positions of privilege who are actually willing to risk something.

  • Examine whether your status as an “ally” or “social justice warrior” or whatever you aspire to be know as has become more performative than it has substantive. If you can’t remember the last time you felt truly afraid, uncomfortable, or vulnerable then you might need to examine the work you are doing. That looks different for everyone. What might feel scary to one person might not feel scary to another. I am not saying that you need to literally risk your life for every cause BUT I am saying you need to consider if you are willing to risk anything for a cause or if your comfort is more important.

  • Stop worrying so much about being seen doing the work and spend a lot more time actually doing the work. It doesn’t matter if anyone ever sees the work you do, as long as you are enacting change. Credit, visibility, and acknowledgement are the last things we should be worried about in this work.

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A Case for Always Assuming Good Intentions

Humans are meaning makers, we love to "make sense" of our experiences and the way our brains do that is by constructing stories about the things happening around us and to us. The problem is, we can only create these stories based on the information available to us and often we have incomplete information. It's impossible to know what other people are thinking or to have all of the details sorted out, so we fill in the gaps the best we can and end up making up stories that fit the narrative that makes the most sense to us. Unfortunately, in our own minds, we are usually the hero of the story. We are the good guy and that leaves everyone else to play support roles or villain roles, but it's always way more complicated than that. Slowing down and trying to see the nuance and truly understand other people's perspectives benefits everyone in the long run. It is the epitome of grace and it can change how you see the world and relate to others. 

This meaning making process plays out in a thousand small and big ways in our lives every day. A person cuts you off on the way to work. You can tell yourself that they are a jerk- careless, insensitive, and selfish. Or, you can assume that maybe they genuinely didn't see you or that maybe they are trying to get to a loved one who is having a crisis. You ask your spouse to do something and they forget. You can tell yourself that they don't care about your wants and needs, that they are self absorbed, insensitive, or a bad listener. Or you can assume that maybe they literally forgot, maybe something more important distracted them, or maybe they have too much on their plate right now. A person disagrees with you about a belief you hold deeply. You can assume they are an idiot or you can recognize that there is a reason they hold that belief and seek to understand the information and experiences that led them to feel that way. It happens all day every day- we make stories up about what's going on in the world around us. How you approach those stories matters. 

Here's what I would challenge you to do- 1. Assume good intentions always, 2. If you have the opportunity for dialogue, seek to understand, and 3. Repeat that cycle forever. Assuming good intentions doesn't hurt you at all. It just relieves you of the pressure to be angry or hurt or to feel shame. It prevents you from making assumptions about who a person is or how they feel about you. It keeps you from making up stories that are untrue. Seeking to understand will help you learn. It will build your relationship with the other person. It extends grace in its most basic form. It helps them to feel seen and heard and it gives you information you need to confidently make sense of the experience. You know the easiest way to figure out what somebody meant with their actions or how they feel about you? Ask them. It's really that simple. There will be people in your life who are toxic, who do not have good intentions, who will lie and manipulate and deceive, but in my experience those people are few and far between. Most people are good and are doing the best they can to navigate the world. I would also argue that one or two bad experiences with a person shouldn't forever color your understanding of who they are. People are nuanced. People mess things up. People do things driven by emotions that they would never do "in their right mind". Keep assuming that they had good intentions and give them an opportunity to explain themselves and do better. Keep coming back to the mat and doing the work, it's so worth it.  

The next time you feel anger or hurt or resentment rising up in you, try to slow down long enough to sort out if there is evidence to support your understanding of what happened or if you're making up a story that serves you, filling in the gaps with information that may or may not be true. Then, always seek the truth. 

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