Allies are the backbone to social justice movements. They are the sympathetic majority who respond to calls for equity by oppressed minorities. They are the white Freedom Riders, the straight marriage equality canvassers, the cisgender “bathroom bill” protesters. The participation of allies is essential to the longevity and efficacy of any campaign.
But sometimes, allies can be anywhere from less than helpful to downright harmful.
For example, the recent counts of murder on the part of active police officers has caused an outcry from the black community, which is disproportionately affected by police brutality and which has witnessed a nearly constant stream of viral images and videos depicting brutality against black individuals, some children. However, many white allies have been derailing the messages of movements such as Black Lives Matter by tempering #blacklivesmatter with #alllivesmatter or by speaking over the voices of black individuals in conversations surrounding recent events. Even seemingly harmless posts about love for all and the need for unity can erase the reality that the lack of love and unity is the fault and burden of racism, and not reliant on the behavior of black individuals. Rather than policing the grief of black activists, allies have a place in the movement to protect and uplift black voices. Some allies have done so by performing a protective barrier between the protestors and the police escorts that are common with public demonstrations. Others have spread articles written by black activists and spoken to their other white friends about the issue.
It’s also important that allies don’t invade safe spaces, such as an incident in Tanya’s* Instagram group chat. Tanya* invited someone she trusted into a safe space for her and other individuals of color, only for this to happen:
“I have a friend who, at one point, seemed to express his love for people of diversity. So, my friends and I never hesitated to add him to a political group chat we have on Instagram. This group is mostly to swap current events and discuss it. Everyone is this chat, aside from him, shared almost the exact same views. Anyway, this guy, who is a straight cis white man, begins posting in the group. Lots of hateful stuff about Muslims, how the Black Lives Matter group is a terrorist group, and how black people basically complain too much. It was kinda upsetting, considering everyone else in the group was black.”
Although exchanging views can be healthy, insensitivity and violence is never okay, especially when you’re surrounded by the very people who are most hurt by your words and actions.
The LGBTQ community, even with advances such as same-sex marriage, still struggles with enthusiastic but damaging allies. Since the culture has shifted to become more accepting of the gay community, Pride parades have become flooded with straight, cisgender millennials who want to engage in the celebration. The problem arises when those individuals invade LGBTQ spaces so much that those spaces are no longer safe for the very people who created them. Even champions of the community, such as the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, are being driven out from their own spaces by raucous and sometimes violent behavior perpetrated by straight allies. Aside from just rude or violent behavior, simple ignorance can also be harmful.
While canvassing in North Carolina for the repeal of HB 2, I encountered several individuals who were allies to the gay community, but who were transphobic and willing to deny trans individuals basic public accommodations. Just a few weeks ago, I caught a friend sharing a post from a biphobic organization that was known in the community for stealing content and bullying individuals within the community. Of course, my friend didn’t know about the organization’s behavior, but a simple Google search turns up testimonials and receipts that show just how bad this organization can be (so would a conversation with an LGBT individual- many of whom can attest to its reputation). It is an ally’s responsibility to listen to the community and to educate themselves, and that education must include the efficacy of the organizations whose content they spread.
And then there are male feminists. These are the men who tout themselves as pro-women and supporters of gender equity, but then harass or abuse women, feel entitled to praise, and become vehemently angry when criticized. They date powerful women and they read Sylvia Plath and sometimes they donate to abortion clinics. But doing those things doesn’t excuse virulent behaviors, nor does participation in feminist activities necessarily make one a feminist. And sometimes, that behavior is just a front that some use to justify their misogyny when their allyship is needed most. For example, Allie* was sexually assaulted by someone she met at a house show. When she told her ex-housemates what happened, they made a public display of banning him from future house shows, only to abandon any effort where it counted:
Survivors don’t just need support and care when they confide in you – they need it always, especially when they still see their assailant. The very worst thing an ally could do is pose as someone helpful, only to then hurt the very individual they claimed to support in the first place.
Allies should not be allies for praise inclusion. They should not attempt to dominate the spaces to which they lend their allyship. And they should always seek to be informed, but not at the expense of those they claim to protect. It can be easy to be a stellar ally – but it can also be easy to do more harm than good. Aim for the former.
*Names have been changed to protect the individuals who spoke up. Thank you to those who contributed and spoke to me about their stories. Although not every story could be featured, speaking up is a very difficult thing to do, and you’re all incredibly strong for facing what you have.