How to (Actually) be a Good Ally

If I asked you how to be a good ally, you might ask, “To whom?”

If countless internet articles are any indication, you would need to know which group of people you’re working with in order to know how to best support them. If it’s trans people, you’re going to want to know about pronouns. If it’s a black activist group, you should know why not to say, “all lives matter”. You’ll need to know about the specific cultures and experiences of whichever group you are trying to support.

The Internet is filled with these sorts of instructionals, the do’s and don’ts of supporting certain marginalized groups. These guides are undoubtedly useful, but they highlight the critical flaw in how we try to act as “allies”. While we look for checklists and tutorials, we overlook the most obvious way to be a good ally.

Think about those people most important to you: close friends, family, significant others, and so on. You may not think about it in these terms, but you’re probably a good ally to them. Most likely, you understand and support them, you talk to them, you value their opinion and point of view, and you fight for them.

And you never needed some sort of instructional to teach you this, did you? Rather, these alliances form organically by sharing experiences, opening up, and building compassion towards them. There is no step-by-step guide; alliance is just the end-product of caring about someone and being close to them.

The desire to develop alliances with people different from us shows that we aren’t very close to them — we’re looking for a guide because we don’t know them. This is what happens in a society that emphasizes our differences: we often can’t imagine how to relate to people who have had different experiences than us. Instead, our address books are filled with people who look like us, act like us, and have lived like us.

So when we read these lists, we keep that difference front-and-center. We define individuals and groups by what makes them different from us: their race, their skin color, their gender, their religion. And when we do that, we often forget about everything else that makes them a person.

As long as this is our approach, we’ll never truly be allies. Instead, we need to connect with these people fully, just like we’ve already done with our friends and family. Helping them is as simple as getting to know them.

And in case you still need a list on being a good ally, here’s one you might want to try:

  1. Commiserate with a trans person about financial debt
  2. Ask someone of a different race for relationship advice
  3. Laugh with someone who doesn’t speak English
  4. Call someone who has a criminal record
  5. Cry with a disabled person
  6. Have coffee with someone who makes minimum wage
  7. Share secrets with a homeless person
  8. Play a game with someone 40 years older than you
  9. People-watch with a drug addict
  10. Dance with a queer person

In other words, if you want to be a good ally to someone, get to know them.