On being a good ally.

Hanging out on the feminist-y bit of the twitterverse as I do, there are opportunities every so often to shut up, listen and learn. Lately, I’ve been learning more about some of the critiques of white mainstream feminism, particularly from women of colour. Among many of the fantastic resources and posts, I found some tips for white and feminist allies to be very helpful, both in making concrete suggestions and crystallizing some of the issues. I’ve put together some general points here. I’ve also pulled together a bumper crop of amazing links on another post, many of which are much better than this offering, although often targeted at a different audience.

To make sense of this post, it’s useful to understand the term ‘privilege’. ‘Privilege’ is the term given to characteristics that usually confer benefits on those who hold them. White, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered [having your biological sex matching personal gender identity; opposite of transgendered], middle class, and able-bodied are common categories of privilege. That means that the world is set up in a way that those with those attributes will broadly do better than those without, often without those who benefit realising. Privilege is dynamic: in some situations, your privilege in one category can override disadvantage in another. For those who cross multiple categories of disadvantage, the term ‘intersectional’ is sometimes used to discuss the unique problems faced. For a range of historical and cultural reasons, intersectional experiences are often distinctly different to other experiences.

Simple Rules to Follow to be a Good Ally

1. Be an asset. Listen.

Your job as a good ally is to improve the experience of the target group. That’s it. That is your sole role. In an online or social space, that very, very often means listening. Listening without interrupting, without disagreeing, without interjecting, without defending. Arguing with someone you “support” is a giant waste of everyone’s time. If you are struggling with what you hear, ask yourself why. If someone tells you ‘yes, this happens’ and you want to say ‘yes, but…’ or explain why they are wrong or misunderstood something, think about why you feel entitled to override their experience. [Hint: if your impulse is to interrupt or correct someone, there’s a really good chance you’re coming from a place of privilege. In feminist spaces, this is practice is called ‘mansplaining‘ and it’s really annoying as well as being incredibly rude and patronising.]

2. Just listen. Really.

Avoid false equivalences motivated by empathy. You’re human. You want to connect. Resist the urge to interrupt and say “That’s just like…”. That one time a gay guy hit on you? Not the same as being a woman. The substitute teacher mistook you for a boy and you pretended all day? Doesn’t give you unique insight into the trans* experience. Going to Bali and being the only white person on the bus? Not even remotely similar to being a person of colour in Australia.  If you have some bizarre medical condition that makes it impossible for you to listen with a still tongue, at least have the sense to acknowledge the impossibility of truly sharing that experience: “Wow, our experiences have been really different. I’m going to go away and quietly reflect”.

3. Acknowledge your own privilege

Accept that you are probably blind to some or even most of the consequences of your own privilege. I’m a white woman. A few years ago, I was late for the bus and had to chase it to the next stop(s) in order to catch it. I was pretty proud of my athleticism and told the story to a friend, Yousef. Who pointed out that I was lucky I was white, because when brown men wearing backpacks bolt out of a store and run like crazy people assume they are a thief or terrorist and they get stopped. Yep, sometimes privilege means being allowed to run for the bus. Or able to safely hold your partner’s hand in public. Or only being asked where you’re “from” once (funny YouTube on that here) . Or counting on being able to get the ingredients for your favorite childhood dish at the supermarket. Or not being talked over in a meeting.

Sometimes you might feel tired, like maybe you don’t want to point out to your co-worker that their joke was sexist? That’s a privilege. You’re choosing whether or not to put on your ally hat. If only less privileged people could choose to remove their skin colour/sexuality/disability/gender…

4. Privilege is slippery

Most people judge themselves on their intentions and others on their behaviour. Calling out behaviour and not labelling the person can be one way give people a way to save face and move forward [ie “That sounded racist.” vs “You’re racist”.] BUT you need to be aware of whose feelings you’re *really* protecting with this tactic: the perpetrators. Yep, that sneaky ol’ privilege rears its head again. In trying to address an issue, you’ve potentially made more work, because we’re now trying to minimise hurt feelings and discomfort and educate. There’s no easy out for this. Remember: good allies improve the situation for the target group, and create less work for that group. Bad allies make it all about them. Accept that you might have to hurt some privileged feelings, including your own. Especially watch out for derailing tactics.

5. Ally is verb, not a noun

It’s not anyone else’s responsibility to educate you. It’s YOUR responsibility to get educated. Google the stuff you’re interested in. Trace links on wikipedia. Read key theorists (the first two steps will help with this). Read commentaries. Read critiques. Read blogs and counter-blogs. Watch YouTube videos. Read the comments on YouTube videos. Talk to your friends.

Accept that you’re going to f*ck up. You’re going to hurt feelings. You’re going to wade on in with the best of intentions and find out sometimes you’re neither wanted or needed. People are fully capable of fighting on their own behalf, thank you very much. Don’t be an ally for the warm fuzzy feels. Don’t do it because you think it makes you ‘nicer’. Do it because living in a racist, sexist, homophobic, able-ist society is actually kinda crappy for everyone and we all deserve better.

6. Work on your peers

Don’t wander into a new theoretical and experiential space and assume that you can ‘fix it’, or point out something they “haven’t thought of” or explain how ” the real world works”. Chances are, they haven’t misunderstood anything. Your job is not to lead the fight. Your job is to help others like you. You can use your privilege for good here: it’s a sad fact that people are more likely to listen and hear criticism from those who share aspects of their privilege than those who do not. This is especially powerful when you don’t personally gain from it.

You can point out to your boss that there’s room for some more ethnic diversity in the next pile of CVs. You can notice when someone uses their privilege to interrupt and point out that you’d like to hear the rest of what the interrupted person had to say. You can point out that your firm’s parental leave could be improved, even though at 65 you won’t be using it. You can stop someone telling a racist joke. It might feel uncomfortable to interrupt Joe from accounting, but you get to choose your battles. Hello, my old friend privilege!

7. …And sometimes step away from the ‘action’.

Yep, sometimes you’re going to run up against a situation when your eager ally ass is going to be rejected. And you’re going to put on your grown up pants and say “Yeah, I’ll bet it’s going to be amazing to spend a whole night with your community! Have a blast and call me for brunch next week.” Because, once again, this is not about you.


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