“How to be a good Ally – 10 Do’s and Don’ts.”
“The 14 Most Important Ally Traits.”
“Overcoming Privilege; 12 Step Program for Aspiring Allies.”
Alright, listen; I am speaking to all the aspiring Allies out there. I am not speaking to communities that are struggling with how to deal with Allies. These Lists and Programs for Allies make a lot of sense coming from folks who are dealing with white saviorism and all its ugly stepsiblings. I really appreciate how those kinds of articles have helped to educate me.
Aspiring Allies please listen closely. There are plenty of other words and definitions to use for understanding how to “relate” to affected communities. My current favorite is “accomplice.” But even that, does not do the trick. It has a great revolutionary ring and makes me feel all badass, but it fails to really get to the heart of what’s wrong with the Ally complex.
It all boils down to “other.” The whole idea that those “other” folks need our help, so let’s learn how to be good Allies, places those “other” folks as… “others.” Now don’t misunderstand; there are REAL differences between communities. Everything from language to customs to privileges and oppressions (not to mention music, clothing, food, hair style, etc.) help shape community identity. Communities are unique and cross through multiple layers of society. Identities have impact. This is not what I mean by “other.”
There are many explanations of othering out on the interwebs. Sara Rismyhr Engelund’s essay is a good representative piece. When we ally ourselves from a perspective of helping these others, in the sense that Ms. Engelund writes about, we are adding to oppressions that already exist. The truth is that these other folks don’t need my/our help. Other folks don’t need my/our voice in order to be heard. Other folks are perfectly capable of helping themselves.
So what’s an aspiring Ally to do? The question, I believe, is what would I do for a friend? What would I do for a neighbor? What would I do for my cousins? What would I do for my co-worker?
See how easy that is? Answering those questions doesn’t take a list of 14 do’s and don’ts. You already know how to respectfully help out your friends and community. Even if they look different than you, dress different than you, have a disability, are poor, are rich, have suffered injustice, went to jail, didn’t go to jail, whatever. Your neighbors don’t have to “teach” you how to be a good neighbor. (Of course that is not to say that we all couldn’t use more practice)
The real work for the aspiring Ally is not to figure out what steps to take to become a good Ally. The real work is to deconstruct what keeps them from being a good neighbor or a good friend.
Personally, I could not imagine a time that I would walk into a friend’s home unannounced and begin to tell them how to better raise their children, or pull food out of their fridge telling them it is poison, or break out my tools and begin to install a new window at that one corner where they REALLY should have a window!! That is no way to treat friends. Telling them what to do, how to do it or taking initiative within their space is simply not friendly.
But Allies seem to be doing this all the time. Telling groups how they need help. Showing communities a “better” way of doing things. Offering help that has not been asked for. This kind of forceful, intrusive helping could be described as patronizing. Really though, I think patronizing is too nice a word. The pushing into someone’s space uninvited is flat out abusive. Have you, a well-intentioned Ally, had a hard time figuring out why some folks are pushing you away from their space? Most likely it’s because you have failed to respect that space.
I will not be an Ally. I can be a friend, colleague, neighbor, cousin, brother; but not an Ally. Ally is a political relationship that does nothing to foster solidarity. The Ally is trading in political capital for benefit. Even if the benefit is mutual, trading political capital is not the same as building community. When I help my neighbor jump-start his car on a January morning, I don’t do it in hopes of repayment. I just do it because I can and it’s right. Solidarity works the same way. Why am I in solidarity with WoC organizations in my community? Because I can and it’s the right thing to do. HOW am I in solidarity? By showing up ready to help or not, depending upon what is asked or needed of me.
Deconstructing what keeps Allies from being good friends is the real challenge. From liberal and progressive view points, often just caring about something is all the justification needed. “But I did it with the best intention,” is never greater than the effect of words and deeds. This is maybe the first and biggest piece of reverse engineering folks need to undertake. Your INTENT does not justify the RESULT. If I were to walk by you and step on your toe, it will hurt you the same whether I intended to or not. My intent to grab you some ice cream from the freezer does nothing to change the fact that I just broke your toe. Believe me, I am big enough to break your toe.
Walking into a community to help them, a person is risking more than just stepping on a few toes. Many communities are engaged in life and death struggles on a daily basis. When well-intentioned Allies show up, there is a very real risk that the Ally’s selfless acts of altruistic service (gag) will actually open the community up to increased harm. Sadly, when confronted with this truth, the Ally often becomes defensive and bitter and resorts to parading their intentions as a justification to their actions.
Let us imagine that you, the well-intentioned Ally have successfully overcome that first hurdle of deconstruction; actions trump intentions. Congrats. Here is a cookie. I feel comfortable giving out the occasional cookie, because being a big ol’ white guy, giving out cookies does me no harm. But don’t EVEN expect folks from marginalized communities to bring you baked goods. If they do; great. Just do not expect rewards for learning common sense. Now that you have made that leap and eaten your cookie, more work is ready for you.
Ask yourself the question; why do you think these folks need your help? Do not confuse this question with; do these folks need help? That is a question that does not need to be asked. Communities know for themselves when and if they need help. The question is for the Ally. Is your help so valuable that folks just need it? Are you so talented that communities SHOULD want your help? Do you have some mission that compels you to provide service wherever YOU believe it is needed? If you answered yes to any of these questions, it is time to sit down and do some listening.
Think about friendship. For me, a good friend is one who is part of my life. They are available. They are working at their own life and participating in mine. They ask for help when they need it. They offer help when I ask for it. They will back me up in a fight. When my friend says, “uh… dude? You’re standing on my toe…” I immediately step OFF their toe and apologize for stepping on them. I ask if there is anything I can do to help with the pain I caused. Sometimes the answer is simply, “watch where you are stepping.”
That is a life long practice. To watch my words and deeds and check them for signs of entitlement, disrespect, judgment, arrogance, et al. That is what I have to be doing. While weeding out those dangerous growths, it’s my job to plant healthy habits as well. Being available. Listening and watching for clues on how to be more supportive. Responding to direct requests for assistance. All the while continuing to work on becoming a better friend and talking with MY community about how we can be better friends to other communities.
Ally is a verb. It is a role that I take on during specific times for specific reasons. When my friends call and ask that I stand by them while they undertake an important campaign, I do what I can. What I do NOT do is tell them how to improve their campaign. I trust that if they want my input on strategy or execution, they will ask. Sometimes they do. My job is to be a good friend and support my friends in the ways they ask, when they ask. In the times they are not asking, then I show up by improving community and myself. Or, by taking out the trash, doing the dishes, calling to check in.
Keep showing up. It can be difficult to be a friend. Sometimes neighbors can really get on your nerves. Regardless; keep showing up. We are all in this together. How we learn to move through the hard times will determine how often we can expect to have good times.
When asked what kind of Ally I am, my answer is simple; I am not an Ally. I am a good neighbor. I am a brother, an uncle, a father and a son. I am a lover and a companion.
I am a friend.