Ally is a title we often give ourselves. Actually, as an HIV- woman working in the field, it is often a title I give myself. But recently something changed the way I view this word.
After a problematic (read: offensive) presentation given by someone who was a positioned as an ally, a colleague of mine later thoughtfully reflected, “ally is not a title we give ourselves; it is a title our community gives to us based on the service we provide to them.” It was an eye-opening moment.
As allies, we have good intentions. We can do great work as allies – valuable and important work. But sometimes we have blind-spots, and we need to be open to receiving information about what we’ve missed.
Being a good ally also means doing uncomfortable things. Sometimes it means shutting-up and just listening. Sometimes it means admitting that you have made a mistake. And sometimes it means knowing when you’re not wanted.
Here’s an example: In my experience, sometimes men – even men who are feminist, very supportive of women’s rights and consider themselves to be allies – forget that women sometimes need protected spaces that are female-only. I have written before that I wish more men would become involved in campaigns and movements that support women’s rights, so I’m not suggesting that men should be absent in these scenarios, but sometimes women need private support groups, committees, or other exclusively female environments in which to heal, share, or feel comfortable. Sometimes men – even allies – forget that part of being a good ally means honouring that space. I understand: It’s hard to do; coming from a place of privilege means that you are usually catered to. Most spaces are built around your needs and you are most often welcome just about anywhere you go. Recognizing that sometimes the most supportive thing you can do is not be present can be a foreign concept.
As allies, we often draw on our own experience in order to relate to others. Most of us have experienced violence, oppression, hate or vulnerabilities to some degree. These experiences can become valuable tools to foster empathy and understanding. However, it’s important that we don’t conflate these experiences as being identical to the experiences of another person or community. Being gay, for example, may allow a man to better identity with a woman’s experience of oppression, but it doesn’t mean that it’s the same, or that there isn’t important learning to be had. There are complex intersections of oppression and privilege, not to mention the personal way in which oppression and privilege is felt and experienced on an individual level.
When we consider ourselves to be allies, we don’t want to see ourselves as outsiders from the group we feel connected to or are attempting to serve. We don’t want to see ourselves as perpetrators of violence or hate. We want to be on the other side of the fence, the supportive side. It’s important though, to be aware that as someone without shared lived experience, sometimes the best thing we can do is respect the information we’re receiving – and sometimes that information is that we need to be quiet, or even absent.
For all of us, whether we have membership in a particular community or not, self-reflection, humility and the willingness to “unlearn” information we have previously taken for granted are all important steps. While allies have an important place at the table – and I do believe we can all learn from each other, regardless of our experiences or membership – it’s important for us to realize that the most helpful thing we can do sometimes is take a step back.