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Illustration: Alex Green

For a lot of us, 2017 was a year to figure out which side we were on. Indeed, for many Americans, especially those of us who had been living relatively comfortable lives, it was a revelation to realize there were sides — and those sides are at something very much approaching a war. Neutral ground is disappearing. You have to ask yourself: Am I going to be an enemy or an ally?

For people with privilege — white, male, straight, able-bodied, cis; there are as many forms of privilege as there are oppression — there really is no third option. Unless you’re consciously trying to undo the power structure that oppresses others, you’re sustaining it.

Talk like this gets one labeled as a “social justice warrior,” which I have never quite understood as an insult. Which word in that phrase is supposed to be bad? “Social,” “justice,” or “warrior”? I’ll take any one of them, but I really do prefer “ally.”

I like ally because it implies deference to some nonspecific central goal. Allies don’t necessarily lead — they support. Allies don’t make unilateral decisions. Just as important: Being an ally doesn’t presume friendship, and mere friendship doesn’t make you an ally.

In the wake of Trump’s election, we’ve seen white pundits twist themselves into knots trying to explain how millions of people could vote for a white supremacist without themselves being racist.

In the turbulence of the #metoo movement, men (and some women) have expressed shock at the pervasiveness of sexual assault — that it’s not just a matter of dirty old men or obvious leches, but their own friends and colleagues who are the predators.

In both cases, the handwringing is a direct result of believing that cordial interpersonal relationships and self-reported goodwill is enough to extract oneself from the systems that make racism and rape culture possible. So it’s time to stop thinking that your own warm feelings and properly woke policy positions are enough to make you an ally.

Being an ally means risking something. It means taking stock of everyday interactions; asking yourself if your behavior toward others stems from genuine thoughtfulness or habit. It means making room for being wrong. It means the end of “you can’t call me a racist — look at all my black friends” and the beginning of “I sure hope my black friends let me know when I’m being racist.”

There are many different ways to slice people’s reactions to Trump’s election, but a useful metric I don’t see often enough is between those who thought America was better than this and those who just weren’t that surprised. Most of the people I know who called it early are people of color, or people with disabilities, or LGBTQ community members whose memories reach back further than the Obama era. The year 2017 has been my year to approach those who knew better with humility — these are the people we need to learn from; these are the people we need to cede leadership to if we’re ever to reverse the tragic course that Trump has set us on.

I’m old enough that the first word “ally” calls to mind is Nazis. I’m also aware enough of our current political climate that the second thing it calls to mind is Nazis. This isn’t hard. Be an ally.

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