What does it mean to be an ally?

by Katherine Burns / Beacon Staff, Hannah Ebanks / Beacon Correspondent, Mark Gartsbeyn / Beacon Staff, and Maya Pontone / Beacon Staff • April 6, 2017

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Being an ally is more than a label.
Being an ally is more than a label.

Recognizing your privilege is essential

Both figuratively and literally, the roles of allies and activists in today’s social movements are not as black and white as they are often made out to be. Although it may seem that the lines drawn between these two types areset in stone, the hard reality is that for most people, these roles tend to change depending on the social situation.

Growing up in a white suburb as a Mexican-American, I understand that uncomfortable feeling of estrangement many other people of color face on a daily basis. Especially as the darkest person in my immediate family, I sometimes feel completely disconnected from white society, even when surrounded by the closest people in my life. My brown skin and dark hair look all but alien next to my younger brother’s pale skin and blond hair.

When I first discovered makeup, I was dismayed to find that my skin tone didn’t fit the three darker-toned foundation colors of “cocoa,” “deep,” and “medium,” compared to the seemingly-endless options for people with lighter skin. I’ve always used SPF 100 sunscreen because I felt—and unfortunately still feel—slightly embarrassed of becoming “too tan.” And I’m more than accustomed to the awkward pauses when people attempt to guess my racial background without being offensive.

Yet my personal experience as a dark-skinned Latina doesn’t accurately reflect the experiences of other Mexican-Americans currently living in the United States. I will not use my skin as a claim to the struggles of the undocumented immigrants who scrub floors for hours a day just to provide their families with a better life, and who live in constant fear of deportation from immigration agents. I don’t have difficulty communicatingwith my employer because they speak a completely different language, or have to deal with the fear and anxiety of applying for citizenship. I don’t have to travel hundreds of miles away from my home into a foreign country where I’m not wanted and go months—even years—without so much as a phone call or a letter from my family.

These struggles are not mine. I have not lived through these experiences, and even these descriptions are not based on my own knowledge but on observation. And they do not even begin to accurately speak for the injustices inflicted upon the Latinx immigrant community. 

It’s important to recognize how, while certain parts of your identity may put you at a disadvantage, other parts may prove beneficial. There’s this misconception (which I’m guilty of holding sometimes) that people can only be categorized as either activists or allies, never both. But this is just not true for most people. In many cases, individual privilege fluctuates depending on intersectional factors in our identities, making us both allies and activists. 

In my own case, as a female Mexican-American, I consider myself an activist in terms of my race and my gender. However, my economic status, education, citizenship, and sexual orientation provide me with benefits that make me an ally in other aspects. 

By taking the time to step back and consider your own unique privilege, you make yourself more aware of what your role is in today’s social movements. You don’t want to accidentally overstep your limitations and further marginalize voices that are already beneath yours.

—Maya Pontone, assistant opinion editor



Being an ally is about your actions

I have always considered myself an independent person, so the idea of “allyship” was frustrating to me. The way I saw it presented on social media and in my own life was through privileged people trying to make themselves look better by posting or saying things to show they were supportive and accepting. It was the people who posted about Black Lives Matter or Standing Rock, but didn’t make any effort to contribute to those causes in real life. The end result was more about the ally than the underrepresented group, which seemed counterproductive to me. 

This is not to say that I have not benefited from having allies as a black woman, but I don’t think those people would refer to themselves as allies. They were just trying to do the right thing. It was usually something simple, like one of my friends calling out a classmate for being racist, or making sure I was able to finish speaking without being interrupted. In those moments, I might have convinced myself that it was fine or thought it was pointless to try to correct the situation. It was helpful to have someone on my side, making sure my voice was heard as well. And they weren’t doing it for themselves, they were doing it for me. 

To me, an ally is someone who uses their privilege to ensure people who are underrepresented get a chance to speak. There’s the intent to make sure that the everyone is given an equal opportunity to contribute. Something as simple as an ally saying, “Hey, this person has first-hand experience with this issue—why don’t we give them a chance to talk about it?”

Allyship is also about listening because, sometimes, all I want is someone to be there as I vent about a challenging moment in my day. I don’t expect them to try to fix it or even understand; I just want them to listen. 

