On Allies

I’ve done some thinking lately on what it means to be an ally.

A quick Google search shows the following:

Ally (n) 1. A state formally cooperating with another for a military or other purpose, typically by treaty.

Well, that’s as helpful as an Icee in a snowstorm.

2. A person or organization that cooperates with or helps another in a particular activity.

That’s only slightly better.

You hear this word a lot if you pay attention to activists of any ilk. When it comes to discussions of equal rights, it generally refers to an individual of a privileged sector who believes in and/or works toward the goals of a minority or disenfranchised group. It can also mean people of different disenfranchised groups working together for common goals.

Put that way, it sounds simple. Maybe it is.

Where issues come up is when an ally of said privileged status (even if that person belongs to another minority or disenfranchised group; more on that later) enters a state of comfort and familiarity within the movement and uses this sense of comfort to behave in a manner similar to those outside the movement, using their status (often that they self-describe as an ally) as a shield and excuse for poor behavior.

Wanting to explore this a little more, I sat down for a while this week to think about my own history and how it could relate to this.

I am a white woman who was raised by a bisexual mother well below the poverty line. Because for much of my upbringing we lived in a very racially homogeoneous area, it wasn’t until university and adulthood that my race had any bearing whatsoever on how I went about my life. But I was aware, increasingly so, of poverty and how it affected me. When toilets are a luxury, it’s hard not to notice that pissing in a bucket or a hole in the ground puts you in the “have not” column.

When I left Montana for Denver, Colorado, however, I realized I was white for the first time. Obviously, I knew before, but living in Denver as an adult with an adult mind, I started noticing things. White classmates would offhandedly make comments about the “Mexican” parts of town. They’d also often give me a blank stare when they invited me to go snowboarding and I said I couldn’t afford it. More than once, people asked me why I couldn’t just ask my parents for money.

Later, when I joined a highly-selective teaching organization, white colleagues would make assumptions about my economic class because I was surrounded by Ivy Leaguers and upper-middle class folks who, while well-intentioned, often would say very privileged and thoughtless things to me, expecting and assuming that I would agree.

I’ve no doubt the people in these situations meant well and didn’t consider that they sounded racist or classist or any other -ist. Some surely believed that they were allies. In the latter situation, they were there because they wanted to help end educational iniquity. But they unknowingly othered and shamed less privileged people, never expecting for me to be one of them.

That was among the first lessons my white skin taught me of privilege.

I’ve felt at many times like a mole in the midst of the very privileged, one they accepted because they didn’t look past my skin. When I did speak up, I often saw embarrasment and occasional bewilderment, as if a well-spoken, educated white woman whose childhood chores included dumping 5-gallon buckets of human waste into a self-dug outhouse just didn’t compute.

Which brings me back to the whole ally concept. When people feel safe, they often allow words out of their mouths that they expect no reaction to.

If you say you’re an ally for African-American rights but make racist jokes, that’s a problem.

If you say you’re a feminist but shame women’s bodies, that’s a problem.

The other day, a writer I met at Capclave posted a fascinating  article by Rohin Guha about misogyny in gay male culture. It’s quite a long read, but really worth reading. He makes some excellent points about marginalized people groups participating in the marginalization of others. There is also a lot to consider about the privilege of being male — any male. It took all the years between 1869 (15th Amendment disallowing discrimination in voting rights due to race, previous condition of servitude, and class) and 1920 for women in the United States to be recognized as legally voting citizens nationwide. If you were a Black woman in 1930, however, there were still many barriers. That’s where that word “intersectional” comes in — where issues of gender or race or class or education meet. If you’re an avid Twitterer, you’ll perhaps remember the Solidarity is for White Women hashtag. More recently, Not Your Asian Sidekick and How I Met Your Racism.

The most important lesson to be learned from these things is one simple word.


I’m thankful that most of the men in my life will listen when I explain why something is sexist. Or in the times I have to explain why the longstanding and institutionalized marginalization of my gender provides incredibly necessary context. I’m also thankful that when I try to bring up issues of race that people who share my skin color sometimes do listen to me when I say, “You may not find it offensive yourself, but this example is why people found it hurtful.”

