I’ve been contemplating writing this off and on for awhile now, but I tend to dislike blogging about anything controversial or political when I can avoid it, and I also really hesitate to speak for groups, even groups I belong to. I’d much rather just speak for myself, so take this as my own opinion on this subject and get whatever value you can from it. However as I see more and more people talking about being allies to different groups – and really you can apply this to any minority group* – I decided I probably should just write this, because often it seems like people are talking about being an ally but then missing some important aspects of actually doing that.
Don’t get me wrong by the way, being an ally is great — the world needs more of them. I try to be an ally to others and I deeply appreciate people who are allies to the groups I belong to, especially LGBTQIA and trans allies. There are going to be some very specific things to consider if you want to be an ally to a specific group, depending on that exact group’s needs – there are some good guidelines out there on being an ally to LGBTQIA people, transpeople, people of color, or women for example. Keep in mind as well that being an ally to one group doesn’t automatically make you an ally to another, or mean you understand the dynamics or nuances of that other group. Different groups have different needs and expectations to consider.
I would suggest some basic guidelines for anyone who considers themselves an ally:
- Listen more than you talk – can’t emphasize this one enough really. Let the group in question speak for itself, and actually listen to what they are saying. Don’t worry about how you fit into the narrative, just listen. When someone in the group is talking don’t talk over them, edit them, or try to correct what they are saying. As the saying goes, listen to hear what’s being said not just to respond.
- Support what you hear – if people are saying that they have a concern then be supportive of that don’t try to justify it or downplay it. Thoughtful questions are good, but not framed in ways that offer alternatives; just ask for clarity of you aren’t sure and then really listen. Did I mention the listening part? In my opinion a lot of what it means to be an ally isn’t just to stand up for the group in question, because you may be in a better position to do so, but also to give people the space to feel validated and heard.
- Don’t have a conversation involving the phrase “yes, but…” – When you want to be an ally and someone in the group you are trying to support makes a statement, responding with “yes, but” is never going to go anywhere good. Whatever your intent is, what it ends up sounding like is “that’s nice but let me tell you why you’re wrong”.
- Avoid hypocrisy – This is one I see all the time, and it’s one that I wish people would be more self aware about. If you think you are being an ally, but you are encouraging people to change who they are or act differently to be more accepted by society, then you aren’t being an ally. I can think of many examples of this from everything from Black Lives Matter to the LGBT community, but it always comes down to people saying “I support you but you’d have an easier time if you’d just be less yourself”. That is not support.
- Walk your Talk – being an ally means more than just giving lip service to an idea. If you want to be an ally then you need to actually stand up and support the community in question, even if that is something as simple as signing a petition for equal rights or not making a joke about people in that community. Remember that being an ally isn’t about calling yourself one, its about acting like one.
- Be respectful – Put the effort in to learn the right words for things, even if some of it seems redundant or confusing to you. Don’t misgender or misname people and don’t try to define or redefine a group or person. This may be an issue more with gender identity and sexual orientation, but it personally bugs me so I’m including it here anyway.
- Be aware – a big step for any ally is to simply be aware of the reality of the group they are trying to be supportive of. Learn the statistics of concern, which are the numbers that the particular community worries the most about; believe me every group has them. Maybe it’s the suicide rate among transgender people, or the rate that black youth are killed by police. Each group may be different but each one has something in particular that they worry about. Be aware of the danger that group faces for being a minority. Be aware of the concerns they have. But most of all always be aware that they are people, not just a demographic.
* you can be an ally, in my opinion, to any minority group that you don’t personally belong to. (back)