If there's one thing I've learned during my time as a mean feminist blogger, it's that people have a hard time grasping the concept of privilege and acknowledging the extent of their own privilege. If there's another thing I've learned, it's that they have an equally hard time figuring out how to be a decent ally to marginalized groups. Every step in the process seems to be really, really hard for a lot of people. So here's a handy guide.
Firstly, it's important to understand exactly what an ally is. Most of us have heard of the concept of a "straight ally" to the LGBQAIP+ community. You can also be a male ally, a white ally, an able-bodied ally, a cis ally, a thin ally, etc. For every type of privilege, you can have allies. And for every type of privilege, you will find people who will call themselves allies that aren't.
There's a lot that goes into being an ally than saying "I'm an ally." In fact, I believe that any privileged person should not declare themselves an ally to any marginalized group. This is not to say that you shouldn't strive to be one. The problem with applying the ally label to oneself is that it's too easy. I have seen so many people declare themselves an ally, then say or do something harmful to the group they say they're an ally for, and instead of listening and apologizing, go all "how dare you criticize me, I'm an ally!"
At that point, you are not an ally. You're an asshole.
So Step 1 to being an ally is actually to not declare yourself an ally. If you want to express your desire to support a marginalized group, I would say "I stand in solidarity with [marginalized group]," or, better, "I do my best to stand in solidarity with [marginalized group]." The "ally" label should be something that only said marginalized group can apply to you, and it's something that can be revoked at any time. "Ally" is not a permanent state, no matter your intentions. The moment you're not acting as an ally, you're not an ally. If we think of ally-ness in this way, we won't have to deal with shitty people who do shitty things and then hide behind the shield of "I'm an ally."
Step 2 to being an ally is to educate yourself. And by that, I mean educate YOURSELF. Do not demand that members of a group that you have privilege over take time to educate you. That is not their job. Find the resources yourself. If you're white, for example, use all that extra energy you have from not having to worry about getting shot by the police to read a book, browse Wikipedia and follow a few blogs. If you feel confident that a certain blogger is willing to take questions from privileged people, ask POLITELY and let it go if they don't respond. Popular bloggers get a lot of questions and we all have limited energy.
Remember that education is a constant process that never ends. Don't think you can read The Feminine Mystique and know everything you need to know about the oppression of women. Following multiple blogs run by members of a specific marginalized group is very helpful for ongoing education. New issues, or to be precise, issues that you haven't heard of until now, will keep popping up, and you will have more learning to do.
Step 3 is to learn to keep quiet. This tends to be a big obstacle for a lot of privileged people. The more privileged they are, the more accustomed they are to having everyone listen to their opinions on everything. I wrote about the trouble men have with keeping their opinions about the struggles of women to themselves, and how enraged they tend to get when you simply tell them that their opinion is not useful and not welcome.
To get through this challenging step, you need to realize two things. The first is that you are not and will never be an expert in the experiences of people whom you have privilege over. Men can educate themselves and listen to women for their whole lives, but they will still never have the same experiences, and therefore cannot understand on a deep, emotional level what women go through. It's not their fault, but it's true. And you wouldn't expect to be taken seriously on any other subject if you weren't an expert, right? You don't bust into a panel at a physics convention and go "I've watched Big Bang Theory so everyone listen to my opinions about physics!" Do you?
Second is that no matter how insightful and new an idea you might think you have about a maginalization you don't experience, I can almost guarantee that someone else has already said it. A woman has already written something about that, guys. White people, don't bother writing about that insight you had on race relations, because there are already several books about it that were written by people of color.
That leads me into Step 4. At this point, a lot of privileged people get confused about what concrete actions they can take to help marginalized groups. It's simple - if it doesn't help to voice your own opinions, then what will help is to spread the ideas and writings of marginalized individuals! This has become real easy with the rise of social media. Retweet those tweets! Reblog those Tumblr posts! Sharing is caring! Don't bother adding anything to it, just spread it around.
You may at some point feel the need to argue with someone whom you have privilege over. You may recognize that they said something problematic that actually hurts the marginalized group that they're a part of. What you should do is: not. There's a good chance that you're actually not educated enough on the topic, and even if you're confident that they're wrong, it's not your place to tell them. Because of the power imbalance, it's just not a good idea. Allow someone else who is a part of that marginalized group to correct them. When conflict occurs within a maginalized group that you don't belong to, practice Step 3. Remember that you don't know what they're going through.
Step 5 is to do what members of a marginalized group ask of you. They will know what are the best actions to take on any issue that affects them, and they will know how you can best support them. Trust that they know best and stay in the background. Your role is to support, not to lead. It's essential that the people of any marginalized group are the ones to take the lead on any issue that affects them. Women need to be leading Take Back the Night protests. Black people need to be in charge of Ferguson-related protests. If you think you might want to take a leadership role in your school's Gay-Straight Alliance, slap yourself across the face to help yourself come to your senses.
Step 6 is the perhaps the most important and most difficult of all. It's to talk to your fellow privileged people. Call them out on problematic language. Affirm your support of marginalized groups. Stand up to bigots. Discuss with your privileged peers how you can best support them. Many people of marginalized groups strongly suggest that privileged people form their own separate groups dedicated to using their power to support and uphold the efforts of the marginalized. Men shouldn't be demanding space in feminist clubs, but instead make their own clubs dedicated to figuring out how to help women. And hey, you can do all the opinion-sharing you want in that club!
Lastly, Step 7 is to realize that you will screw up and to learn to apologize correctly. You will say or do something problematic along the way. When you get called out, you need to stop, shut up and listen. This is part of your education process, and you need to be grateful that a marginalized person took time to alert you to harmful behavior. Proper apologies go like this:
"I'm sorry for [state specific action here]. I will educate myself more on this issue and do my best to never do it again. Thank you for calling me out on this."
Easy. It really doesn't need to deviate from that at all. DON'T QUALIFY YOUR APOLOGY. NO IF'S. NO BUT'S.
There are additional concrete things you can do to act as an ally, of course, and these depend on what type of privilege we're talking about. If you're white, Ferguson needs donations. If you're a man, call up college campuses and demand they take sexual assault seriously. If you're looking to help on a specific issue, you can typically ask members of a marginalized group how you can help and they'll often be receptive. If they tell you off, let it go. They've probably been burned in the past or they just don't have the energy for you.
Becoming a person who stands in solidarity with people you have privilege over is a process which takes a lot of humbling oneself. Your pride and ego will likely flare up often, but you have to realize that it's not about you. You have to come to terms with your own ignorance and lack of experience. You have to learn to defer to those who know better than you. You have to learn to eat your mistakes. And you have to be aware that you don't deserve constant admiration and gratitude for using your power to support marginalized persons. If you're expecting cookies for anything you do to help them, you're just flaunting that power imbalance and being a selfish asshole.
If you ever, ever, ever threaten to withdraw your support for an entire because you don't like what an individual marginalized person is saying to you, or you don't think they're grateful for your small, basic efforts to uphold basic justice, then you're not an ally. You're a shitty abuser and you should be ashamed of yourself. Please report to this location: