Tuesday, November 11, 2014

How To Ally

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.

Image from Pandemic game that says "ENTER A DISEASE NAME" and the disease name entered is "straight allies"

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.

Animated gif of Arrested Development's Lucille's eyes getting wider as Michael talks to her with the caption "MANSPLAINING"

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.

Animated gif of William Shatner as James Kirk slapping himself over and over.

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:

Image of a cartoon trash can saying "I'm full of garbage!"


saber86 said...

This is a great post. Reblogging on A Magpie's Eye. Thanks for such a clear explanation!

Helen Triplett said...

Someone I know talks down to women sometimes and I never know how to act. Usually he will just say something hurtful in passing and I don't know if he realizes that what he is saying is problematic or not, but I don't know how to approach him about it, or even if I should.
Have you ever been in a situation where you felt like you should talk to a person about their behavior? Do you think it is best to confront that person or to let them eventually learn from their mistakes?

Lindsey Weedston said...

In the case that you're a woman and the person being harmful toward women is a man, you don't have any kind of moral obligation to speak up to him. It is true that if no one speaks up to him about his behavior, he's unlikely to change it on his own. I mean, you never know, but in my experience most people won't change without some kind of pressure.

I have been in a situation where a friend of a friend was rather misogynistic, and it really bothered me. I eventually did speak up to him, even though it was really hard, and though he seemed receptive, he didn't end up changing his behavior. At that point, I decided he wasn't worth the stress and wrote him off. It really comes down to what you have the emotional strength to handle. Remember that it's not your job to fix him.

Thanks for the question, Helen.

Michelle Nguyen said...

After reading this, it reminds me of something I have experienced myself. At my job, I feel that there is a lot of harrassment that goes on and I feel like the people doing so, just don't educate themselves enough to know that these are things they shouldn't be doing. They think they are an ally to me and think I am okay with them saying things to me, yet when I tell them not to do it or correct them, they get very upset. They don't follow any of these steps that are written in this blog! Maybe I should forward this to them and see if this opens their eyes up a little bit. Lol. This is such a good read for me, considering I am dealing with things day to day that relate to false allys. It drives me nuts honestly. How would you think I can go about this every day professionally and not getting so upset? I feel like in the workplace it's hard. I don't want the other person to be offended when I correct them. Some people are extremely stubborn. How can they practice these steps and become more of an ally rather than a false ally and make the world of my workplace a happy place??

Lindsey Weedston said...

If the harassment that goes on targets you as a woman or person of color, then you don't need to worry about being an ally to them. Acting as an ally is something a privileged person does to help marginalized people. As for avoiding getting upset, I would say don't! Allowing yourself to be angry when people treat you badly is a revolutionary act. My blog encourages women in particular to embrace their anger and find the power in it. It's great that you get upset over this stuff. They're doing something wrong, and you deserve better.

Improving the workplace is tricky, though. Especially if you don't feel that management or human resources will support you. Here's one trick I enjoy. If the harassment comes in the form of "jokes," then any time someone makes a sexist or racist joke, turn to them totally serious and say you don't get it. Ask them to explain why it's funny. Watch them get all flustered as they try to explain.

Joah Fulmer said...

Being an ally is not really a term I have ever thought about. Being a privileged male, I recently ended up in a situation at work. One of my co-workers in the middle of a stand up morning meaning said " I just want everyone to know that I am gay and would appreciate it if you guys would stop using the terms gay and fag." This came as a shock to everyone considering we all use that language every day and don't think much of it. (shop with all male workers). It has been very hard for me to adjust, considering I use those words daily without thinking much of it. I have done ok but have had a few slip ups. I may say "that's really gay," or "what a fag," (not to the person that came out, just around them) and feel terrible about it. I apologize for the word choice and go about the conversation trying to make it as least awkward as possible. He will correct me at times before I get a chance to apologize making me feel worse for not noticing. Being words I have used for 20 years, it is quite the adjustment to change my vocabulary. I remember when you had the discussion with our class that you had been making it a point to not use derogatory words in your vocabulary. When you said that, this came to mind. Has it ever happened that you chose the wrong words at the wrong time and regretted it? or did you chose to stop out of good will? It has really made me start to question my vocabulary choices.

David Dorcas said...

What would be the correct action to take when you see someone with privilege committing one of these mistakes? Is it not my place to correct them and wait for someone from that marginalized group to interject?

Lindsey Weedston said...

If you're privileged and you see someone with the same privilege doing or saying something problematic, then it's absolutely part of ally work to speak up and correct them. Don't wait for a marginalized person to correct them, because it's so much harder to do when you're the marginalized one due to the power imbalance. When you have the same privilege as a person who's being problematic, they're more likely to listen to you if you correct them.

Lindsey Weedston said...

Hey Joah, sorry I took so long to reply. I totally forgot about this comment. I'm glad that you're working on being considerate of the words you use and eliminating homophobic terms from your vocabulary. It's a process during which you're basically guaranteed to slip up every now and then. You're right to apologize when you do slip up, and that's all you can really do. With your coworker, remember not to prioritize your guilt. Apologize once and move on, and keep working on it. It sounds like you're doing really well.

