17 Myths about Being a Good Ally

A Debunking

Jake Orlowitz
Jun 23, 2019 · 9 min read
  1. An ally is a good person with the right views

An ally does the right things that help people who need it. Having progressive politics and being able to espouse the theory behind them is really neither here-nor-there when it comes do allyship. Allyship, as many before have wisely said, is about action. Ally is a verb. It’s not an identity or a philosophy or a status or a rank. You aren’t a good ally before you act; you’re not a good ally until you act. And even then, your allyship depends on what you continue to do, when it counts, when it’s hard, when it helps. No one gets an ally badge to keep for life; it just appears magically whenever you’re allying. Also, beware many model allies don’t walk the talk (who can even be dangerous in communities where they speak lovely words and gain acceptance while subverting others in practice). It’s what you do that makes you an ally.

2. An ally deserves praise

An ally helps repair injustice through support and speaking up. An ally doesn’t deserve praise for this, because it’s just trying to get us to a baseline world of equity for everyone. That should be the starting point, so you don’t get super-mega brownie points for picking up the emotional and historical trash that litters our social environment. You’re supposed to pick up trash, we all share this planet! What an ally may earn, in addition to making the world much better and more just, is access to spaces where people wouldn’t otherwise feel comfortable with them. Access to these spaces opens the possibly for relationships that are rich with passionate, life-experienced, diverse people. That is the best reward (but not one you can expect or demand either).

3. An ally never gets praise

Allies can get a lot of praise, sometimes even too much. Allies are often seen as standouts among their privileged cohort, even if what they do should be normal. While allies can be appreciated, even publicly — you can’t expect or demand praise — but do humbly enjoy it when it happens. Just say thank you and keep doing good work. It’s ok to want to be a good ally. It’s not ok to make that want another need people have to fill.

4. An ally never makes mistakes

Allies are about action. Action means imperfection, especially in challenging areas with diverse people and complex histories and the vulnerabilities that come from oppression and marginalization. An ally who stays involved is bound to mess up in small or large ways from time to time. The key is to pause, listen, acknowledge, apologize, reflect, and try again. An ally is doing work outside of their cultural comfort zone so it’s natural and inevitable to get things wrong. You can try to educate yourself as you go, and even better if you don’t rely on those you’re trying to help to do all the educating for you. Talk to other allies, read online, and accept that it’s a gradual journey to being a better ally.

5. An ally doesn’t have their own problems

Everyone has problems. Being human is hard. An ally can have many minor gripes or major challenges. Being an ally is not about having, or having had, a perfect life. Being an ally is about showing up for others. It doesn’t mean denying your own struggles. It means you appreciate that with all of the struggles you have, others have the difficulty cranked up on life even higher, every day, automatically. You’re running uphill, but others are running up mountains. You have fancy hiking boots and wind-proof gear, but others are in flip flops and a t-shirt. You can stop and take breaks, but others have to not fall even a step behind. There are levels of hard, and there are systems that make some kinds of hard more entrenched, oppressive, and inescapable than others.

6. An ally can’t share their own stories

Allies don’t have to be invisible. You do have to be aware of your presence. There are times when putting the focus on you takes it away from those who need to be centered and heard. There are other times where your sharing builds important mutual understanding and creates opportunities for learning. Allies don’t have to hide, they just shouldn’t take up room that prevents others from being seen.

7. An ally can’t make jokes

An ally can say a lot of things, if they have built trust. Allies don’t have to be serious and they shouldn’t be sanctimonious. Allies can use humor to great effect. Self-deprecating humor is fantastic for lowering people’s guard. Good jokes reduce the anxiety people feels when they are in awkward situations of social inequality and power imbalances. Humor works when it is informed by real relationships. It’s important to be truthful and present first — sometimes humor can even reveal and develop that. That said, if your joke falls flat or offends others, it’s on you, not the people who ‘didn’t get it’.

8. An ally has to remain silent

A good ally is thoughtful and decisive about when to speak. One of the most important things an ally can do is to speak loudly against oppressors and take on those confrontations so others don’t have to. An ally can make a great impact when speaking in private and in small groups. Silence in public forums is about listening, making room, holding space for others — a noble and sacred practice and far more than merely an absence of words. An ally realizes that many voices have been shut out or shut up — and does their best to make environments where that doesn’t happen again.

9. An ally has to sacrifice themselves for others

An ally is generous with their privilege. This means much more about what you give than what you don’t get. Getting to help others is tremendously rewarding. Getting to know people outside your small or homogeneous social circles is enlightening and enlarging. An ally is not a martyr. An ally is a co-conspirator who understands when to help and when to get out of the way.

