With all that’s going on in the world right now, you’ve probably encountered the new buzz word “ally” in orbit around your social media feeds and elsewhere. But what does it mean to be an ally, who are we trying to ally ourselves with, and why is it important?
Being a good ally is something that I’ve struggled with a lot over the past few months. Being stuck inside has challenged me to think of what allyship really means – because I couldn’t attend protests, and can’t afford to donate, does that make me a bad ally? It took me a while to realize it, but of course not! Allyship comes in so many different shapes and sizes. What’s important is doing our most to recognize our privilege, understand the issues, and engage meaningfully with the communities we are supporting.
So let’s take a look at what all that means before we talk about what to do…
Let’s Talk About Privilege
I think it’s important to first explore privilege – another term you’ve probably seen or heard a lot of recently. If you’re new to social justice spaces, or just need a quick refresher on what privilege is, check out this great article by Sian Ferguson from Everyday Feminism on privilege. In it, she writes:
“We can define privilege as a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group. Society grants privilege to people because of certain aspects of their identity. Aspects of a person’s identity can include race, class, gender, sexual orientation, language, geographical location, ability, and religion, to name a few.”
Based on the aspects of their identity, a person can hold many different kinds of social privilege. At the same time, Ferguson makes clear that privilege is the opposite of oppression. For those without privilege in one of more of these categories, oppression is experienced instead.
The Importance of Intersectionality
There are many forms of privilege and oppression that overlap and interact to affect our lives. Kimberlee Crenshaw famously coined the term intersectionality to explain how the different aspects of a person’s identity form a unique mosaic, or constellation that informs their experience of life. In her article, she writes about intersectionality as a framework through which she critiques the treatment of black women in our legal system. Just as a poor, white person will experience racial privilege and economic oppression, a queer man of color will experience oppression for his race and sexual orientation, but still has male privilege.
Now, you might be counting up all the ways that you have privilege and subtracting from that the forms of oppression you experience. But this isn’t the Oppression Olympics. The constellation of our identities is so vast and multifaceted that it is impossible, not to mention unproductive, to compare our oppression with that of another’s.
The main takeaway here is that there are institutional systems of oppression that operate on a societal level, affecting the way people of different identities experience life.
Know the History
Sooo . . . what does it mean to be an ally? To be an ally is to understand and acknowledge your own privilege, and do what you can to have compassion and a willingness to act for the struggles of those oppressed. That means understanding how that oppression and social power dynamics operate on an institutional level, doing what you can to unlearn biases, educating yourself about the struggles of others, and using your privilege to elevate the voices of the oppressed.
An understanding of intersectionality is central to an understanding of the history of Pride and queer struggle in the US. Even though more and more people are showing up in support of black, trans people, we live in a time where popular public queerness is still overwhelmingly white, and trans people are still heavily marginalized within the queer community. So, let’s remember that the activism at the heart of Pride was ignited by two black, trans women named Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.
In the early hours of June 28th, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a bar in Greenwich village known to be frequented by gay and trans people of color. Johnson and Rivera are credited with throwing the first bricks/molotov cocktails at the police. Their legacy, what would become known as the Stonewall Uprisings, became a symbol for queer solidarity against social and political discrimination, and now, each year, we celebrate the entire month of June with Pride.
5 Ways to be an Ally – Get Involved, Get Educated
Allyship comes in all different shapes and sizes. Educating yourself and engaging with the community through art, literature, and stories is a good place to start.
The following are my top picks for anyone who wants to explore the artists, activists, and writers of queer history and queer popular culture. The movies, shows, and books listed here are among my personal favorites, and I know you’ll enjoy them too!
- Take Action
Taking action can seem a bit daunting when you see people in the streets, doing their most to support a movement. It’s important to remember that activism is different for everybody, and there are a ton of impactful actions you can take every day to exercise your allyship. Educating yourself and others is a good place to start. You can also look for local activism opportunities, like with your local Indivisible chapter. If you’re able, you can use your financial resources to support causes through donation or by supporting allied companies and small businesses. And, of course, please remember to register and vote!
- Elevate Others
The most important thing that you can do as an ally is use your privilege to elevate the voices of marginalized people, especially if you have any kind of platform or social influence. Stand up for the people around you – at home, in the workplace, at school, anywhere and everywhere. It’s never too late to start!
It’s easy to get caught up in our individual struggles with oppression and privilege, and feel helpless in the face of such great adversity. When it comes to allyship, we’re all on our own journeys so our paths will be different. But our true power lies in our collective strength and solidarity – together we can uplift one another, make visible those at the margins, and fight for a truly equal and empowered future.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – ELIZABETH MASON
A graduate of UC Berkeley, Elizabeth Mason earned her degree in Gender and Women’s Studies. Currently, she is looking towards graduate school, and hopes to continue to focus her studies on womxn’s health and sexual wellness. Her main interests include identity politics and their relation to issues surrounding womxn’s healthcare and sexual liberation. She looks forward to the day when all womxn are empowered socially, politically, and – most importantly – sexually. She can be found on Instagram @elizabeth.mason.