5 Ways to Avoid Common Ally Pitfalls by Learning From Your Mistakes

miss one's markOriginally published at Everyday Feminism.


Over the years, I have been asked to talk and write on a number of occasions about the notion of allyship and solidarity, about what it means to be an ally, how one goes about effective solidarity work, and how not to be so very terrible at being an ally.

I think this trend of asking people who share my identity about this topic is simultaneously ironic and important.

It’s important because these are 100-level questions, and unless they have explicitly offered themselves as a resource to those of us with privilege, it is not the responsibility of oppressed and marginalized people to be our educators. Those of us who strive for solidary should be willing to put in that emotional labor to help those who share our identity understand some fundamental tenets of ally work.

It’s ironic, though, for two reasons.

First, as much as I can offer from my experience on these topics, the best thing people of any form of identity privilege can do to understand solidarity is to simply listen across difference. If we are willing to listen over time, we will understand pretty well what is expected of us by those with whom we want to act in solidarity.

Second, considering how much I’ve screwed up in my own journey, I don’t always feel super qualified to be offering help to others.

But I suppose in some ways, my mistakes are what make it possible for me to have anything at all to offer other White folks or other men or other able-bodied people; hopefully, my learning can help other people with privilege consider how to strive for more accountable allyship.

So often, our “learning” must come at the expense of marginalized and oppressed people. So hopefully, offering some of the lessons I’ve learned about solidarity from making difficult mistakes can help you consider different ways of being that don’t demand so much from marginalized and oppressed people.

So here are some important lessons I think all people striving for allyship should know – ones I wish I had known so that my mistakes didn’t have to demand hurt or emotional labor from others.

1. The Moment You Think You Have Allyship Figured Out, You’re Going to Fuck Up

Solidarity isn’t a state of being, and “ally” isn’t an identity. There is no point that someone can reach where the work is done.

And even knowing that in theory, there have been times where I have gotten comfortable, where I have felt like I knew it all, and where I was complacent about what solidarity can or should look like.

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The “Appropriate Time” is Now: White Liberals and the Politics of Solidarity

By David J. Leonard

Rally organizer Robby Stern, center, yells over Marissa Johnson, left, and Mara Jacqueline Willaford, right, as Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders looks on from behind after stepping away from the microphone. ELAINE THOMPSON/AP

Over the last year (and of course over many decades and centuries), there have been reoccurring (& always condemning) questions from white liberals regarding protests from black activists: is it effective; does it alienate; will it facilitate change? One of the common themes continues to be white policing (so much policing of black bodies from the state and from those who claim to have marched with King, against Apartheid, for civil rights) of when and where it is appropriate to protest:

  • Football games, off-limits;
  • On the basketball floor, not OK;
  • From black women scholars on twitter, unprofessional and counter productive.
  • At Netroots and now at a Bernie Sanders rally, counter productive and inappropriate.

Bernie’s Respectability Police

Look no further than a recent piece from Hamilton Nolan, who called the protest in Seattle “stupid,” admonishing Black Lives Matters activists not to “Don’t Piss on Your Best Friend.” Questioning their motives and tactics, Nolan takes aim that the “appropriateness” of “targeting” Sanders given his “progressive” politics. Never mind the legitimate questions about his racial politics, and whether his work is progressive and transformative, which remains unclear for now:

Many on the left find it hard to come out and say “this was stupid,” because they support both Bernie Sanders and the Black Lives Matter movement. That is a misperception of the political landscape. Believing that a small group of angry young protesters did something that was not well thought out need not make you feel guilty or racist; rash and counterproductive things are what young people do. Screaming Bernie Sanders offstage is dumb because you support Black Lives Matter. For those perceptive enough to separate pretty slogans from actual policy prescriptions, it is clear that Bernie Sanders is the candidate most aligned with the group’s values. Stifling his voice only helps his opponents. Go shout at someone who deserves it.

First, he should read Aliza Garza’s recent statements on what whites can do to support the BlackLivesMatter. Second, the paternalism and patronizing tone is only matched by Nolan’s never ending rhetoric about appropriateness.

He’s not alone. Twitter, Facebook, and the comment section is filled with “Why Sanders” and “Shouldn’t allies be embraced not rejected.” Imani Gandy, in a brilliant piece, summarizes the reactionary Bernie white populism in the aftermath of the rally in Seattle.

“Why are you alienating allies?”

“Don’t you know how much Bernie cares for you?”

“What’s wrong with you people?”

“Hillary would be worse!”

“What are you going to do, vote for Donald Trump?”

“Why won’t you ever be satisfied?”

“You’re doing it all wrong!”

“You’re going to make us quit caring about Black lives if you don’t shape up and act the way we want you to.”

Most Black voters want the answer to one question: What is Sanders’ plan to address the police brutality crisis in the Black community?

And the answer to that question is never: “Bernie marched with Dr. King.

Yet that seems to be the answer given by many of Sanders’ supporters on social media.

As she makes clear, accountability is not rejection. Expecting answers is neither intrusive nor rude, especially in a moment of white supremacist violence and police terror (yes, that is every moment of America’s history). The retort to “blame the victim” to focus on “tone” and “tactics” is not just “disrespectful” to Black Lives Matters and organizers working on the ground but is what racism looks like.

Even the defenders of the protests that note, sure “they were “aggressive, intrusive, inconsiderate, rude and indiscriminate” and “disrespectful” but “that black people deal with must be like every day, everywhere from history textbooks to courtrooms, job interviews to pop culture” rely on false equivalences.

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Interrupting Bernie: Exposing the White Supremacy of the American Left

Marissa Johnson, left, speaks as Mara Jacqueline Willaford holds her fist overhead and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., stands nearby as the two women take over the microphone at a rally Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015, in downtown Seattle. The women, co-founders of the Seattle chapter of Black Lives Matter, took over the microphone and refused to relinquish it. Sanders eventually left the stage without speaking and instead waded into the crowd to greet supporters. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Marissa Johnson, left, speaks as Mara Jacqueline Willaford holds her fist overhead and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., stands nearby as the two women take over the microphone at a rally Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015, in downtown Seattle. The women, co-founders of the Seattle chapter of Black Lives Matter, took over the microphone and refused to relinquish it. Sanders eventually left the stage without speaking and instead waded into the crowd to greet supporters. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

You know, I’ve always liked Bernie Sanders. I appreciate that as a U.S. Senator, he has been willing to speak the truth about many important social issues, but he’s also a U.S. Senator, which means that he is only going to be as progressive as his electorate allows him to be.

That said, I’d generally been pretty disappointed with the lack of racial justice analysis in his economic inequality platform as a candidate for president. That is, until a few weeks ago when some phenomenal Black activists at the Netroots Nation Presidential Town Hall forced his hand.

For all of the “this is not the way” sentiment we’re hearing from White progressives, it was the interruption at Netroots (alongside other direct pressure) that led to Bernie’s explicit platform on racial justice.

Notably, Black Lives Matter activists haven’t been successful (though I am sure not for lack of trying) in interrupting Hillary Clinton in the same way (that secret service protection and massive campaign budget for private security sure is handy), but even she has had little choice but to pay attention to Black Lives Matter as a movement.

And there is a great deal of disagreement within Black communities (we as White folks would do well to remember that people and Black organizations aren’t monoliths) about whether the action was strategic and whether targeting Bernie was the right move. And that dialogue should continue to take place within Black liberation spaces, but White folks – that’s not our business.

Because here’s the thing – what’s powerful about these interruptions from Black women is less how it has changed the tone of the Democratic campaigns and more about what they have exposed in the White left.

I see these protests as less about the individual candidates themselves and more about how their White base refuses to center Black lives and Black issues. It’s notable that White Bernie supporters, who consider themselves the most progressive of us all, shouted down and booed Black women who dared to force Blackness into the center of White space.

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Allies: Are You Really About This Life?

There’s been a lot of great conversation taking place on the interwebs about allies, allyship, and solidarity lately.  And when this week’s guest contributor sent me this post, I knew I had to publish it.  It definitely says plainly and clearly what any of us who fashion ourselves “allies” need to know.

