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What does it mean to be an ally?

Being an ally means actively supporting and uplifting those who are less privileged than you. In turn, it’s about understanding the privilege you have in order to recognize the injustice you’ve been spared. Allies can never fully understand the oppression of those they’re supporting, but they acknowledge the ways in which others are experience it; they actively work to combat this oppression.

What does it take to become an ally?

Becoming an ally requires looking in on yourself in order to look out on others. If you start by acknowledging your own identity, you can understand how you experience both privilege and disadvantage.

Our identities are complex and rely on our membership in various societal groups. These groups are based on things like race, gender, sexuality, ability, wealth, religion, age — just to name a few. They can include professional categories or our familial positions. While our identity is based on how we fit into these groups, our privilege is based on how these groups advantage and disadvantage us. Our membership can be visible if we present as a certain race or gender; it might be invisible if the outside world doesn’t recognize us as a part of that group. The ways we’re a part of these groups, both visibly and invisibly, and how these groups advantage or disadvantage us, shape our identity and how we’re treated, respected and live in the world.

Once we’ve recognized our own identity, we can learn how to confront our own privileges in order to become an ally. Confronting our own privileges may make us uncomfortable, but it’s a vital and integral step to helping those who don’t have the same privileges.

What you can do as an ally to show support:

1. Confront your own biases and prejudices.

Like recognizing our privilege, confronting our own biases and prejudices requires personal reflection even if the results are upsetting. There are numerous online implicit bias tests to help us become aware of what unconscious biases we might be holding on to. Once we’ve recognized these biases and prejudices, we can confront them by understanding their nature and educating ourselves, whether through personal research or discussion with others.

2. Refrain from derogatory jokes or language; aim to be as inclusive as possible. 

If you’re hoping to uplift or support someone, there’s no room for language that can hurt them further. Derogatory jokes and language include more than just what we might think of as the “worst” stereotypes; we must constantly be educating ourselves on correct and respectful terms. If you’re not sure, research or ask. A good ally never waits for anyone to teach them what’s right; they actively seek out answers so they can provide better support.

3. Listen before you speak.

While words can be powerful or comforting, listening is the best policy when it comes to understanding and uplifting others. Show support by listening to all that someone else has to say, even if you have a relevant point you want to jump in with. By encouraging others who don’t exercise the same privileges as us to speak up and speak out, we show that we value them and their contributions.

4. Educate yourself constantly.

Being a good ally means constantly and consistently educating yourself. Good allies do not rely on those they’re supporting to teach them about the institutions and groups that oppress them; they can ask questions, but never assume that someone else should carry the burden of teaching them. They take action to learn about other identity groups, stay informed on politics and social movements, and have discussions with others with dissimilar identities.

5. Build meaningful relationships.

We can’t be good allies to people we don’t truly want to support. A good allyship is rooted in a good relationship, one that is based in trust and consistency. Once an ally helps someone in some way, they don’t end the relationship; they continue to work and support them even if there’s no grand action they can take to uplift them.

How to be an ally for underprivileged groups:

1. Women

While women hold more leadership positions now than ever before, women are still disadvantaged in the office, home, and even in everyday interactions on the street. To be a good ally to women, it’s important to understand the intersectionality of the women’s movement. For example, contentious issues surrounding women’s health affect all women, but in very different ways. Recent abortion laws might not affect a lesbian woman in New York the same way they might a woman of color in Mississippi. 

Being a good ally to women means understanding the ways their other group memberships might uplift them or disadvantage them, and working to support them uniquely depending on their circumstances. Listen to women in the workplace, in the classroom, or anywhere they want a say—but make sure to speak up for them when others might be putting them down. Being an ally to women means taking a step back and to let them lead the way, but acting out and speaking up if someone is wrongfully in their way.

2. People of Color

Being an ally to people of color means acknowledging that racism not only exists, but is also prevalent in many of the institutions that surround us today. Oppression and violent acts against people of color were more pervasive 50 years ago, but that doesn’t mean there’s a not incredible amount of work to do. 

Being a good ally to people of color is recognizing how white privilege holds power in everything from our legal system to our everyday social interactions. White allies must especially confront their privilege when supporting people of color and avoid excusing themselves from any racist responsibility. While white people can be oppressed in ways other than their race, their race is more than enough to give them an advantage over people of color. Allies to people of color must acknowledge this and should work to have conversations within white communities to confront how they contribute to the racial oppression of others.

3. Disabled People

Ability is an area of privilege that many able-bodied and able-minded people are uncomfortable or avoid talking about. Disabled narratives often come from caregivers or those related to the disabled person; as an ally, it’s vital to listen to disabled people to hear their story and understand their needs. When supporting a disabled person, we should always assume competence and avoid being overbearing with our want to help. Someone living with a disability is more adjusted to their life with that disability than we are. We shouldn’t assume that just because we’re able-bodied we know the best way to provide assistance. Disabled people fight to prove they’re capable every day; as allies, we must be supportive and only offer help if asked.

4. LGBTQ+ People

The LGBTQ+ community includes people of all different sexualities and genders. The first step in being a good ally to people in this community is educating yourself on various terms, identities, and pronouns that someone might use. While learning this vocabulary, it’s important to comprehensively understand how these identities are disadvantaged and advantaged within and outside of the community.

Someone who identifies as a gay man has very different privileges and disadvantages than someone who identifies as a transgender man. Being a good ally means understanding these identities and uplifting them uniquely. It also means respecting the stories of those you do provide with allyship. Someone’s coming out story is not yours to tell, even if a person considers themselves out or openly a part of the LGBTQ+ community.

5. Low-income People

Wealth is an awkward subject for many, even for some of wealthy who feel uncomfortable with how “comfortable” they may be. Being an ally to those who are low-income is more than simply providing financial resources; you don’t always need to be a large donator or sponsor in order to help people who struggle financially. Understanding how professional institutions prevent many individuals from climbing up the career ladder can help you fight back and combat this inequality. Being a good ally to low-income people means giving them resources beyond money so that they can become financially independent and support themselves and family. It’s working to provide basic needs so they can thrive professionally, socially, mentally, and physically.

Being a good ally is integral for uplifting others and fighting the oppressions that hurt the ones we love. In order to do the work we’re responsible for, we need to look inward to recognize how our own identity offers us privileges or disadvantages. Once we’ve educated ourselves, we can start to educate and work for others — ensuring that we’re mindful, supportive, trustworthy and always ready to take action.

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Zoë Kaplan is an English major at Wesleyan University in the class of 2020. She writes about women, theater, sports, and everything in between. Read more of Zoë’s work at www.zoëkaplan.com.

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