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  • Writer's pictureLaura Perry

So you think you're an ally

A lot of people don't seem to understand what the term ally really means or what the process of being an ally involves. There are a lot of misperceptions out there. So I thought I'd clarify to the best of my ability.

I'll start with a definition. Forbes describes allyship as "a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people." I like this definition. It's about behavior, not just attitudes, and please note that the judgment of that behavior lies with the marginalized people.


First, you don't get to decide that you're an ally. The marginalized community that you're supporting gets to make that decision.

I'm white, so I don't get to decide whether I'm an ally for the BIPOC community or the AAPI community. They get to decide that based on the actions I take. And I definitely don't get to publicly declare myself an ally - it's not some kind of badge you get to show around to impress people with. It's about doing the work (see below).

Second, being an ally means taking meaningful action to support marginalized communities - not just being publicly performative or insisting that you're "supportive."

Let me offer some examples. I'm a member of the QUILTBAG community, so I'm going to illustrate with a few situations I've actually experienced from people who wanted to declare themselves allies when they weren't, and when they didn't understand what allyship is really about (and often weren't willing to listen and learn what it's really about). Similar situations exist in plenty of other marginalized communities.

* Not minding that the members of the marginalized community exist doesn't make you an ally. Not minding that queer people (or BIPOC or...) exist isn't even the most basic level of support - and it barely counts as tolerance.

* "I have gay friends so I'm an ally." Um, no. That sounds an awful lot like "I have Black friends so I'm not a racist." Not a good look, folx.

* Participating in an event within that culture doesn't necessarily make you an ally. Attending or even marching in a Pride parade can be a tiny, very tiny part of allyship or it can simply be performative. It costs you nothing, and it does very little to actually make life better for members of the community. And don't get me started on the people who insist things like they're allies because they once showed up to a party in drag.

So what do allies actually do?

They take meaningful action. I realize that not everyone can spend loads of time and money lobbying for changes in the law to support and protect marginalized communities. Not everyone can participate in protests and other direct actions.

But everyone can take small, meaningful actions like these:

* Refuse to support businesses that actively harm marginalized communities. An example from my own community: If QUILTBAG folx ask you not to eat at Chik-Fil-A or shop at Hobby Lobby, you should bloody well listen to them. Don't argue that "they're not as bad as they used to be." That just demonstrates that you're unwilling to listen to the voices of the marginalized people and make a small change in your life in order to support the community. There are plenty of other choices for fast food and craft supplies. If you can't deal with a small inconvenience to support a community that has been marginalized and endangered for centuries, that says a lot about you, and none of it good.

* Support businesses owned by members of marginalized communities. This means moving some, or perhaps most, of your shopping for products and services away from big corporations and toward small businesses. It means taking a little time to research and discover those small businesses. But thankfully, the interwebz offer plenty of information with a simple online search. Again, it's a matter of whether you're willing to make an effort and deal with a small inconvenience in support of communities that have been not just inconvenienced but actively threatened and marginalized for ages.

* Share articles and social media posts written by members of marginalized communities. Let them speak for themselves. Amplify their voices and keep yours quiet. Don't argue when they say something oppresses or marginalizes them. This can be hard when you're privileged and used to having control of the microphone, so to speak. But if you want to be an ally, you'll check your ego at the door and let the community's voices be heard, because they've been ignored and silenced for too long. This isn't about you.

* Participate in projects led by members of marginalized communities. This could mean political projects, sure, but also art projects, education projects, environmental projects, and others. Don't take up the community members' space, and don't try to lead or tell them how to run their project. Listen politely and carefully and do as you are asked. Again, this isn't about you.

I considered adding "sign online petitions" to this list, but there's a lot of argument as to whether most of them ever make any real difference. Sure, it feels good to sign a petition supporting a cause. It feels like you've actually done something, even though it took very little effort. But does it really do anything, in the long run?

I think maybe using that same amount of effort to share a social media post or article by a member of the marginalized community might ultimately have a greater effect. Or using just a little bit more effort to actually contact the appropriate government official and share your thoughts about the situation. It's pretty easy to find contact emails and phone numbers for members of Congress (or whatever your government body is) online these days.

So there you have it. How To Be An Ally 101.

It takes some effort. But it's worth doing. And it's necessary to protect and support the members of marginalized communities.

P.S. Please don't let me hear about any of you "coming out as an ally" to the QUILTBAG community. Just don't. Coming out is for QUILTBAG people, not allies. And once again, you don't get to decide whether you're an ally - the community does.

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