Marcus SimmonsThis week’s post comes from Marcus Simmons, a writing and diversity educator based in Chicago.  Marcus Simmons is a native son of Texas who has worked as an intercultural communications educator/artist and a writing coach in Chicago for the last nine years. With a background in performance, conflict transformation and higher education, he views his work as amplifying stories that reconcile, build community, and push deeply into the end of abuse culture. Marcus currently serves as the Coordinator of Student Engagement and Lecturer at North Park University, where he is completing graduates studies in theomusicology. He’s also involved in a number of creative projects ranging from blogging to video game modding. He is absolutely obsessed with music and double stuff Oreos.  Connect with Marcus on Twitter and Facebook.

Allies: Are You Really About This Life?

I’m tired of people making anti-abuse alliances all about tolerance and benevolent privilege. Being an ally is more than promises, pretty words, and potlucks. It’s more than re-posting liberal think pieces on facebook and winning arguments with bigots on twitter. You call yourself an ally, but are you really about this life?

Sayin’ It Ain’t Bein’ It

You may think yourself an ally, but that doesn’t make you one. Too many crusaders, dripping with self-belief and entitlement, elbow their way into spaces wanting to make a difference without really investing in the community.

Anti-abuse spaces are clogged with slacktivists who study the community from a distance, expecting to impact the lives of people they know precious little about. These people show up with great ideas that are great because they said so. They usually have a limited understanding (if any) of their own privilege and the power dynamics that animate it. They act with a lot of passion, but often lack people skills and wisdom.

You can’t be a good ally if you don’t know how to care for people. I’ve done work with numerous fair-minded, sincere people only to learn that at the end of the project, meeting, rally or dialogue, I become invisible again. Don’t be one of those people who are married to the cause and divorced from the people.

Becoming an ally begins with asking permission to be a listener, a supporter, and a co-worker. Be motivated by a love for people – not a need to erase whatever guilt, fear, or shame you feel because of the privileges you have. You can’t base a movement on that. To be an ally, you actually have to join the community, be mentored in it, and take your cues for action from your relationships with the people there.

Do the Work

Here’s the thing about privilege: it teaches those who have it to press your own well-being and desires over and against others. It conditions you to think that people without social advantage must take time to teach you, the one with the social advantage, how to be a better person to them.

You’re wrong.

I’ve lost count of the number of white “allies” that have accused me of not providing them with enough inspiration, education, suggestions, and closure to sustain their anti-racist work. This is a textbook example of internalized privilege.

Alliances are mutual so I don’t mind partnering with you, but I refuse to be held responsible for you “getting it.” I am confident in your ability to get your stuff together without me having to get it together for you.

Allies Do Not Give Agency 

If you think oppressed people need your help to survive, do not apply.

Many well-intentioned (but ill-informed) allies make the mistake of thinking their job is to speak for the voiceless. This is another textbook example of internalized privilege. There is no such thing as a person without a voice or the ability to articulate their situation.  It’s just that sometimes that voice is in a language, a body, or tone that some of us would rather not acknowledge.

Allies understand that they can be helpful without being the hero. Fighting abuse culture is less about “empowering people” in their humanity and more about making sure that people’s inherent humanity is recognized.

What the oppressed require more than anything else are ears to hear, eyes to see, a heart that won’t forget, and feet that won’t turn and run for the hills (or suburbs) when the fight becomes difficult.

Allies Are Not Experts

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30 Ways to Be a Better Ally in 2014

As I think back over 2013, I’m happily overwhelmed by memories of my first year living with my partner, of incredible opportunities to collaborate with new professional colleagues, and of time with family and friends.

Standing at the margins of these memories, though, are ones that make my heart beat a little faster, that make the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

No, these are not necessarily memories of trauma, per se. They are memories of hurt that I have caused, of my attempts to be a good ally that ended up hurting those with whom I attempted to act in solidarity.

My heart races, in part, because I feel embarrassed and ashamed, but more so, my heart races because I know I hurt people for whom I care very much, and I have a responsibility to do better going forward.

With that in mind, I have been reflecting a lot lately on how I can be a better ally.

