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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