An ally is a person from a privileged racial, sexual, gender or other identity, that supports and seeks to further the causes of those that lack such privilege. An ally is someone that makes a choice to take a stand against oppression or social injustice and speaks out when others can’t or choose not to.
Allies are instrumental in building a more just world, through education on issues and challenges faced by communities, challenging prejudices and being champions of social and institutional change.
How to do allyship right
While you might start the Ally journey from a good place, there are a few things to keep in mind so that you don’t do more harm than good.
This is the hardest part of it since you need to look at yourself, your life, your relationships and your status to understand the privilege that you’ve been afforded either economically, socially, culturally, religiously or linguistically. This doesn’t mean you’re bad or evil for having it. It just means that most times, as with everyone, you’re a product of circumstance and birth.
As a person with privilege, you have access to opportunities that others might not have had. For instance, when two people, one with fluency in the English language and one without (for having been educated in vernacular medium or having had parents that don’t speak English), walk into a corporate office, who do you think has a better chance of landing a job, all else being equal?
Privilege is strongly layered and so deeply intertwined with our personhood that if we don’t make a tremendously honest effort to distinguish and understand it, more often than not, we end up belittling a journey that is different from our own.
Listen, Learn, Validate, Understand
This doesn’t mean you can’t question someone’s point of view, but it does mean that you must hear differing opinions that aren’t your own. You must listen, try to empathise and hear what the other person is saying. You might not necessarily always understand their views, but you most definitely should not dismiss them if you don’t.
In the ally space, this could mean hearing uncomfortable, desensitised and biased points of view. The key to challenging these viewpoints is through understanding where a person is coming from and addressing the root of the issue. But engage in dialogue.
Having these conversations is not easy, because you’re most likely dealing with a person deeply rooted in social conditioning that takes years to undo, and most people are closed when it comes to things that they perceive as threat to their sense of ‘order’ or ‘normal’ – hence these conversations would need meticulous structuring.
Call out bad behaviour, even if it’s uncomfortable
How many times have you been in a room when someone has made a sexist comment? Talked about how they’re getting “raped” by work. Called someone “gay” when they wanted to call it “uncool”. 9 times out of 10, this is said as a joke or a throwaway comment, and that is supposed to make it okay. Only it’s not. Because if you’ve been marginalised, sexually assaulted or been discriminated against for being gay, you’ll find these comments deeply hurtful and insensitive.
As an ally, at the risk of ‘making it awkward’, you do need to call out such behaviour and address the language. Words matter. You don’t need to make it confrontational or public. You can always pull them aside and explain one-on-one as to why it’s inappropriate to use the language that they used.
You might be told that you can’t take a joke or that you’re being oversensitive but it’s important, nonetheless. Also, it doesn’t put a person from the community on the spot to correct people and have a hard conversation that they might not want to have or are plain tired from having had countless times over.
Recognise biases – both implicit and unconscious
This takes a lot of work because very few people are aware of all the biases they might hold, either implicitly or as an outcome of their experiences. For instance, having lived in Saudi, an oppressive unwelcome culture, I’ve met a lot of people that come back with an anti-Arab or anti-Muslim bias. However, you must check yourself and understand that your experiences do not, in any way, justify Islamophobia. The actions of a few cannot be extrapolated to every person in the community.
Other biases are even harder to address. For instance, affinity bias makes you prefer people who are more similar to you, either at the workplace or socially. Beauty bias means that you will either be positively or negatively inclined to someone based on your perception of what constitutes physical attractiveness.
Work to dismantle oppressive systems
Either at home or at work, recognise systems and practices that are oppressive and work to replace them with something more equitable. For instance, if you know men and women aren’t getting paid the same at your organisation, work with HR and your leadership to correct this. At home, if you see that your family is focussed on caste-affirming marriages, have a conversation about why that happens and try to bring a change in understanding and behaviour.
Being an ally isn’t a 9-to-5, Monday to Friday affair. Often, it spills into the personal sphere, and you will notice, with time, the many inherent biases we allow to slide by in our daily lives, propagated by our partners, friends and families. Allyship is calling out all of these and working to put forth the right perspective. There will be resistance, it may at times seem too much, but nothing worth fighting for ever came easy.
Do not drown out or take the space of the people you are an ally to
This means that at no point can you be louder or out-speak someone from the community. As an ally, your job is to make space for, talk about and bring attention to the struggles of a community. Not to try and be their voice.
This means, as an LGBTQ ally, I can point out that there are biases everywhere, but I can never talk about a Gay man’s experiences.
You’re an ally, you don’t necessarily know best
You as an ally, by definition, do not have the same lived experience of what it means to be from the community that you’re supporting. This means, that when in doubt, defer to someone who has those experiences to speak for you.
Take ownership and educate yourself
As an ally, you have a responsibility to educate yourself about the struggles that a community is going through. You can do this by reading up, listening to members of the community as they share their experiences and making yourself aware of the environment and the culture that you live in, be it social or at the workplace. The onus is on you to learn and ask educated questions about issues.
Recognize also, that as a member of a/the majority, you are in a better place to have a peer-to-peer conversation with someone who has shown bias or prejudice. For them to listen to an oppressed voice would be doing so from a filter of pre-existing bias. But you can, as an informed ally, get through to them, simply because they see you as one of them and not as an ‘other’.
Do not try and speak for everyone
Just like in life, there is no homogenous behaviour in terms of thoughts, beliefs or even the reality of oppression and discrimination. The community doesn’t necessarily act and think as one. If you speak to any group of people, there very rarely is a unified thought or opinion on any subject matter. Similarly, people will give you different perspectives when it comes to their lived experiences, the struggles they faced or what they believe is important to prioritise.
It isn’t about credit
You should definitely be proud of being an ally. But you should never take focus away from the cause for personal benefit or aggrandisement. As in any journey, you’re building on the work of the people from the community and allies who’ve come before you and who’ve made what you’re doing possible. Never be so focussed on credit such that you don’t recognise this and take the spotlight away from the cause.
It’s unfortunate but I’ve seen people who are great allies in one space but completely oblivious to the struggles of another, at times even denying that there might be problems. For instance, a feminist who is caste blind. Religious sentiments taking precedence over doing what is right. People most often are more than any one identity. You can be gay, come from an economically underprivileged background and be Muslim. You cannot separate different facets of your identity and prioritise one over another. You can fight for LGBTQ rights, economic equity and religious freedom all at once. As an ally, you can choose one cause if you so wish but don’t disparage the struggles of others.
Thanks for being an Ally!
Having allies is critical to the success of most movements. Allies with the right intention are extremely powerful, both as a support to the community as well as being advocates for social and institutional change. Start conversations and ask how you can help.