As happens every time that I read something from Black Girl Dangerous, I recently found myself snapping, nodding, and yelling out “YES!” while reading a piece from Mia McKenzie.
Her article “No More ‘Allies’” made me profoundly uncomfortable – which is a good thing.
I was uncomfortable because it was a call to reflection about my own “ally”identifications and my own work.
To start, read her piece. Seriously. It is awesome.
Beyond that, though, it’s time for those of us who fashion ourselves “allies” or as “currently operating in solidarity with” to have a conversation.
More and more, I am seeing precisely what McKenzie is describing – people of identity privilege who are identifying as “allies” almost as if it is a core part of their identity.
What’s worse, I keep seeing people respond to criticism about their oppressive language or problematic humor with, “But I’m an ally!”
For instance, I recently saw an acquaintance (who notably identifies as Straight)post a pretty problematic joke about Gay men on Twitter.
Aside from expressing my discontent in a tweet, I reached out to her in a private message to explain why I took issue with her joke.
Her response, though, was to say, “Jamie, you know that I’m an LGBT ally! I speak out for Gay rights all the time! This was clearly just a joke.”
And therein lies the problem.
The identification of “ally” was so prominent in this person’s mind that she couldn’t even hear criticism of how her actions were out of alignment with her professed desire to be an “ally!”
So “allies,” let’s talk.
Credit Where Credit is Due
Before I say anything else, though, I should note something important about this article.
None of what I am writing here are my ideas.
They are drawn from Mia McKenzie’s piece, from conversations I’ve had with people of many different marginalized identities, from theorists, novelists, bloggers – but none of them are inherently mine.
They are the ideas of the People of Color, Queer-identified people, women, differently-abled people, poor folks, Jewish people, Muslim people, Atheists, undocumented citizens, and others.
And noting this is important.
Because part of being an ally means giving credit where credit is due and never taking credit for the anti-oppressive thinking, writing, theorizing, and action of the marginalized and oppressed.
Which I guess leads me to my point.
10 Things Every ‘Ally’ Needs to Remember
There are lots of ways to be a great “ally” – and innumerable ways to be a terrible one.
But it’s not rocket science.
There are simple things you can keep in mind and do in order to be a better person “currently operating in solidarity with” the marginalized or oppressed.
And while this list is not comprehensive, it’s definitely somewhere to start.
1. Being an Ally is About Listening
As McKenzie puts it, “Shut up and listen.”
As someone striving to be an ally, the most important thing we can do is listen to as many voices of those we’re allying ourselves with as possible.
Now, does this mean that we should assume that just because, say, one Person of Color said it that it’s the absolutely truth that we should parrot? Absolutely not.
If that were the case, then Don Lemon would clearly speak for all Black people.
But listening to a diversity of marginalized voices can help you understand the core of any given issue.
And it also can help you understand why the opinion of your one Lesbian friend is not necessarily the best defense of your use of heterosexist language.
2. Stop Thinking of ‘Ally’ as a Noun
Being an ally isn’t a status.
The moment that we decide “I’m an ally,” we’re in trouble.
“’Currently operating in solidarity with’ is undeniably an action. It describes what a person is doing in the moment. It does not give credit for past acts of solidarity without regard for current behavior. It does not assume future acts of solidarity. It speaks only to the actions of the present.”
3. ‘Ally’ is Not a Self-Proclaimed Identity
Really, being an ally is not an identity at all, but it’s vitally important that we understand that we cannot simply decide we are allies.
Being in solidarity is something we can strive for, but in the end, it is the choice of those we are attempting to ally ourselves to as to whether they trust us enough to call us an ally.
Additionally, just because one person considers me an ally, that does not mean that every person of that marginalized identity considers me an ally or should!
Trust is something earned through concerted action, not given simply because of our actions in a particular arena or context.