And as we wade our way into 2014, I suppose now is as good a time as any to consider some ways that I (and any person who wishes to act accountably as an ally) can do better in 2014.

So here’s my list of 30 ways that those of us who strive to act in solidarity and allyship (most notably inclusive of myself) can be better allies.

1. Listen More

It can’t be said enough. The single most important thing we can do to be better allies is to listen across difference.

2. Talk Less

The other side of the coin of listening is that we can always do a better job of stepping back, asserting ourselves less into spaces, and, in doing so, allowing those to whom we ally to speak their truths.

3. Look to Amplify Rather than Overshadow

Though being a better ally can mean that we must talk less, that doesn’t mean that we ought to be in total silence.

We surely need to defer to those with whom we are acting in solidarity, but we also want to make sure that we are not leaving those to whom we want to ally ourselves to be the only ones speaking.

Thus, there are times we should be speaking up, times where we can amplify the voices of others with our collective perspectives. It’s just important to be sure we’re amplifying, not overshadowing.

4. Strive to Use More Inclusive Language

There are always ways that we can use more inclusive language as allies. I, personally, think I do a pretty good job of being inclusive, but I still find myself using ableist language like “insane” or “lame” pretty often. Thus, in working to be a better ally in 2014, I can work to be even more inclusive in my language.

5. Be Careful with Pronoun Use

Part of using inclusive language that is, unfortunately, still pretty new to a lot of people working for social justice is careful use of pronouns.

Not all people would label themselves with the gendered pronouns that you might assume for them, and some people prefer non-gendered pronouns altogether.  A simple way that we can be inclusive is to offer what pronouns we prefer and ask others what they would prefer.

And try not to misgender people by assuming the pronouns that they would prefer unless you’ve heard them assert their preference.

6. Engage More People Who Share Your Identity

As allies, our primary work must be with people who share our privileged identity. Thus, the more we can work to bring people who share our identity to understand their identity and privilege and to act for justice, the better.

7. Don’t Think You’re ‘Holier Than’ Those Who Share Your Identity

I recently had a fantastic conversation with my partner, her mom, and a family friend about a really frustrating thing that we often see among White liberals: the“holier than thou” attitude.

As our primary responsibility as allies is to challenge and bring into the fold those who share our identity, calling people out with no desire to call them in or to engage them or others in dialogue or action toward justice is just lazy, faux activism. Stop it.

8. Cite Your Sources

Whether discussing the origin of a hashtag or referring to a complex theory or idea, if you’re a person of privilege, you have a responsibility to cite your sources.

In the age of the Internet, it can be pretty easy to pass off anything and everything as our own (whether intentionally or out of laziness), but we need to be clear where our ideas are coming from.

If we’re talking about oppression and we’re not oppressed, the ideas aren’t ours. Cite them.

9. Self-Reflect More

Simple. Pretty much everyone of any identity could use more time for both critical and loving self reflection in a society that encourages us constantly to be engrossed in exterior input.

But for people of privilege who want to be allies, it is particularly important that we build into our lives ways to consider our own identity and its impacts on others and how we can more fully live in our values.

10. Interrogate Why You’re Striving to Be an Ally

As part of this self-reflection, it is important to ask why you’re striving to be in solidarity with oppressed people across difference.

Are you doing it because you want to “save” others or “use your privilege” to help someone? Or are you striving for solidarity because, in the words of Lilla Watson,“your liberation is bound up with” those with whom you ally yourself?

Read 11-30 at Everyday Feminism.

Beyond Being a White Knight: 8 Ways Men can be Allies to Women at Parties

I spend a lot of time thinking about parties.

Not only do I love parties, but a big part of my work is encouraging sex-positive party culture on college campuses.

And while I love to party, I have to remember something: Parties can be profoundly dangerous places, especially for women.

So it leaves me wondering this: Aside from the environmental changes we can make to ensure party culture is more sex positivein what ways can men act as allies to women at parties, particularly as we look to prevent sexual violence?

Whether you’re in the club or at a house party or a school-sponsored dance, men have a responsibility to act in solidarity with women to ensure that parties are fun and safe for everyone.

