If you’re reading this blog it’s a safe bet that you’re interested in what it means to be an ally, or you’re well on your way along the journey. It’s also a safe bet that many of you reading this will have been on the receiving end of support from an ally in one form or another, but unless you’ve stopped to think about it you may not appreciate what a powerful act that is.
Allyship isn’t just a theoretical concept – actively supporting someone has an emotional impact on the person or people you ally yourself with. People who need allies have often faced overt or covert adversity because of the way society is structured, facing barriers that the rest of us may never experience. As such, it becomes part of the norm for that person, whether that’s women receiving degrading wolf-whistles in the street, Black people being followed around a supermarket by security guards, or gay or bisexual people being verbally abused for holding hands in public. On their own in a vulnerable situation, it can be both terrifying and dangerous to respond – the woman may face further sexist and misogynistic abuse, the Black person may face arrest, and the couple may face an escalation in vitriol. All three may fear physical assault or worse. Instead, as the victim of an abuse of privilege and power, the instinct is often to move on as fast as possible and then avoid the situation again, opting out of public spaces and situations where you feel vulnerable, handing victory to the abusers, and impacting your own quality of life.
When you support someone as an ally, you help to level the playing field. You take power from the oppressors, and you make the oppressed feel valued and lift them up. Whatever situation you intervene in, if you are in a position of privilege, you have the opportunity to leverage it positively. In a recent tweet, Keraun Harris (King Keraun) shared a fantastic example of an ally using the power of their privilege, when he noticed a white woman filming his traffic stop. He talks about his realisation that she was filming because she was worried about what could happen to him, and he explains how that made him feel in the context of someone who was not used to having people act as allies:
With that in mind, one of the most important things about allyship is to speak up or act. Affirming your support in confidence to someone will let them know you’re on their side, but affirming it in public will drive change and protect people. It can, though, be really difficult.
First, before you intervene it’s important to say that you must assess whether it is safe for both you and the person you are allying yourself with. In many cases of allyship the behaviour you are calling out may be online and/or unintentional, in which case safety may be less of an issue, but if it’s in-person then don’t put yourselves in danger of an escalating situation, and instead remove both yourself and the victim from it, calling for help if necessary. But if you are safe, if at all possible, you should act. In many cases, you will be safe but uncomfortable – whether that’s because you are concerned how it looks for you to call out a friend’s unacceptable language on social media, or due to social pressure not to make a scene in public – but while it may feel uncomfortable for you, that’s how it feels for those who need your support every single time they experience this situation… and they will experience it more than once. Your allyship can change that. If you’re a man, shout back at the men wolf-whistling and ask them how they’d feel if that was their wife or daughter; if you’re a white person, ask the security guard why they have singled out the Black person to follow; and if you’re a straight person, show your contempt for those people who would never think twice about their safety when holding their own partner’s hand in the street.
If you don’t feel equipped to snap back with a retort, that’s OK. Quite often in situations which require allyship you’ll find yourself lost for words. Those of us who would never think to target another human being simply for being who they are can be taken aback when others do it. If the scenario allows you time to collect your thoughts before engaging, do it – think through what you’re trying to say online before posting it or walk through the conversation with the security guard in your mind before you approach them. But for those situations where you have less time to react it’s really useful to have a handy phrase in mind – a “pocket phrase” that you can pull out and use while you think of your next step. This should be something that sounds natural to you, so that it rolls of the tongue easily; it should be non-combative, so that it also works in situations where the unacceptable behaviour was unintended, where someone may have just phrased something poorly without malicious intent; and it should be something that makes the other person stop and think, in order to buy you time. A well-crafted phrase will work in all unintentional scenarios as well as some of the more explicitly discriminatory ones – something like, “Did you mean to say that?” or “I didn’t quite hear that. Do you want to rephrase it?” Depending on the circumstances your next step may be to go high, to go low, or to walk away, but the breathing space at least allows you to assess your options. It won’t work in all cases, but it will work in many.
Whatever you do, you may not even know just how much you active allyship has helped. The person who was the target may not be able to verbalise it, they may be overwhelmed, or they may feel shame or embarrassment or a host of other emotions which they have no need to, but by speaking up you have given power to the powerless and done the right thing. Even outside of direct confrontations it’s crucial to be vocal and honest and proud of your allyship – you never know who will hear it and appreciate it more than you can know. More than once over the last few years, with referendums and court judgements on equal marriage around the world, I’ve seen effusive support on Facebook from friends and acquantiances who I’d historically seen as somewhat ambivalent over LGBT rights. Not only do I now know that they have grown as people, but I know that in them I now have strong allies who will stick up for LGBT rights and support me if I need it, and that means more than I can say.
In all of this, I want to reiterate that speaking up can be difficult. But with that in mind, my final piece of advice is never be afraid to mistakes. Everyone says or does things that they regret, using outdated language without realising its impact or not appreciating the cultural context of what they assumed was an innocent quip. Don’t tie yourself in knots worrying about it. When informed of their missteps great allies will listen, apologise if necessary, learn and move on – the intent is what matters, and those of us looking for allies appreciate that if people are doing their best and willing to acknowledge and correct their slips, then they are on our side. That feeling of having an ally outweighs any genuine mistake.