What it Really Means to Be an Ally

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Taylor Alandzes

Feminist, advocate, writer and wanderer; I'm just a girl with a lot of opinions and a demand to be heard.

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“It’s 2017”, I heard a woman in class say. “Why do we still need to talk about this?” Her statements were a response to a lecture about discrimination. In an ironic sense I couldn’t agree more with my classmate but, unfortunately, her comments lacked any semblance of satire and instead were rooted in a sincere belief that the mere numerical date had eradicated the world of prejudice and discrimination. Girl, do I wish that were true. In a world where gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, ability and other aspects of identity are under constant attack, it is of the utmost importance that we take every opportunity to discuss that reality and the way in which each individual can take action to change it. A key part of these actions is becoming an ally, or in other words, standing in solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed identities that society has spotlighted to be its universal punching bag.  But before you jump on Amazon and purchase that “proud ally” bumper sticker, there’s a few ways we need to analyze allyship first, because the only thing that rivals an outwardly hostile chauvinist, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or in this case a misogynist in an ally t-shirt.

Let’s start off with the definition of an ally.

An ally is a person who actively operates in solidarity with a marginalized or oppressed group of people who identify in a way that the ally themself does not. A true ally is an incredible find in today’s modern slacktivist culture. Unlike the online-only activists, allies are a source of support for the marginalized in every aspect of their lives, not just the ones shared to social media. Allies are important but not because the marginalized need their experiences and feelings validated. An ally’s job is to boost silenced voices up, not to replace them with their own. An ally’s main focus should always be listening and supporting those who they are in solidarity with. Often times self-proclaimed ‘allies’ mistake their purpose to be to speak for those they are allied with, but this is one of the biggest mistakes an ally can make because it only re-entrenches the silencing of the oppressed voices. Without that realization, your actions can go from allyship to mansplaining in no time.

Allies can also forget that intentions aren’t everything.

Realistically, intentions mean pretty much nothing if your actions don’t back them up. Allyship should stretch farther than lip-service and the occasional weekend march for equality. Good intentions are welcomed and often celebrated, but, when they don’t translate into behaviors that help the group you’re supposed to be allied with, then they don’t count for anything more than the metaphorical ally cookie you reward yourself with. Intentions shouldn’t be rewarded unless they are followed by action, and in every other area of society, they aren’t. If I say I’m going to do that presentation for the big business meeting Monday, but don’t, I’m fired with a capital F, and definitely not rewarded for my “good intentions”. The same rules apply with allyship. If we don’t support our marginalized brothers, sisters and non-binary friends with true acts of allyship, then we’re no better than the rest of the population that pretends oppression doesn’t exist.

Now, let’s just be honest here. Allies are not infallible.

In fact, you’re almost guaranteed to mess up, and way more the once. The point isn’t that allies must be perfect all the time– Actually that’s nearly, if not totally, impossible. We don’t live in a utopian society where everyone with good intentions translates that good nature into helpful and productive action. If that utopia existed we probably wouldn’t have the nasty patriarchy to deal with in the first place. The reality is that everyone is going to make mistakes, especially in your first stages of allyship. The point is that in order to correct these mistakes and prevent them from happening again we need to hold allies accountable for their actions. Accountability is key to creating an environment where allies and the oppressed can work together for a more liberating and equal society.

The alternative is a much darker reality that allows for false allies who may be predators.

Without a level of accountability, we allow for allyship to not only be denigrated to an insignificant trend, but, we also allow for our safe spaces to be tainted with possible predatory behaviors that are deemed acceptable because they are exhibited by self-proclaimed “allies”. This wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing effect is something that is pervasive especially in established liberal spaces where feminism and activism have become “cool” and another thing to check off your wannabe-hipster bucket list. When we fail to hold allies accountable, we create an opening for predators to fill as false allies, making our own safe haven a hunting ground for predators. This is why accountability in allyship is so crucial to maintaining solidarity and, more importantly, safety. 

If you see someone perpetuating behaviors or ideologies not consistent with their allyship, call them on it. It could be as simple as they didn’t realize what they were doing and just needed a friendly reminder. And if you’re an ally and you’re called out on your behavior, don’t use your intentions or previous acts of solidarity as an excuse. You are only as good of an ally as your current actions support, not your previous ones. And as we’ve already explained, your intentions mean absolutely nothing if they aren’t reflected in your actions. In the end, we’re all in this fight together and we shouldn’t have to waste our time fighting each other just to get to the goal we’re all supporting anyway.