I spent a week this summer in Washington DC at the ACLU summer advocacy institute. This was a program in which high school students of all different genders, religions, races, sexualities and ethnicities from all over the country came together to learn about politics, constitutional rights, activism and advocacy.
I learned a lot from this program, but one of my main takeaways was realizing my own shortcomings in not knowing how to be an activist for marginalized groups that I am not a part of. In other words, not being an effective ally. Through confronting my own biases and listening to the perspectives of those different from me, I have realized a number of qualities needed in order to be a good ally. Now, this list is by no means exhaustive and I am not the perfect ally—I still have a lot more work to do in that arena, and I make a lot of mistakes. But here are the things in which I have put in my ally toolbox:
1.) Ask yourself what your motives are—Are you trying to be a good ally because you want to help this marginalized group or are you doing this to make yourself feel better about some pervasive sense of guilt over being white or heterosexual or male or cisgender (when your gender identity matches your sex assigned at birth)? If it’s the latter, you are putting your feelings at the center of a conversation that should be about how to effectively advocate for the minority. Are you willing to remain an ally even if you don’t receive constant praise for it?
I want to specifically discuss white guilt. According to Urban Dictionary, white guilt is “a belief, often subconscious among white liberals that being white is, in and of itself, a great transgression against the rest of the world for which one must spend their life making atonement.” This is a huge problem among white liberals because the focus shifts from the issues that racial minorities face to the white person’s feelings (I recommend watching this video on white guilt to really understand how harmful it is).
You should not expect any cookies for simply giving a damn. Help because you want to help, not to make yourself feel better.
2.) Accept criticism gracefully—You are going to screw up sometimes. Sometimes, you will accidentally say something offensive or ignorant. You are human and you are learning, after all. Do not try and defend yourself if your screwup gets pointed out to you: own up to it, apologize and take action to ensure that you don’t make that mistake again. Always be open to learning how to do better. Sometimes, marginalized people are going to express anger towards white, heterosexual, male, and/or cisgender people in general. This does not mean anyone hates you. They just hate the institutions and systems put into place that you benefit from. Do not get defensive or complain about how bad these systems make you feel. Instead, listen to marginalized perspectives on this issue.
3.) Never “out” anyone—This is just practicing basic human decency. If you are among a group of people in the LGBT community, a lot of times you don’t know whether certain people in that group have told others about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Do not tell other people someone else’s sexuality or gender identity unless that person says it’s okay to do so—-it could potentially compromise their emotional and/or physical safety.
4.) Use correct pronouns—Again, basic human decency. If you are unsure about what gender a person identifies as, ask them what pronouns they want you to use when talking about them. It is much better to do this than to misgender them over and over again. If you accidentally use the wrong pronouns, quickly apologize, correct your mistake, and move on.
5.) Do Your Research—When you plan on becoming an activist for any issue, it is very important that you become knowledgable. Read articles, read books, watch documentaries, etc to become as informed as you can on it. It is especially important to read about this stuff from the perspectives of the marginalized people you are standing with. Do research on how groups that you are a part of have harmed this particular marginalized group throughout history. Talk to other allies about what they do to support marginalized communities and read articles on good allyship (I recommend starting with this one ).
6.) Never ask someone in a marginalized group to represent that entire group—Marginalized people are often asked to speak on behalf of their entire group. But the truth is, marginalized people are PEOPLE, and everyone has different experiences, feelings, wants and needs. Never interrogate anyone in a marginalized group. Never assume that by talking to one black person you fully understand the experiences of all black people. It doesn’t work like that. Although people in marginalized identities often go through many of the same hardships, their experiences aren’t all the same. It would be crazy to assume that I have all of the same feelings and thoughts as the white person right next to me, solely because I am white…right?
7.) Confront your biases—Everybody has implicit biases that we internalize from a very young age ( take this test to determine them). We can’t help it that we subconsciously stereotype certain groups of people. Instead of trying to deny that you have biases, confront them head on and try to do better. Once you are aware of your biases, you can start taking steps to correct them.
This also goes along with checking your privilege. Privilege means that you will have certain societal advantages over other groups of people based on characteristics about you that you can’t control (skin color, gender identity, sexuality, class, body type, etc). This means that you will not face certain societal roadblocks that people in those marginalized groups have to face. You will never be disowned from your parents because you are heterosexual, no one questions which bathroom you use because you are cisgender, and no one ever pays you less due to your race and/or gender, etc. Be aware of the rights and privileges that you take for granted that minorities constantly fight to achieve.
8.) Never speak on behalf of a marginalized group you are not a part of—No matter how many books you read or movies you watch or research you do, you will never be able to fully put yourself in the shoes of a group that you are not a part of. Do not talk about what it’s like to be transgender if you are cisgender, black if you are white, etc. Still talk about the issues that these groups face, but let individuals in those groups speak from their experiences. Stand behind them, not in front. Uplift the voices of the marginalized—do not drown them out.
9.) LISTEN!!!!!!!!!!!!!—–This is what I believe to be the most important part of being an ally. Listen to the stories of the marginalized. And listen not to respond, but to understand. All too often oppressed groups are ignored and told to shut up. Listen, listen, listen.