Defining: Ally

Welcome to another installment of our “Defining” series, where we unpack various terms and identities.

Define It:

An ally is a person who supports, advocates for, and uplifts a marginalized community to which they do not belong. You can be an ally to racial and religious minorities, the LGBTQIA community, the disabled community, and to women, among other groups.

Explain It:

Every one of us has privilege, and as such, all of us have the opportunity to be an ally. For example, I have privilege as a white, cisgender, American born, able-bodied, college-educated person. I can use my privilege to support immigrants, trans people, disabled communities, and communities of color. I am also part of marginalized communities, as a bisexual woman who converted to Islam. I count on other allies to support my struggles as a queer Muslim woman. Part of being an ally is thinking about intersectionality, or how our different social identities affect the way people see us and how we see the world. For example, many of my queer Muslim friends are Black, Arab, or South Asian. They deal with racism and anti-immigrant discrimination alongside the homophobia and Islamophobia that I face. In that way I have an opportunity to be an ally to others within my own group.

Allyship can take many forms. It might look like booking people of color to come and speak at your campus, attending a rally to end the Muslim Ban, or stopping your friends when they make homophobic jokes. It involves donating your resources, time, money, and platform to uplifting marginalized communities.

Allies shouldn’t expect cookies when they do the right thing. By “cookies,” I mean getting rewards or affirmations from your Latinx/trans/Muslim friends for all the good things you are doing. If your co-worker says something transphobic and you set her straight, there’s no need to tell your trans friend about it. In fact, hearing about your awful co-worker’s actions could be quite traumatizing. I personally hate hearing about my friend’s grandparents’ Islamophobic rants. Talk to grandma without telling me about it later. If you are expecting praise every time you step up, you might want reexamine your motives. Does your allyship center marginalized people, or is it about being seen to be doing the right thing? As an ally, your work might go unnoticed, and that needs to be okay with you.  

Debunk It:

Ally is another word for “savior.”

Allies should absolutely be in the fight for equality, but it is not our role to be the spokesperson or leader for any struggle that is not our own. As a person of privilege, it is easy to think that we know what other people need. We get an idea of how to fix the problems of racism or classism without consulting the affected communities. While the intention might be good, the result can be pulling the attention to you (see above statement about cookie-seeking) instead of where it belongs. Your efforts might not even be what the community needs. Last month thousands of people donated toys and gifts to support hurricane relief when people really needed new socks and underwear. If we push forward with our own agenda we can’t get people the help they really need.

If you are at a Black Lives Matter rally, for example, direct any media attention you get to a leader of the rally instead of taking up space as a non-Black ally. Don’t push a person in a wheelchair unless they ask. Don’t assume a Muslim woman in a hijab is oppressed and in need of liberating.

Marginalized communities are already working to change laws and make the world safer, so ask them how you can be of service, listen to what they say, and act accordingly.

Allies should always be welcome in marginalized communities’ spaces.

When we love and support our friends and family we often think we should always be welcome in their gatherings. Like, why wouldn’t queer people want us at their party? We love them! We support them! We’ll keep this space safe! I’m practically like you—my best friend/sister/husband is gay/Black/trans.

Sometimes members of a group need to be around each other to heal. Every year I go to a LGBTQIA Muslim retreat. Only queer and trans Muslims are invited and—let me tell you—it’s such a relief to be surrounded by people who fully understand your identity. There’s no need to explain our existence or to answer questions. We can just be ourselves, and it’s magic. When you are part of a dominant group in society, you get this opportunity all the time, but this particular retreat only happens one weekend a year. We need that space to ourselves.

Give your friends and family members the space they need to connect with their communities without making them feel guilty for excluding you.

Allies should depend on marginalized groups to educate them.

It is exhausting just living life as anyone who isn’t a straight, cis, white, Christian man in America. There is very real violence, hatred, and vitriol coming at us. There are gender pay gaps and racism and legal battles to fight. Considering all that work, it shouldn’t also be up to marginalized groups to educate allies. Do your homework. If your kid comes out as pansexual, read up on it before assuming things (if you are reading this site, you are already doing a great job!). If an autistic friend tells you they prefer identity-first language, Google what that means before asking them. It’s okay to come with follow-up questions if you are confused by what you’ve read, but make sure to check in first to see if your kid or friend is in the headspace to talk about it. And keep this in mind for strangers you encounter on the internet. Don’t assume your Twitter followers want to answer all your questions about race in America. Being on Twitter can be hard enough without feeling pressured to do other people’s homework.

Allies need to be perfect.

Learning to be an ally is a lifelong process. Even with the best intentions, you will make mistakes. You’ll accidentally assume someone’s pronouns. You’ll use an outdated term that is now considered offensive. You’ll hesitate to correct your mother when she says something homophobic. You will absolutely mess up. That’s okay. It will be intensely uncomfortable when you are called out on it. That’s normal. Don’t defend your actions; don’t tell them that your intentions were good. Remember that intentions don’t change impact. A classic example of this is if you stepped on someone’s foot and broke their toe. Saying “Why are you in pain? I didn’t intend to hurt you!” doesn’t change the very real impact of the person being in pain. When someone tells you that you’ve hurt them, own up to it, apologize, and do better in the future.

If you can, be gentle with allies to your own causes too. Try to talk to them in private, and be constructive and specific about how they can improve. Allies are such an important part of our fight. We need you now more than ever.

Be sure to check out the rest of The Defining Series right here!

Teresa Kane is a teacher and writer living in Portland, OR. Her writing often focuses on the intersections of her queer and Muslim identities. She has degrees from Virginia Commonwealth University and George Mason University and studied American Sign Language at Gallaudet University. She is passionate about art, feminism, interfaith dialogue, and correct grammar usage.