10. An ally can only help those with less privilege

One of the most important things an ally can do is help inform, teach, call in, and model positive behaviors for people with more privilege. An ally doesn’t have to be hanging out with all the people of color or low-income people or LGBTQIA+ people to make a difference. An ally can have great impact in their privileged groups and be a leader in those spaces and conversations. This is often harder than hanging out with all the cool activists and colorful world-changers. It risks social status, and it means confronting old ways of harm and oppression many times over. An ally can help those with less privilege by doing the work of bringing along those with more privilege. An ally can make more allies!

11. An ally has to be ashamed of their privilege

If every person could have the privilege of a cis, heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical, rich, white, educated man — they’d be right to enjoy the heck out of it. People don’t fight against oppression because they hate good times, having fun, indulging, or enjoyment. People fight against oppression because it hurts others and stops people from having far more basic safety and rights. An ally can enjoy their life, and appreciate it even more for realizing what they have and have access to. It’s better to enjoy the benefits of your privilege than to take them for granted. It’s even better to use your privilege to help others. But they’re not opposed. Marginalized activists need to find time to relax and live up life — and so do allies.

12. An ally is immune from criticism

Being an ally is not a shield from messing up and being called out on it. A bad ally, or an ally who does more harm than good, or an ally who is unwilling to learn or is demanding of praise — can and often should be criticized. Even good allies with good intentions can get whacked with the news that they too screwed up. Even good allies with histories of positive interactions can hurt, harm, or offend. When this happens, criticism is the communal immune system seeking to repair that hurt. Let the criticism happen and don’t deny or deflect it. Take it in, move on, and work out a better way.

13. An ally is someone who only serves others

An ally is someone who at best connects with others and joins them in their quest. The goal isn’t merely flipping power structures: the goal is building a more whole, just, and empowering world. An ally who does all the grunt work but never gets to know and like and laugh with the people they are trying to help is missing some of the best parts of being an ally. That said, don’t expect or demand friendship. It’s a deeply gratifying bonus not a requisite kickback. There is no expectation of reward, but you may find it a life-affirming side-effect. Being an ally can feel really, really good though. And that’s ok.

14. An ally can operate independently

There’s really no such thing as an ally without someone they’re allied with. An independent ally is only a theoretical concept, like one hand clapping. It makes movement but no noise. An ally should have a conception of the real, actual, human people they are trying to support. This means going beyond generalities and stereotypes and actually interacting with people you want to support. An ally is not a solitary or isolated person; they can’t be. Ally is a helping verb and you need to be helping someone to be an ally.

15. An ally is always an ally

While privilege doesn’t disappear, it does shift depending on the situation and context. You might be an ally in one area, but need an ally in another. You might be straight and white but struggling with mental health and poverty. Intersectionality provides latitude and flexibility in how allies can view the intersecting matrices of privilege. This may sound more confusing, but it means that awareness and details matter as much as absolutes. Your role can shift depending on who you are with, and that requires and builds a sensitivity to multiple threads and axes of privilege.

16. Being an ally is the hardest work

Being an ally is confusing and messy and humbling at times. But a wise woman once said: if you think being an ally is hard, try being the oppressed! Allies have the privilege of getting to step in and out of battles when they choose to, when they feel like it, when it’s convenient, or when it’s overwhelming. But a black woman can’t escape her blackness, nor a trans person their gender identity. An ally clocks in and out and goes home to their family for a meal and a shower, while oppressed people are always somehow on the job. Being an ally is a challenge, being the oppressed is exhausting.

17. An ally knows how to be a good ally

No one really knows how to be a good ally in every moment, because being an ally is a creative, radical approach to changing culture. There’s no formula for this (though their are useful guides and tips). An ally is inventing and evolving as they practice allyship. Like a jazz musician, an ally learns to play the instrument of their privilege in improvisation with the people and the world around them.

My gratitude and admiration go to the people who have helped me learn or articulate these lessons (note: attribution is a great ally move). In no particular order, and definitely not exhaustively, my heartfelt acknowledgement to: Anasuya Sengupta, Adele Vrana, and Siko Bouterse at Whose Knowledge?; Megan Wacha and Andromeda Yelton in the librarysphere; the brave spirits from Okvir queer archive and Equality Labs; indigenous leaders Mike Connolly Miskwitch and Persephone Lewis (who reminded me that it’s harder to be the oppressed than the ally!); Pax Ahimsa Gehsen and Frances Hocutt; Stacy Allison-Cassin, Emily Temple-Wood, and Sydney Poore; Marti Johnson and Sati Houston…

The J Curve

It gets better. First, it gets worse.

Jake Orlowitz

Written by

Internet citizen. Founder of The Wikipedia Library. Seeker of well people and sane societies. Read my book: welcometothecircle.net

The J Curve

It gets better. First, it gets worse.

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