3 Ways to Think like an Ally
While supporting minority communities outwardly remains central to effective activism, we must also consider the inward practices that shape an allied outlook on life.
Activism depends on allies. As we search for broader coalitions against social injustice, the importance of minority “allyship” has become more and more apparent. Though allyship can mean many different things, most definitions center on combatting systems of oppression that target bodies other than your own. But if we’re to truly adopt allyship as a way of life, we must look beyond our actions and begin thinking like better allies as well. Fighting for others’ equality—not just your own—demands a rigorous reevaluation of our perspectives on empathy and identity.
Inherent to the theory of allyship is the idea that apathy plays a central role in preserving established systems of power. Social progress slows when outright hostility to advocacy lands on communities left isolated by the indifference of communities around them. And so privilege also plays a central role in prompting us to seek minority allies. Apathy stems from the toxic luxury of a lack of urgency. Individuals without disabilities have the privilege of not needing to think about building accessibility, and so they become apathetic to the needs of their neighbors with disabilities. Privilege muffles the sound of suffering so that it might be ignored and institutionalized.
As a response to these issues of apathy and privilege, discussions of allyship often focus on how best to take action. Allies are most valuable when they actively seek out opportunities to support other communities, from protests to phone banking to educating themselves and others. As Roxanne Gay writes, allies can’t offer halfhearted commitment to these efforts—they must “take on oppression as their own.” But neither can allies expect to take the lead in advocating for other groups. Allies stay supportive, allowing the targets of an oppression to engineer its undoing.
While these outward expressions of allyship remain central to effective resistance, we must also consider the inward practices that shape an allied outlook on life. Holding ourselves to the following three standards can make everyday allyship more automatic:
1. Respect identity and its intersections.
For all its evident fluidity, identity continues to shape our social locations and our access to privilege. Approach any issue of identity with its enduring powers in mind, even when the identity in question does not shape your particular experience with the world. Believe Black mothers in America for whom life as a target of racism results in disproportionate rates of infant and maternal mortality. Believe transgender youths for whom life as a target of homophobia results in more than 50% of trans male teens attempting suicide at some point in their lives. Considering the intersectionality of these identities will train you to take them more seriously. Remember that no one lives with just one identity, and allow the plurality of our lived experiences to direct your attention in more and more nuanced ways to identity’s potential effects.
2. Reject judgmental rhetoric.
Much of our political discourse primes us to pre-judge issues of identity and activism. Phrases like “political correctness” and “identity politics” so often carry negative connotations that we’ve come to automatically associate them with trivial debates over political semantics. In reality, however, many of these buzzwords refer to questions that are central to the security of minority communities and far too complicated to be dismissed with a disdainful label. “Political correctness” encompasses a vast set of linguistic strategies for recognizing privilege and demonstrating empathy for minority experiences. “Identity politics” refers to a similarly expansive approach to acknowledging identity’s significance in the political sphere. To become a better ally, remove this rhetoric from your personal vocabulary. Address issues of identity at their source instead of masking them with misguided jargon.
3. Listen for the sound of new voices.
Political theorist William Connolly argues that, “The most fragile and indispensable element in a pluralizing democracy is an ethos of critical responsiveness to new social movements.” What Connolly means is that allyship cannot end with the recognition of existing identities. Allies must be ready to “critically respond” to new identities—“new social movements” that remain unacknowledged or underrepresented in our current social structure.
True allies understand that identity matters and and avoid language that oversimplifies our efforts to negotiate difference. But they also anticipate the ways in which we will better understand ourselves and our neighbors in the future. So believe women when they start saying #MeToo. Believe workers when they start calling instant delivery systems modern-day slavery. Believe the ones who can speak out now, and be ready to believe those who have not yet been able to tell the world their truths.