But I wish more people would just listen to the people who are saying something hurt them. I wish that when I scrolled through the Not Your Asian Sidekick and How I Met Your Racism hashtags that the white faces I saw in Twitter avatars weren’t predominately telling Asian people to chill out and get a sense of humor. I wish some of the men I know wouldn’t laugh when I describe an instance of sexism I came up against. I wish I didn’t have to explain over and over again how microaggressions add up to being a hostile culture marginalized people have to navigate daily.

I wish that everyone, everyone, who self-identified as an ally of any marginalized people group would take the time to listen. And I wish that all allies (myself included) would be more mindful of the words we use, the jokes we make, and how our privilege allows us to ignore the hurt we cause. Too often, we allow ourselves to undermine the work others are doing by making the same jokes and quips others would make outside of the sphere of engaging with these issues. Calling yourself a feminist doesn’t make rape jokes any more okay when you make them. Saying you support the equal rights of LGBTQ people doesn’t give you a right to use slurs against them, no matter how “joking” your manner. Sure, one or two of your friends might not care, and that might give the sense of license. There is none. You can’t see inside someone’s head. And the reasons people have for letting it slide might not be that they agree with you. That might just be another instance of your privilege — marginalized people not feeling comfortable to call you out.

You know, maybe that second definition isn’t so bad after all. But let’s add one word.

If you want to be an ally, first listen. Then cooperate and help those you say you support.

If the words and jokes you’re using aren’t cooperating or helping, maybe they’re just exacerbating the problem.

PS: After scheduling this post, I stumbled across a very interesting, karma-based discussion of privilege by author Max Gladstone. It’s here and very worth reading.

More reading…here’s an excellent response piece to a recent (misguided) post on XO Jane that is really worth a read.

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4 thoughts on “On Allies”

  1. When I read the #solidarityisforwhitewomen and #fuckyoucispeople hashtags, I found myself excited about the discussion and really interested in what people had to say.

    I then proceeded to share them on FB and some of my friends (predictably the white, cis-gendered male friends) were DEEPLY offended. One made some asinine tone-policing comment about how if you want allies you can’t be telling people “fuck you.” After facepalming so hard I nearly got a concussion, I tried to explain to him that trans* and genderqueer folks have every right to be angry and to express that anger, and that it wasn’t anything to do with him. They weren’t saying “fuck you George” (not his real name) they were decrying the system of privilege and having a really amazing discussion. I suggested that he take a step back and listen to what they were saying, rather than taking it personally.

    I *think* I got through. It seemed like I made progress. At least I hope I did.

    I just don’t get why people can’t *listen*. It really is step one.

    Thank you for posting this. 🙂

    1. Yeah, I noticed that in those hashtags as well. And it was split a bit with the white women — some were sharing and quietly tweeting and asking others to listen, others clearly felt defensive and uncomfortable.

      I think the kneejerk reaction to someone telling you to check your privilege can be to get defensive, which I think is why it’s so important to listen and engage with empathy.

      On the subject of class, last night a coworker in her mid-20s mentioned that her car had died, and she and another coworker talked a bit about how they’d ask their parents for help. I piped up and said that at least that was a possibility; I’d never had that. One immediately tried to backtrack and said she didn’t get help from her parents, just her grandparents. I think people have an aversion to being thought of as privileged sometimes. She didn’t think of herself that way, so when I brought up that having the option to ask for help from your parents was something many people don’t have at all, she felt a little defensive.

      If someone having a kneejerk reaction knows you and trusts you enough to listen to you even when they won’t listen to those who are saying they’re offended, sometimes that’s a good way of using our own privilege to get someone to listen. Though I do wish, as I said in the blog post, that if someone says, “This hurts me” that more people would just respond by saying, “Tell me why.”

      1. My parents were also poor, and aside from loaning me $20 now and again (and suffering for it, as I learned later) they couldn’t help me out much either. Now they’re both gone, so even that small help isn’t available.

        An Ex of mine was astonished to learn that my parents hadn’t left me any property when they died. He couldn’t grasp that adults in the US didn’t own houses or land. I tried to explain that not everyone could actually afford to own land, but he just didn’t seem to get it. I’m glad he’s an ex.

        I find that I don’t take the kind of risks that people who can depend on parental help are willing to take. I do envy that safety net, but I also value the compassion for others that I’ve gained from my own experience.

        You are 100% correct, though. If someone says “this hurts me” the proper response is to ask why and how. To me, compassion is essentially the highest virtue one can strive for. It takes work, though.

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