What An Ally Looks Like

May 17, 2017

Nobody's free until everybody's free. - Fannie Lou Hamer

 Recently I read an article from the queer point of view and was surprised at how many people were defensive about the advice given.  Of course, I should not have read the comments but it did prompt me to think about what I consider to be the hallmarks of a good ally. Here is what I have come up with - none of it is really original thinking but hopefully it is helpful to someone.  I have written these guidelines in generic language because there are many types of oppression and I do not believe that any oppressed group should be freed before another.  We all need to be allies to each other in order to end ableism, racism, sexism, classism, ageism, size-ism homophobia, transgender hate, environmental abuse, and the rise of fascism.

1. A Good Ally Does Inner Work & Sets Aside Their Ego
I think sometimes people think they can be successfully supportive without doing inner work and that is just not true.  In order to knock down oppression, we must set our own egos aside.  All of us have biases and prejudices - it is the responsibility of all of us to be willing to examine ourselves and what we may be doing that is problematic.  If we do not understand what are doing that is wrong, then we cannot change our behavior and we cannot change our world.  The process towards understanding can be painful but is necessary to make a more peaceful community.

2. A Good Ally Wants to Learn
Some people want to say that they are supportive but they do not want to put any effort into learning about the issue.  Curiosity is a wonderful thing and I believe that a desire to learn is one of the greatest ways that we can show value - showing interest in another's experiences and hardships shows that you value them as a person.

3. A Good Ally Studies Their Own Culture
Of course, a good ally strives to understand the worlds of others, but if they do not understand their own world, then they will not be able to truly change it.  Black people understand the world of White people more than most White people do-that's why most Black people I talked to were not surprised when Donald Trump became president.  I was, because I did not take the time to understand my own culture-I stayed in my own liberal bubble, not understanding what has always been a part of white culture.  But this does not apply to just white people-heterosexuals, cis-gender, able-bodied, thin, neuro-typical, Christian, young, rich-you, we, all need to understand yours, ours, culture.  We need to understand the way it brainwashes us and the way it hurts us-the way it convinces us that we are superior to someone else.  Until we look closely at our own selves, we will not be able to change.
4. A Good Ally Does Their Own Research
I used to have a friend that would constantly ask me to define words I used and it got very aggravating.  It is disrespectful to repeatedly ask a person to explain themselves.  We live in an age with google, so use it. Taking the time to do research shows others that you respect their time. If a person tells me that they looked things up but still have questions, then I feel gratified and respected and I have no problem with answering a few questions.

5. A Good Ally Practices Empathy
Sympathy is feeling sorry for a person-empathy is feeling what they feel.  Sympathy involves a sense of superiority, while empathy brings mutuality and connection.  We do not want to do advocacy work because we feel sorry for another but because we feel connected to another and know that their struggle is our struggle is everybody's struggle.  I am not free until everyone is free.  Empathy involves active listening and admitting when we do not know what to do or what to say - in fact, I think admitting that we do not have all the answers but being willing to stay with someone through the uncomfortableness, through heartache, and say, "I do not know what to do, but I am here," can be very healing.  It is not the ally's job to solve all problems, but it is the ally's job to empathize in a way that others do not.  I think a person that strives to be empathic will be more willing to learn, to listen, to apologize if needed, and to ultimately act in a way that is helpful than a person who says they want to support/help but doesn't take the time to truly understand what the oppressed party is feeling and experiencing.

6. A Good Ally Gives Preference To The Other's Lived Experience
It may be tempting to assert your own opinion on a topic, but when an oppressed person tells their story or preference, it is your job to listen.  If what the person says bothers you, take some time to think about it and set your own ego aside before critiquing them.  The person with the lived experience knows more about what their oppression is like and what they need than you do.

7. A Good Ally Tries Not To Take Criticism Personally
Often times advice may be given in general terms - if it doesn't apply to you, then it's not about you.  Try not to get defensive when someone is sharing anger.

8. A Good Ally Does Not Get Offended By Anger
Oppressed people have a right to be angry about their oppression - don't police their tone or tell people that you would listen if they were nicer.  That makes the issue all about you and not about their own experience.  Remember, if it doesn't apply to you, then it's not about you.