As someone with plenty of privilege, I have had to go through the same process plenty of times. I used to use the word "gay" as an insult like many people and had to break myself of that habit. Currently, I'm trying to eliminate terms that have harmed people with learning and developmental disabilities. It's very difficult to stop using words like "stupid" and "idiot" and so forth, and I slip up all the time.

I think it's fantastic that you've started to think about the way you use words. Words are very powerful, and language shapes the way we all perceive the world. Watching the words I use has turned me into a more considerate and empathetic person.

Kaitlyn said...

Loved the explanations! I feel like people don't understand that they wont probably experience the same things as other people. And that everyone has a different opinion and a solution. As a white woman I cant say that I will ever experience the looks or feelings towards a situation that other people have. People need to listen and apologize, it is as simple as that.

Ashley said...

With everything going on racialy in the world right now, I feel that this post is so very relevant and needed for many people today. I believe that people are at a loss of what to do and feel that they have either no right or too much of a right to speak out. The lack of knowledge and blindness people have to other's everyday struggles and lack of privilege is astonishing. This post could really help.
I also think that people who are not an ally should read this to understand how to communicate to a person who is over stepping their bounds.
Thank you for this interesting perspective and read.

Erica Otness said...

I found this posting to be quite interesting. I love that you said that if you are the privileged one in the group working to be an ally for whatever topic you are wanting to help, it is important to take a step back and remember that you are privileged. I also agree, if you are out to support a cause you should certainly do your research before asking a bunch of questions. If you don't know a significant amount about the topic are people actually going to think that you are serious about being an ally? Probably not. Liked the part where you said if you say something stupid to shut up. So true. When you are an ally you have to listen and learn. Definitely a part of the learning process and is important in gaining insight and understanding about the topic at hand. Thank you for this post! Very helpful!

Alex said...

Do you find that a lot of people help others become Allys or do they leave them to learn and educate themselves?

HBF said...

I love everything that you have to say. It's important to be an ally. You can basically be some ones voice for them. I also love how you explain privilege. It is a hard concept to grasp for most people. I am a Caucasian straight female...I will never understand what it is like to be black or Mexican etc etc. I can go through life not even experiencing stereotypes that come with being a certain race. It has nothing to do with how hard I have worked, it has to do with how I am treated on a daily basis. I can walk into a grocery store without being followed, I can apply for a job and not have ,my sexual orientation be a problem.

Ashley said...

I think step 7 is a big opportunity for many. The fact of the matter is that we will all make mistakes, it's fessing up to it and educating yourself from letting it happen again.

Ashley said...

This was a really enjoyable to read and it helped me understand a more about how to support others that are not like me. I've always had a problem on not trying to support anything because I've never felt strongly enough towards the cause to believe I could be allowed to support it, so I feel like I learned how to work on changing that feeling by reading this.

Angelica said...

This was a very straight forward approach to explain what being an ally really means. So many people call themselves an ally without actually taking the time to educate themselves on the real issues. I am so tired of hearing people say things like "I'm not racist so yes, I'm an ally". There is so much more to it than just talking about it too.
I know I have a long way to go before calling myself an ally. I have just recently started educating myself and understanding areas where I have privilege.
This article would be great for people who love to just hear themselves talk about current/past issues as if they know everything. I think it so important for people to realize how they actually do the opposite of what an ally would do when they talk over people with less privilege than them.

Lindsey Weedston said...

That's a complicated question, and potentially dangerous. Have you ever heard the term "Oppression Olympics"? It refers to when people argue over which oppressed group has it worse. Since I have so much privilege, I can't possibly have the experience necessary to say which marginalization is the worst, and so it's better I keep my mouth shut, you know?

The goal is really to be an ally to each marginalized group that you're not a part of.

Lindsey Weedston said...

Thanks, Ashley! I'm glad I could help.

Lindsey Weedston said...

I think the goal is not so much to be someone's voice for them but to amplify their voice and message. You can do that simply by repeating what you've learned from a specific oppressed person (or summarizing their ideas) and then crediting them.

Lindsey Weedston said...

If you're talking about marginalized people helping others become allies, it depends on the situation. If you come to a marginalized person with a genuine question and ask politely, most of the time they'll be glad to answer you or direct you to reading material.

The whole idea of privileged people educating themselves comes from a tendency for people who are yet unaware of their privilege or just generally terrible to come at an oppressed person with some hypothetical or take some "Devil's advocate" position, and then when they're rebuffed, they demand "evidence" and/or try to push the argument forward. This is hostile behavior which is highly stressful and frustrating for the oppressed person who feels that they are constantly having to fight for people to simply recognize their humanity. So when the oppressed person refuses to continue the argument (which they've probably had a thousand times already with similar privileged assholes), the privileged individual pulls the "but how am I supposed to learn unless YOU teach me?"

This has happened so much that it spurred the idea of privileged people being responsible for their own education. If an oppressed individual refuses to answer the questions of a privileged person, that's where that reaction is coming from. It's also usually easy to tell who is genuinely interested in learning and who just wants to argue/try to "outwit" the marginalized person. So again, if you come at it with a real interest in acting as an ally, you're likely to get a positive response.