When it comes to party environments, though, that’s not exactly simple to accomplish.

After all, attempting to be a good ally to women can quickly devolve into some paternalistic “white knighting” that can easily recreate the very systems of power and marginalization and oppression that we’re looking to undermine.

And as I sat down to write this piece, it ended up being a lot more difficult than I thought. Every idea I came up with for how to be a good ally at parties seemed to easily devolve into paternalistic ugliness.

So I reached out to my community!

And once again, I was reminded about how this work must be done in cooperation.

8 Ways Men Can be Allies to Women at Parties

In turn, the following list is reflective of my community: friends, acquaintances, other bloggers, family members.

While some ideas are my own, many, even ones not directly attributed, are reflective of the powerful community in which I am fortunate to be grounded in my work to prevent sexual violence on college campuses.

1.  Don’t Be ‘That Guy’ 

Arguably the most important thing that a man can do to act in solidarity with women in party atmospheres is to make sure you aren’t being the one to make others uncomfortable (at best) or to act predatorily (at worst).

What I often say is that men who openly espouse feminist ideals and who know how to “talk the talk” of solidarity are sometimes the most dangerous to women.

After all, those of us who can drop some bell hooks or speak to the performative nature of gender roles have the potential to gain trust and to exploit that trust to manipulate, assault, or otherwise hurt women.

In short, if we want to be allies, we have the most responsibility to buck our social conditioning of what it means to be a man.

We have the responsibility to consider the impacts of our actions on the women around us, even if we are not intending to make them uncomfortable.

In the words of my friend Jen, “If you comment on a person’s appearance, be aware it could be unwanted attention and make her uncomfortable (especially in alone situations or when it turns into harassment).  Don’t jump to calling her pet names (sweetheart, babe) or to making requests of her (smile for me, etc).”

In short, don’t be that guy – the guy who actively is hitting on everyone, who is ogling women’s bodies, who’s enabling other men to prey on women, who is performing traditional, toxic masculinity.

2.  Don’t Be Paternalistic

One of the trickiest aspects of attempting to ally oneself to women as a man in any context is avoiding paternalism – acting on behalf of women as if we know better than them – but it’s particularly tough to avoid in party environments.

After all, parties tend to be loud, busy, complicated, and people are there for a variety of reasons.

Thus, we might see a woman on the dance floor who has someone grinding up on her. Even if she has a look on her face that we interpret as discomfort, it’s hard to know how to proceed.

After all, maybe that is how her face looks when she’s really into something! Or maybe she is uncomfortable, but doesn’t want help from a stranger. Or maybe she is uncomfortable and wants help, but not from a male-identified person. Or maybe she’s getting ready to handle it herself.

The key here is not to assume we can “save the day” and to be respectful and defer to women when possible.

If you have a relationship with the women in question, a simple check-in can go a long way: “Hey! How you doing? Wanna get a drink with me?”

If you don’t know the person in question, sometimes even making eye contact and giving a concerned look can allow her to signal whether she might want your help.

From there, perhaps the best way to proceed is to engage the guy who’s acting inappropriately.

Talk to him, distract him, and if she’s uncomfortable, she can move along. Doing so helps share the agency, allowing her to still make a decision about how things should go forward.

Perhaps, though, the best way to be an ally is, as my bestie Becca put it, to consider “how you position yourself in a room/situation. Sometimes removing yourself from a room/situation altogether can be a form of allyship in itself.”

In a party environment, sometimes the best thing we can do to avoid paternalism is to be aware of the space we are occupying in parties and consider how we’re interacting with women and act accordingly, which may mean removing ourselves from a situation.

After all, offering a woman a ride home (even with good intentions) could be the most threatening thing she’s experienced all night.

Lastly, recognize that when you try to be an ally, sometimes you’re going to screw up and totally “white knight” the situation.

If that happens, apologize where necessary and try to learn from that experience.

3.  Err on the Side of Intervention

Read the rest at Everyday Feminism.

So You Call Yourself an Ally: 10 Things All ‘Allies’ Need to Know

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.

As Mia McKenzie puts it:

“’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.

Read the rest at Everyday Feminism.