What is an ally? Dictionary.com says:
“It used to be that when we spoke of allies, it was most likely in a military sense, referring to countries formally banded together, usually by treaty, to fight against their enemies. Today, though, the word is used more broadly.
“What does ally mean today?
“An ALLY, ultimately from a Latin verb meaning ‘to bind to,’ is used to describe ‘someone who supports disenfranchised and underrepresented groups of people within our own country, such as minorities and those in the LBGQT community.’
“We’re still talking about war, but it’s a different type of war—a war on bigotry, racism, sexism, hate, and ugly, ignorant words and actions. Allies use their own privilege to help raise visibility and create opportunities for those at a disadvantage.”
- Being an ally generally means you are aware of the humanity that connects us all. Your main understanding is that our similarities are far more important and plentiful than any differences that may exist. Beyond tolerating or even accepting the differences, allies appreciate those differences of opinions, beliefs, values, priorities and behaviors by having curiosity about them rather than judgement.
- By virtue of the definition, allies have privileges that the group in question does not. Allies need to educate themselves about these privileges and how they operate on personal, interpersonal, cultural and institutional levels. The typical response from the privileged culture is blissful ignorance. Privilege to a dominant culture is a little like water to a fish: If it constantly surrounds you, it’s difficult to even register its existence. While life can still be difficult for you, recognize that those difficulties didn’t come from your skin color, sexual orientation or religion.
- Spend time with members of the group you want to be an ally for. Being an ally is best when fueled by personal passion rather than just a strong sense of social justice, although social justice is a legitimate place to begin. I didn’t feel passionate about the plights of LGBTQ, Native American, African American, Muslims or Iranians until I made friends with people who happened to be members of those groups. When people are known to you, they stop being simply a member of a hypothetical, stereotypical group and become human to you. I’m reminded of Margaret Wheatley’s quote: “It’s hard to hate someone whose story you know.” It’s not enough to have met someone from a marginalized group; as an ally, you want to get to know them, really know them.
- Educate yourself about the struggles of the group in question. One of the challenges members of marginalized groups complain about is when those with privilege ask them to educate you; it takes up their time and creates more work for them. If you truly want to be an effective, positive ally, take the time to educate yourself.
- After you have educated yourself and you ask those you are friends with to tell you about their individual, personal experiences, you will discover that while there are similarities in experiences, people’s encounters and their responses to those encounters are unique.
- Question your own biases and prejudices—everyone has them. Even within excluded groups, you will find biases and prejudices. It is easy to say you treat everyone alike, but sometimes that is the most biased thing you can do. Claiming “I don’t see color” is offensive. Of course you “see” color, why else would you feel compelled to mention it? It’s also a token of your privilege; as a white person in the United States, you should feel lucky that you don’t have to think about the color of your skin as you go about your day. Also, skin color is a part of people’s identity, and pretending not to see it can be seen by some as insulting. Pay attention to the biases, prejudices and stereotypes you have and actively work to dispel them.
- Do not ask one person from a particular group to speak for every member of that group. Would you want the responsibility to speak for every white, heterosexual protestant in North America? Of course not, that would be ludicrous—so don’t expect someone else to speak for every person in their culture either. Know that there are just as many differences within a culture or group as there are between groups.
- Stay on top of offensive words and behaviors. No one can possibly know everything that can be offensive. I remember as a young adult, I used a phrase that seemed to be common in my rural area that I believed meant, simply, to bargain. The phrase was, “Jew them down.” I had no idea that phrase was connected to Jewish culture until another ally had the courage to point it out to me. I am so grateful for that person who was able to teach me something valuable that day. She did it to show me a blind spot I had, not to judge or criticize me. Be open to feedback and correction. Put yourself in situations where you will be educated and check any urges you have to become defensive.
- Be willing to make mistakes, look stupid and deal with others’ anger. Becoming an ally requires courage. There will be times when members of the group in power will hate you and, at the very least, look upon you with disdain. Worse, the very people you are working to empower will also misunderstand you and your intentions at times. Stay strong. Do not waver in your intentions but be humble enough to admit your mistakes and learn from them.
- Speak up against injustice. If you are spending time within the group you want to be an ally for, you will have ample opportunities to recognize injustice. Do not be silent. Use your privilege to speak up and share information. In my experience, bias, prejudice and oppression are born out of ignorance and fear of losing something. From my Choice Theory perspective, the best way to affect change is simply to provide information. This doesn’t always change minds on the spot, but it has a chance of planting seeds. When you try to fight ignorance with strong passion, frustration, put downs or even violence, the people you are trying to influence tend to dig in deeper and may retaliate with even stronger hatred.
As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Never allow another person to cause you to act differently than the person you want to be. We will not stop violence with more violence. We won’t change judgement with our own judgement and conviction of others. Be true to your values and influence others with kindness, respect and your truth.
Become an ally. The United States of America needs white allies to advocate for black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American men and women; heterosexuals to advocate for the LGBTQ community; Christians to advocate for Jewish, Muslim and other religions in our country; the healthy to advocate for the sick and differently-abled; adults to advocate for children; and men to advocate for women.
What are you willing to do?