When I find myself in a position to act as an ally to those who do not have the same advantages as me, such as in socioeconomic status, gender identity, or sexual orientation, I try to keep in mind how I would want to feel. I make my voice as minimal as possible, allowing the person to speak for themselves. I listen and ask them what they need. In the end, it’s not about what you call yourself, whether that’s “ally” or something else. It’s about what you do.

—Hannah Ebanks, deputy opinion editor



LGBTQ spaces need to be inclusive

In high school, I was the president of my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. While the “gay-straight” title felt limiting to me—something I tried unsuccessfully to change in my time there—the word “alliance” was appealing. It was a place I could question my own sexual identity in a supportive community, without facing judgment from my peers.

At the time, I didn’t realize allies didn’t always mean “allies.” Sometimes, it meant people like me who couldn’t safely come out but still wanted to be around other LGBTQ people, where they couldmaybe find some advice or answers. 

I stayed closeted until after I had safely graduated my fairly traditional high school and was in the more welcoming Emerson environment. 

After coming out, I felt more comfortable joining queer organizations, attending pride parades, and participating in online conversations on Tumblr and in Facebook groups. These groups were all marked in some way, formally or informally, as safe spaces for both the LGBTQ community and its allies. 

In this context, allies meant straight people who were there to support, not those who had faced any of the oppression that came with being queer. This gave me pause at first, especially in a community that had such a history of gatekeeping. Were these really safe spaces for people to be open when there were prying heterosexual eyes sitting right next to them? And why was this the exception to the “queer enough” rule? It was then that I actually realized why the inclusion of allies was so important in these spaces—for the passing and the closeted people who still needed those communities and spaces.

It’s true that not all allies are closeted. And sometimes they’ll screw up or say the wrong thing. Allies should not be left out of these spaces entirely but must understand that they will be held to the same standards as everyone else. Because sometimes, those “allies” need the spaces just as much as anyone else.

—Katherine Burns, opinion editor


An open letter to fellow white dudes

Here’s my deal. I’m a white dude. I’m cis. I’m (maybe) straight. And I try to be a progressive. If there’s anyone who has a vested interest in allyship and what it means to be an ally, it’s folks like me. 

This is a topic that I’ve read, thought, and talked a lot about, but I’m not going to pretend that I’m an expert on what a good ally looks like. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in that area in the past, and I’m sure that I’ll make plenty more in the future. At the same time, it’s important for us to have these conversations with each other, fellow white dudes. We ought to be holding each other accountable. So let’s talk. Really talk.

First of all: we probably should not be calling ourselves allies. It might feel good and make us look good, but it’s not a label that we get to claim or decide. The word “ally” itself, in any context, implies some sort of relationship between associates. A nation can’t just unilaterally forge an alliance with another country. You need the input of the other party first. 

Speaking of trying to look good—we gotta cut it with the performative allyship, fellas. There’s a fuzzy line between solidarity and stroking yourself off for how “woke”* you are. You should probably not advertise your feminism in your Tinder profiles, for example. Trying to slide into a woman’s DMs by peacocking your social justice beliefs might just be a little oxymoronic. Don’t be pro-feminist for the praise or the attention. Do it without an audience. Don’t wear a goddamn safety pin.

(*Also, don’t call yourself woke, fellow white folks. It’s not our word to use.)

And y’all, we can’t be getting defensive when people call us out. We’re not exempt from criticism just because we read Reductress and follow Shaun King on Twitter. Really, we ought to be the first people to reflect on our actions and change our behaviour when someone is hurt by what we say or do. How can we call ourselves progressives otherwise? 

So, what can we do to show solidarity? We should constantly acknowledge our privileges and the fact that we benefit from them, all the time. And we should listen. There are a million other voices more worthy of your time than my own—for example, the three women on this page. If you want to champion equality and justice, the first and best thing you can do is shut up, step out of your comfort zone, and listen to the perspectives of historically oppressed peoples. 

And above all, we need to accept that true equality means that we lose a lot of power. It’s uncomfortable, but we don’t do it because it’s easy or feels good. We do it because it’s right. 

—Mark Gartsbeyn, managing editor