Allies are Supporting Characters

I would like to share some handy advice from Melissa Harris-Perry about how to be a good ally in a social justice cause.

Don’t demand that those you are supporting produce proof of the inequality they are working to resist.

This one is so basic it’s practically tautological. If you’re a dude who needs proof that sexism exists, a white person who needs proof that racism is still a thing, a straight person who needs proof that homophobia is still a problem, an able-bodied person who isn’t convinced that discrimination against people with disabilities still happens…you’re probably not interested in being an ally. If you’re interested in ally-ship, you’ve already grasped that we live in a world shaped by systemic inequalities which must be addressed.

Do recognize that the shield of your privilege may blind you to the experience of others of injustice.

Just because you haven’t seen it yourself, doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. For example, I didn’t know until I started reading Microaggressions, which was probably more than halfway into my Peace Corps assignment, that many ethnically East Asian people living in Western countries (often their nations of birth) have to deal with idiot white people yelling “Ni hao!” at them whenever they pass by on the street. I didn’t know that was a thing until my mid-20s. I didn’t know about it because I wasn’t in the line of fire, not because it wasn’t happening. (And, if you comment to demand to know why shouting “Ni hao!” at an Asian person is offensive, be ready for a towering wall of fire-breathing from your blogger.)

Don’t offer up your relationship with a member of the marginalized group as evidence of your understanding.

“But I’m not racist; see, my girlfriend is Asian!” No. Folks; don’t do this. You may count a person of [insert disadvantaged status here] as a friend, but are YOU a friend to THEM? Non-privileged people tend to be well-practiced in playing nice with the dominant group in order to keep the peace. They may be nice to you, but that doesn’t mean you’re on their side. An ally is as an ally does. Your actions decide whether you’re on board with social justice pertaining to people who aren’t like you.

Do be open to learning and expanding your consciousness by listening more and talking less.

Sometimes, the best thing you can do is show up and take in what they’re talking about. Sometimes it’ll make you uncomfortable. How you deal with that discomfort decides how good an ally you are.

Don’t see yourself as the Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves.  Or Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai.  You are not the savior riding to the rescue on a white horse.  Do notice that you are joining a group of people who are already working to save themselves.

You are not the star of the show; the people you claim to support are not characters in a movie about you. You are a minor character, helping with the heavy lifting regardless of whether you show up in the credits. You don’t hog the spotlight; you help move obstacles out of the way. The people you want to support already know a lot more than you.

Do realize the only requirement you need to enter ally-ship is a commitment to justice and human equality.

You don’t need credentials. You need to act like you give a shit.

One last thing, outside of Dr. Harris-Perry’s advice: you’re going to hear a lot about privilege. We can roughly define privilege as “shit you don’t need to worry about, thanks to an aspect of your identity.” Please understand that having privilege doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, or that you’re not welcome as an ally. It means that there are some things you haven’t, and do not realistically expect to experience. It means that when people in the disadvantaged group tell you about the crap they put up with, including from people in your identity group, you need to listen. You need to take them seriously. You need to think about how your experiences, and your lack of other experiences, have shaped your outlook on life.


2 thoughts on “Allies are Supporting Characters

  1. Great post. There is so much hand-wringing and paternalistic second-guessing about what an ally is amongst white secularists in particular.

    • *shudder* The secularist community is really turning me off lately. If this is how atheist/skeptic peeps treat each other, I will be a humanist first and foremost and an atheist later.

      Is it possible that the hand-wringing and paternalistic second-guessing springs from the White Savior syndrome? Like, certain people want to help, but only if it makes them the star of the show, so they’re always rules-lawyering about what the problem really is, what behaviors are actually problematic, and what they can/should do as allies?

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