A Word on Allyship...or Lack Thereof

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

By Renee Bracey Sherman

Recently, there has been a lot of talk online about allyship, solidarity, and what it all means. The Twitter hashtags #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen (created by @Karnythia), #BlackPowerIsForBlackMen (created by @JamilahLemieux), and #FuckCisPeople (created by @Stuxnetsource) broadened the conversation to discuss how many are feeling a lack of allyship from their counterparts in the struggle, and what they would like to see changed. Experiences of pain within movements were exposed, and many in privileged positions took a seat and listened to how their actions were perpetuating the very systems of oppression they sought to dismantle. Still others felt that their allyship was just fine as is and didn’t want to hear about the barriers their privilege creates.

What exactly does a “good ally” look like? As Melissa Harris-Perry noted on her show, those who want to be allies should “realize that the only requirement you need to enter allyship is a commitment to justice and human equality.” But what does that look like in an everyday setting? How can one be a good outspoken ally without their privilege or a ‘savior complex’ taking over?

Being an ally is an awkward role. It’s a constant balancing act of power and privilege in spaces that are near and dear to your heart. When done well, ally work can help shift a movement. When it isn’t done well, you can hurt a community and your friends very deeply. You can betray those you are seeking to support, and you may find yourself unwelcomed very quickly. Personally, I think being an ally is a great role to have . . . if you know how to do it right. 

Recently, at a large progressive conference, I noticed many people displaying their ally badges proudly, rather than letting their actions speak for themselves. In one instance, when I was waiting to talk to a panelist, a young man walked up and was called forward by the panelist before I was. She called him by name, so it was clear they were friends. “Did he just cut you in line?” an older man asked. “It’s all right,” I explained. “He did nothing wrong.”

“I’m a gay man. I know what it’s like for you women,” he explained. “It’s hard with these men and their ‘mansplaining’ and not seeing us waiting here.”

I was shocked. Oh the irony! Aside from the patronizing tone and the use of catch phrases, here I was telling him that he had read the situation wrong, yet he was telling me how I should feel and what actually happened. Not to mention the conflation of our life experiences—an older gay white man’s life is never the same as a younger straight biracial woman. I will never know what it is like to be judged negatively based on who I love, just like he will never know the sexist and racist experiences of a woman of color. While many of us face inequality and oppression from the same institutions, universalizing our experiences removes the complexities of our varying levels of oppression.

Painting all oppressions with one brush erases the increased disadvantages that the most oppressed among us face. It suffocates their daily, lived challenges and experiences in another’s privilege. When we as “allies” claim to know another’s experience, we systematically keep others from claiming space and challenging privilege. We marginalize their experiences, hide privilege, and make both secondary to a so-called larger issue, instead of recognizing them as an integral part of the struggle. And I think that’s where allyship can go wrong—just because you are familiar with a particular group’s experience, doesn’t mean it becomes your own experience. It’s their stories and their lives. Don’t take that from them.

In another panel, I became furious that after 45 minutes of four brilliant women speaking about what they and their organizations were doing to reclaim family values from the Right, the first questions were from men; they were frustrated that there weren’t any organizations doing the work of changing the family values landscape and that they were sad to see that there was no man on the panel. To me, this is the definition of privilege—standing up and complaining that something doesn’t exist because you’ve never seen it before. In this case, it was right in their faces. Not to mention that almost every other panel included not just one, but multiple men. Had they been half-decent allies, they would have listened to the women on the panel, asked questions on what they can do to join the movement, and then used their privilege to create more spaces for those doing the work. 

I’m frustrated when men complain that they don’t have enough representation in feminist spaces. Men have almost every other space dedicated to them and their issues. Society hands them the mic and asks what they think every day. What men need to do is take feminism to the male dominated spaces, instead of taking over the feminist spaces. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that they aren’t welcome in feminist spaces; what it means is that they should sit back, observe, and learn. We listen to their stories, experiences, and narratives perpetuated through mainstream media every day—it’s high time that men actively listen to us.

When “allies” walk into a space and demand that space be for them and demand an executive summary of the work being done, they are force-feeding those in the room their privilege. They’re not working with or empowering anyone. They are rendering oppressed voices useless by negating expertise and the hard work that is already being done to create change. As people of color and people with varying gender identities and expressions, immigrant statuses, abilities, sexualities, and family structures, our very existence defies the mainstream narrative. By telling us that our work isn’t visible to their privileged eyes, they’re reminding us how invisible our lives really are. In our communities, we are working hard to eradicate the governing narrative and show society a new one—this includes organizing people, protesting, marching, and boycotting. And yes, we usually don’t have the ear of the mainstream media, but that doesn’t mean change isn’t happening. We can feel the shift, and they should stop talking, sit down, and feel for the groundswell.

As an ally, I rarely speak in queer spaces because they aren’t for me. I sit, listen, and learn. And when I have a question, I do my homework. I don’t demand that someone tell me their personal experiences; I go look it up on online or read a book, because no doubt someone has written about it already. The space is not created for me to vomit my straight, cisgender guilt all over it. At the conference, I didn’t go to the transgender advocacy workshop to tell them what I’ve done to make my workplace more trans* inclusive. I went to take notes on what those in the workshop said they’d like to see in society and then figured out what I could help implement. See, an ally’s responsibility is to make mainstream spaces supportive for those in the oppressed group. It shouldn’t always be up to the oppressed to demand equality—we in the privileged group must not only demand, but seek equality too. 

Don’t worry, white folks in the racism workshops, we see you. Don’t worry men in the reproductive justice workshops, we see you. We appreciate you being down for the cause. We need you to help us carry the message to a wider community, but we also need you to respect the sanctity of our spaces. By existing in the room and respecting our stories, you are showing us that you are an ally. That moment when you stand up and tell us about how you ‘saved’ your Latina friend, you’ve lost us. We aren’t there to pat you on the back for your random act of kindness; you are there to listen us. You are there to learn how you can infuse solidarity into your lifestyle.

Ways to be an active ally include: offering to step to the side and suggest a friend when you’re offered the space to speak on a topic you don’t have personal experiences with; giving others an opportunity to shine speaks volumes. When you’re sitting in a meeting and notice that it’s lacking ‘diversity,’ vocalize it and then take responsibility to ensure that those folks have a seat at the table and a voice at the next gathering. Check out the policies at your workplace—if they are missing support for someone, ask your organization’s leadership to include new policies. Hear a negative remark? Call it out and educate the group. Every opportunity is a learning opportunity. Show others how to lead.

Being an ally is an ongoing action. It is a practice. Allies are never done. I will never be a perfect queer ally because I too have so much work to do on my heteronormative, cisgender privilege. I make mistakes, believe me, I do. But another part of being an ally is admitting when you make a mistake, apologizing, and working your butt off to educate yourself and others to ensure you don’t make that mistake again. But that doesn’t mean I stop trying and that doesn’t mean I stop speaking out. Because I know that the moment I stop working at it, I am no longer an ally. And I expect that my ally badge will be promptly ripped off my jacket.


Renee Bracey Sherman is a contributor to Echoing Ida, a project of Strong Families. She is a reproductive justice activist who shares her own abortion experience to encourage others who have had abortions to speak out and end the silence and stigma. She's shared her story on the BBC NewshourFeministing.comThe Atlantic.com, and various college campuses and is frequently featured on RH Reality Check.


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