How To Be An Ally

By Kerry Connelly

We all have our own special perch on the privilege ladder; as a white, straight, cis-gendered American-born woman, I’m pretty much one step down from the top of the heap. So while I experience some marginalization, I still have a lot of privilege, and with that comes a lot of responsibility and a lot of power. How can I use that power for good, especially when I want to be an ally to those who are more marginalized than me, like my black, Muslim, or gay friends?

I’ve spent some time in these waters, and while I certainly don’t claim to know everything, the little I do know, I want to share with you here. These are a few things I’ve learned, practiced, and found to be true time and again.

To be an effective ally, we must confront our own bias every. Single. Day.

It would be nice to reach enlightenment once and be done with it, but unfortunately, awakening to our own cultural biases — racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia — doesn’t magically wipe them clean from our psyches. They’ve been embedded there, year after year, by societal mores, media, our family stories and all sorts of ways. Rather than taking a cloth and wiping the slate clean, confronting our own biases is much more like picking berries off a tangled vine. It’s hard work, takes a good eye, and you might get a few cuts along the way.

I’ll share a story about my own embedded racism that I’m not proud of at all, but that illustrates my point. I’ve considered myself an ally for many years; I have many black friends, including black friends who are male. I love them, but that doesn’t mean I’m not racist.

Near my house is a beautiful park with a bridge that goes over the lake. It’s a popular place for wedding pictures, and you’ll often see wedding parties traipsing through the park trails, hefting up wedding dresses and straightening ties as they walk to the bridge. The other day as I was on my run, I saw a group of men obviously dressed for a wedding. They were all black, and they were all inexplicably carrying medium sized sticks. As they walked into the park, they walked slowly, looking around, some of them swinging their sticks.

A few started gesturing. One or two seemed to point to me while they had a discussion. They started moving in my direction, this group of large, black men. And although I knew it was not just irrational but also disgusting to me, I felt fear. I noticed the fear.

I must notice the irrational fear if I am going to be a true ally. Because that fear is what feeds racism in our country, and when it goes unnoticed, it goes unchecked. When it goes unchecked, it leads to innocent black men getting killed. Imagine what might have happened if I had been a police officer with a gun and a nice big whopping dose of unnecessary fear?

As I ran past them, I noticed that the sticks they were holding were miniature baseball bats — some kind of prop, probably, for the wedding theme. The pointing in my direction, talking, and looking around? They were probably just trying to figure out where they were supposed to meet the bride. For the love of all that is good and holy, not everything is about me, even if my brain wants to tell me it is. And not every black man is a gang member ready to assault me. Especially not black men minding their own business, wearing tuxedos, looking for the bride.

But the media, our culture, and our systemized racism has embedded in my brain a belief that a group of young black men walking together are obviously up to no good, and are a dangerous threat, even when all rational information (tuxedos, in a park where wedding parties are often photographed). I am not happy that this racism exists in me, but I am happy that I know it for what it is, that I can reject it before acting on it, and that I can confront it and confess it. Being an ally is not about pretending not to be racist. It’s about recognizing my the biases I have, and choosing differently. I must take the personal responsibility to reprogram my own brain. I can  not call myself an ally if I’m not willing to take a good hard look at my own pre-programmed bias.

Educate yourself.

Let me be very clear about this: marginalized people do not owe us an education on our isms and phobias. Black people do not owe us racial enlightenment or kudos for being an ally (it’s really just a good way to practice this thing called humanity). Trans people don’t owe us an explanation of their private parts or their sex lives. Et-freaking-cetera.

There is plenty of information available to help you learn. Google is a great resource for both popular pieces and more critical theory. This particular article, which deconstructs the word ally itself and offers some great links to other articles, is a wonderful jumping off point.

Part and parcel of educating yourself are two important requirements: you must listen, and you must be willing to get really uncomfortable.

One of the things that’s hard for white, privileged people to understand is that our opinion isn’t the only one that matters, and in fact, when it comes to issues of oppression, it doesn’t really matter at all. Not if we’re serious about breaking down the very oppression we say we hate. If we’re serious about this, we need to shut up and listen to the experience of the oppressed, and we must do so without judgement or defensiveness. Our job is simply to work hard to listen to an experience we will never fully understand. Because we can never truly understand it, less talking and way more listening is in order.

But that means you will be uncomfortable. You’ll probably feel defensive — your job will be to notice that defensiveness, and then package it up and set it aside. It’s possible that the people you’re listening to will be angry; you don’t get to tell them not be. You do get to stand in that anger, which, while difficult, is also an honor. Treat it as such. Honor their anger, their feelings. Don’t tell them they shouldn’t feel that way or assert yourself as an ally. Instead, express to them that you get you’ll never fully understand their experience, but you’re open to learning more. Don’t explain to them what happened. Don’t assume you know better than them. This is an opportunity to step aside and let them be in charge. You’re not the expert on racism.

Become a resource for other privileged people.

A good friend of mine — and one of my favorite people — often sends white folks my way. She’s black and has a diverse base of friends and acquaintances. She’s incredibly friendly and kind, and has one of those vibes that makes you feel like you’re instantly one of her best girlfriends. She makes you feel loved and welcomed and like you’re “in” as soon as you meet her.

Maybe that’s why white people feel like they can talk to her about all their questions about racism.

The only problem is this is not only exhausting for her, it’s also traumatizing. She’s got her own life to lead — and along with all the other stuff life brings, like how to pay your bills, caring for your family, what the heck you’re going to make for dinner and how you’re going to squeeze everything onto your to-do list — she’s also dealing with very real fears, like, will her black son make it home without getting pulled over, and if he does get pulled over, will he be okay?

So whenever a white person comes to her with their questions, or the burden they feel their whiteness places on them, or whatever it’s exhausting for her to answer them and it also re-traumatizes her to have to explain her own oppression to her oppressor.

I know you don’t want to think of yourself as her oppressor, but unfortunately in the system we’ve all been born into, if you’re white, you’re her oppressor.

Now, it’s not as if we ever had a conversation in which I said, “Hey, friend, anytime other silly white people come to you asking you questions about what it’s like to be black and looking for some sort of validation of their inherent, non-racist goodness from you, send ‘em to me.”

Instead, as we got to know each other better, as she read my body of work and as we had conversations, she learned that I was safe, and somewhat fearless in speaking about the topic. That’s not to say I haven’t ever re-traumatized her; I think I have. But I try to be aware when I do and then not do it again. Soon enough, she started referring the well-meaning white people who ask her questions to me, so that together we can deconstruct our whiteness, our embedded racism, and emerge from our conversation at least a little better equipped to be a true ally — someone who is willing to be uncomfortable a good part of the time.