In its simplest definition, an ally is someone who another person can trust and count on despite them not fully understanding what it’s like to be in a certain position. An ally advocates and assists a marginalized group that they are not a part of. For example, a white person who advocates for racial justice can be considered an ally to people of color. The definition of ally is rather simplistic in concept, but is much more complicated in practice. People often find themselves messing up when their actions coincidentally work against the supposed title they claim.
Calling yourself or someone else an ally is just an identifier word; what really matters the most is your actions and reactions. You can call yourself anything you want, but it definitely doesn’t mean it’s accurate. Anyone can say that they are an ally, but that doesn’t really mean anything if they still do shitty things. If you claim that title, then at the very least you should extensively think about what that exactly means to you and more importantly, how you can assist a community in a way that is respectful and beneficial. Many times, this is where allyship can easily fall apart.
If, as an ally, you are imposing your own beliefs and ideas on a group you are not a part of, that isn’t really okay. It is up to you to take a step down from your platform of privilege and let others speak because you don’t know where they are coming from. It isn’t your place. This is also important in order to ensure that the same oppressive ideals are not being perpetuated. If we continue to prioritize the same voices, nothing will ever change.
The most important thing to remember about allyship, no matter what the community you’re acting as an ally for, is that there is no such thing as a good ally because everyone can easily make a mistake. Even though I’m writing this article, it doesn’t exempt me from being wrong or doing something problematic. I try to be respectful and kind to everyone, but that doesn’t mean I exist without fault. I don’t, and can’t, know everything; I’m learning everyday. Everyone has the potential to say or do something that could easily “discredit” their allyship to a community. It is also important to recognize when people do get upset when someone says something wrong, it is for a reason. Whatever was done, usually has some kind of impact on the person or group involved. People may react with however their feeling, which is completely valid.
As an ally, it is a person’s job to listen and take in what is being said, even if it’s emotionally expressed criticism. Again, because an ally is unable to fully understand a person’s perspective, they have no idea where what they are saying is coming from. Despite the idea of a “good ally” and a “bad ally” being questionable, there is definitely a good and bad way of responding to criticism. As stated before, an ally should be listening; but if someone is instantly defensive and upset after someone expresses how they feel, then that is a huge problem. Someone’s reaction is almost always indicative of their sense of entitlement and their own struggle of not being the center of attention for once. A good example of this is when someone makes a white person joke and a white person, who is supposedly isn’t racist, gets offended. That kind of difference between concept and practice just doesn’t add up.
This is not just relevant for white people acting as allies to people of color, but also relevant within communities of all marginalized communities. We cannot focus on ourselves and forget others who may be suffering from a different kind of oppression. Even if I’m in a group of other Latinx people, it doesn’t mean that people can get away with saying problematic things because we’re all coming from similar ethnic backgrounds.
A lot of the time when I have interacted within groups consisting of people of color, people have still said racist or misogynistic things. I have had men of color talk down to me, talk over me and talk to me without space for my own input. This has happened to me multiple times within these first few weeks of school alone. Just because you are someone from a marginalized community, does not mean you don’t have to be considerate of other people. If someone comments on a cisgender straight man’s masculinity taking up too much space in a conversation, the response should not be instantly defensive and upset. The response should be to consider why that might have been said and maybe ask the person who said it what they might have done wrong. If a man who claims to be an ally to women or femme presenting people still doesn’t seem to get it and continues to express how upset he is about, then that is an issue.
There are all kinds of issues that can come up in regards to allyship because there are so many different people that face different kinds of struggle. Knowing your place and being respectful towards people with experiences you’ll never have is a good thing to keep in the back of your mind, which is what I personally try to do.
Sarah Zumba is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Zumba Works it Out appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.