9. A Good Ally Supports The Work Of Others
Once a person gets it, it can be tempting to want to save the day, but that is really putting the focus back on you.  White feminists have a long history of doing this.  Instead of forming your own rescue mission, find out what advocacy groups are run by the oppressed group and support them.  Become a follower rather than a leader if you are not part of the oppressed experience.

10. A Good Ally Uses Their Privilege To Speak Out

While it is good to let the oppressed group take the lead, you do have an important part to play in the move towards equality.  Talk about oppression and ways to combat it with your friends.  Do not let the people you know get away with using oppressive words or speech.  It is not that we are trying to be politically correct but that we are trying to create a more peaceful world.  If I hear a friend use the word, "retarded," I will gently ask that friend to use another word.  Here is what I usually say, "Please don't use that word-I have friends with developmental disabilities and that language has been used to hurt them.  Just say what you mean."  Be sure to have some suggestions ready in case they ask what they should say instead.  The appropriate term is developmental disability, although most people that say the r-word are actually referring to people they do not like or think are ignorant.  I have never had pushback when people hear that it is actually hurtful to use certain words and when given other words as options.  As a person of privilege, others will especially listen to you.

11. A Good Ally Promotes Dialogue
This is a hard one. I am troubled by how all or nothing our society has become and I believe it is  dialogue that can help save us.  We must be willing to have hard conversations with people who deeply disagree with us that are not shouting matches if we are to build unity.  It has become popular to make a grand pronouncement on Facebook telling people who do not agree with a certain issue to just go ahead and unfriend us and I find that disappointing.  The more separated our society becomes, the easier it is to turn certain people into an other and an enemy, which paves the road to fascism and genocide.  Here is my caveat though - in my quest for dialogue, I will not tolerate abuse and negativity in my space - I do not unfriend people just because they disagree with me but if they are rude, negative, demeaning, abusive, trolling, etc., then they have to go.  I promote dialogue, but I do not tolerate negativity in my sacred, safe spaces.  (That's called having boundaries.)

12. A Good Ally Owns Their Mistakes
We are all human and we are all going to make mistakes.  If a person makes an inappropriate assumption or uses the wrong language, that's okay.  Listen, learn, apologize, and then commit to not doing it again.  There is no need to beat yourself up or shower yourself in guilt, for no one is perfect.  Sincere apologies and dialogues can be healing, as it shows that a person really cares.

13. A Good Ally Practices Self Care
This actually applies to everybody.  You cannot help others if you are totally burned out.  Take good care of yourself.  Tell yourself good things and be with people that lift you up.  It is easy to get overwhelmed by all the negativity in the media but an atmosphere of despair helps no one.  Activism and protesting actually can be a wonderful form of self care, as it brings people together and helps people feel like they are being productive.  No, protests alone will not change the world but the coming together of many people for a single cause should never be underestimated.  It benefits the current social order to keep people isolated and think they are alone.  If you cannot protest, then do something else and do not feel guilty - there are many ways to bring about peace and they are all important.  This includes taking care of our wellbeing - the patriarchy feeds on isolation, negativity, and despair and we must fight it with optimism, unity, and hope.  These are not shallow feelings, but ways of being that require concrete action.  Pursue community, curiosity and creativity in healing and kind ways always in order to create a more just, equal, and peaceful society.

14. A Good Ally Holds Hope
If a person says they are a support person for a person with mental illness but does not believe that person will get better, then they are not really a support person.  This may be the hardest requirement for an ally, or anybody, to do though.  It's really hard to be hopeful when the world is as it is. Personally, I try to look for articles that report on the good side of things-what things that are being done that are actually positive and who are the people that trying to do good.  I follow groups and people that are trying to make change and participate in the ways they suggest.  I think hope is something best cultivated in community and action-it is hard to keep hope alive if all one does is sit at home and read/watch horrible stories all day.   I do not think we can be hopeful all the time-or empathetic or non defensive or any of the things I am suggesting.  I put these ideals out there because I think they are important-not because I think it is remotely possible to be this kind of person all the time.
This writing exercise sort of turned into a monster-I had no idea that I had so many things to say when I first started writing this!  I came to the realization that these guidelines really transcend being a good ally and could be considered guidelines to being a good person.  Our society needs to support each other by employing empathy, understanding, compassion, kindness, dialogue, and love or else we will continue down our path of destruction and end up annihilating us all.  No one is perfect but together we can make a difference.

Nobody's free until everybody's free. - Fannie Lou Hamer

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