On Being a “Good Ally”: It’s Not About You

Today, let’s talk about being good allies/co-conspirators with oppressed/marginalized communities.

If you want to be a good ally/co-conspirator, realize that it’s not about you. Being a good ally/co-conspirator is not about getting cookies, accolades, praise, awards, and attention. It’s not about getting patted on the back because you’re so brave to speak up for what’s right and fighting against the oppression of human beings. It’s not about recognition and warm fuzzies. If those things are your motivation, you’re doing it wrong and you need to sit down and take a good hard look at yourself and rethink your methods. You probably need to sit down, be quiet, and listen. I know that it’s hard to accept criticism. I know it’s uncomfortable. TRUST me, I am intimately familiar with that discomfort. But instead of getting defensive and continuing to make it about you and why the people you claim to want/try to be an ally/co-conspirator with are so mean and you’re so hurt, stop and sit with your discomfort. Look deep within yourself and ask “WHY do I have such a negative reaction to the people I claim to want to be an ally/co-conspirator with/to/for calling me out on the ways I’m causing them further pain?”. Chances are very good that if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll find that your discomfort shines a light on a shadow of privilege and problematic behavior/thought patterns/beliefs/etc. And once you have seen that mess for what it is, you can start to weed it out.

And keep in mind that no matter how uncomfortable you are (whether it’s discomfort due to being called out by the people you claim to want to be an ally/co-conspirator to, or discomfort because of angry reactions from the people being confronted with their own problematic behaviors), keep in mind that your pain and discomfort is not equal and comparable to the pain and discomfort faced by the people you claim to want to be an ally/co-conspirator to. Example: let’s say there’s a man who says he wants to be an ally to feminists because he recognizes that sexism and misogyny are still very much alive and active institutionally and systematically as well as on individual levels. Let’s call him Bob. Bob, on a regular basis, speaks up about and against sexism and misogyny, to include calling other men out when they say and do sexist and misogynistic things. Bob is open about his support of feminists. Bob probably shares posts from websites and FB pages that promote intersectional feminism and from a variety of individual feminists in an attempt to signal boost their voices. Eventually (possibly sooner rather than later), people (probably mostly men) start lashing out at Bob. “HOW DARE YOU say sexism is a thing. How DARE YOU share that terrible #YesAllWomen hashtag. NOT ALL MEN!!!! OMG why are you divisive? You’re such a fucking idiot, Bob, and I don’t care who in the family I offend. Half the family has you blocked from their newsfeeds because you’re so offensive. You’re the one being sexist by saying this stuff.” and that’s probably just the tame responses. Over time, Bob gets more and more pushback. Bob probably loses some friends. Bob may even have family members who lash out, talk about him behind his back, block him, etc. People say some very hurtful things to Bob.

Bob’s pain is very real. It sucks to have people lash out at you when you speak up for what’s right, especially when it’s people who claim to love you and have previously claimed to just LOVE how passionate you are about your advocacy for other people and for doing what is right (but that’s only when your cause doesn’t make them uncomfortable by confronting their sexism/racism/LGBTQ antagonism, Islamaphobia, white supremacy, etc.). Bob is perfectly justified in being hurt and upset that his loved ones treat him like this. But even though Bob is in pain, Bob needs to realize that the pain he feels and the discomfort he feels due to negative reactions to his allyship is NOT the same as the pain experienced by women due to institutional and systemic oppression and marginalization on top of the same on an individual level. The pushback he gets for speaking up is NOT the same as the lived experiences of women, and he should not compare the two and try to put them on the same level. Bob needs to understand that speaking up is a choice that he makes, and he can choose to step back if he needs a break, whereas women don’t get to step back from being a woman when exhaustion hits because they’ve been living under the oppression since birth. Bob still has his male privilege and the privilege of taking a breather if he chooses/needs to.

This example applies far more generally, not just to men trying to be feminist allies. If you’re trying to be an ally with members of a marginalized/oppressed group, you DO NOT get to compare any discomfort/pain you experience with the pain and lived experiences of people who are members of that group. Being an ally and experiencing angry reactions from people who are unhappy having their privilege and problematic/oppressive behavior and words called out is not the same as experiencing the oppression experienced by the people you want to ally with. Your lived experience is not and will never be the same as theirs. Being an ally doesn’t make you a member of the community, and trying to say it does and force your way in takes space away from the people who actually do belong to that community, and that’s not ok. It’s not ok for Bob to go into a feminist space and make the feminist space about him, and then get angry and lash out at women who say “Dude, not cool, not ok, BTW you’re mansplaining too now and you’re being condescending and talking over me, and you’re being a crappy ally. Stop it.” It’s not ok for Bob  to go into what are supposed to be safe spaces for women and make those spaces about him. It’s not ok for Bob to take space away from the women who need it.

As a cis-gender woman and feminist, I can say that I don’t expect male allies to get their allyship with feminism right the first time. I realize there’s a learning curve, and that we are all growing and progressing as we move through life. I’m certainly not perfect, and I have made mistakes in my attempts to be an ally, and I will again in the future. That’s one reason I know that sitting with your discomfort can help you learn and grow, and reacting defensively and closing off your ears while insisting you’re right does the opposite, and can drive away the people you claim you want to help, and can mark you as not being a safe person. Being open to listening and learning, realizing you’re not perfect and you will ALWAYS have more to learn and more growing to do, is vital.

If you want to be a good ally, if you want to do the right thing by standing up for what’s right and using your privilege to speak up against oppression, that’s great. Realize that that’s going to come with discomfort and pain. Doing the right thing often does. When you get criticism and pushback from the people you’re trying to be an ally/co-conspirator with, stop and listen, and try to determine how you can apply it to your life. Don’t compare your discomfort with the pain caused by systemic oppression. Remember, it’s not about you. If you’re making it about you, something is wrong and you need to step back, sit down, be quiet, and listen.