April 18, 2016

On Allyship

Written by Rachel Garrett 

Here’s a confession. Sometimes I cringe when I hear someone calling themselves an ally. Not because the communities experiencing oppression that I am a part of don’t need or want support from those not a part of them, but because so often the word ally comes with a lot of praise and little action. Having heard someone recently refer to themselves as an ally to survivors and then joke about rape in the same breath, you see where the trust issues are coming from here.

Allyship is a complicated concept, not a single concrete label you can throw on when you feel like it. It is a process, it is your whole life, it is responsibility.

Let me tell you what an ally doesn’t look like.

Organizing in social justice spaces I have been hurt countless times by those proudly wearing the term ally like a trophy or a self-congratulatory line on their resume. When those in different positions of privilege than you feel it is their place to tell you your feelings are wrong, we have a problem. This term, the rainbow flag was burned on campus after our OUTweek opening ceremony at The Pride Collective. As a coordinator for Pride, I spent a lot of time that week speaking with media representatives about the flag burning. For the sake of background information, after the events of the flag we made the decision to cancel a march against transphobia planned that week. The march was cancelled purely to protect the organizers and participants who no longer felt safe attending now that the event would be so externally visible on campus during that media-heavy week. Nearly every reporter I spoke to about the flag gave me an example of allyship done wrong as they argued with me that cancelling the march was ‘giving in,’ ‘giving up,’ ‘weak,’ or ‘shameful.’ I can sum up my feelings on having to argue with those outside of the LGBTQ+ community about this with a quote from a statement coordinator Marlee Laval wrote on behalf of The Pride Collective that week:

“As many folks outside of the collective would like to be in solidarity with us, we need our communities to listen to us and our needs at this time, rather than try to criticize and shame our decision to cancel the march. There is not a universal level of hostility that needs to occur in a space in order to justify cancelling a march – many folks in the collective feel unsafe, and that is why we cancelled it. We need our wider communities to listen, respect that decision, and ask what they can do to support us as we move forward.

Being supportive, rather than combative, to a small group of university students is the best thing that our communities can do right now, regardless of if a march exists. We need as much external support as we can, and critiquing the cancellation of an event that could make many participants feel unsafe is not the best way to show that support.”

Being supportive, rather than combative. It’s a low bar but you’ve gotta start somewhere on your allyship journey right? Solidarity means listening to the experiences and decisions of those facing oppression’s outside of your own experience – making space instead of taking it.

So what does an ally look like?

Despite the slightly negative tone I’ve had writing this, I am grateful to actually have a few experiences of allyship done right. There are ways to stand in solidarity and be an ally, not an Ally™. So here’s what it comes down to.

Stand behind us, not in front of us. Listen carefully instead of talking over our voices. Do not assume you will always be right, recognize that unlearning and challenging internalization is an ongoing process and you will make mistakes. Practice accountability – learn how to apologize without making it about you. Value your teachers, but recognize that it is not the responsibility of the oppressed to educate the privileged. Do not make this about your guilt. Turn guilt into knowledge, knowledge into action, and action into justice.

Solidarity is valuable, do it right.

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