What is an ally anyways? It’s a word that is often used in social justice communities
and circles to signify that we, as individuals, align ourselves with the concerns of a
specific community and seek to change and address forces that create oppression as
to subvert the damage and oppression done.
However, I often forget that being an ally is hard work. It’s easy to call ourselves
allies when we are together in our social justice circles. It’s (sometimes) easy to call
one another out on our language in a way that’s respectful, and coming from a place
of concern. We are on the same team, so to speak.
Although overtime, I have come to realize that being an ally means speaking
out when it is inconvenient. It’s not okay to only speak out against injustices
when it directly benefits me or empowers me. In social justice communities or
circles, pointing out an injustice makes me look powerful, heroic, and educated.
In that specific context, it gives me more power. It is time for me, and others, to
start pointing out injustices when it makes us seem “nagging”, “annoying”, or
Here is a scenario: You are out with a friend in a new social group. You don’t know
anyone very well, but you are relatively friendly with everyone. You are not invested
in the relationships with these people, but you are nevertheless in their sphere
of influence. Hypothetically, someone drops the word “fag” or says, “That’s gay”.
You feel yourself swell up with annoyance, anger, but as far as any outsiders to the
situation are concerned, no one seems affected by this hateful language. What do
In most of these situations, I don’t condone the language directly, but I do with my
silence. I’m silent because, ultimately, I feel uncomfortable. I don’t feel close enough
to “call them out”, but I still feel like I should say something. I am shocked, I am
offended, I am angry. I react by shutting off, clamming up, being quiet. Which seems
reasonable. It’s hard to blame someone for reacting that way; after all, those words
are used specifically to disempower people and silence them.
By the time I have time to process the event, the moment has passed and it becomes
incredibly inconvenient to mention something so “seemingly” benign such as
When situations like these happen I make excuses for myself. I say things like “it’s
best to pick my battles”, “I wasn’t invested in the relationship anyways”, or the
worst and most inaccurate myth of them all “nothing I could have said would
have changed their mind”.
Frankly, I don’t think I have ever regretted standing up for something I believe in. I
may have regretted the WAY that I stood up for my beliefs, but never the fact that I
tried. I spend far too much time wondering what I could have said, how I could have
said it, etc.
What is important to note is that this work that we believe in is not supposed to
be easy. Being an ally is not merely the act of naming yourself as an ally, but a
continuous effort and learning process of how to best evoke social change, stand
up for violence, whether personal or societal, committed against a certain group of
people. Being an ally takes hard work; It requires you to put yourself on the line and
possibly get berated, insulted, and maybe having to engage in a heated debate or
two (okay, more like two hundred).
Being an ally is hardly ever heroic because it is about your well-being and rights
being directly connected with the well-being and rights of those who are less
privileged. It is about acknowledging the privileges you have and not feeling guilty
about them, but realizing how it gives you more power to influence and promote
social change. Being an ally requires you to get involved in a very personal way that
is not glamorous, not convenient, and will often cause people to ridicule you.
Often times you will screw up, be unknowingly insensitive or counterproductive,
but a part of the work of being an ally is being willing to revisit your position, your
method, and reevaluate the ways your actions (or lack thereof in my case) directly
affect the community you claim to ally with.
I can’t help but think about the metaphor of stones that my Gender, Women’s and
Sexuality Studies professor, Naomi Scheman, said to us. Being an ally or being in
solidarity is much like how stones are composed. While stones may be composed of
different types of rock, they are nevertheless held together. If the stone is thrown, all
the parts of the stone are thrown and affected simultaneously
While allies may not be literally as affected as the groups they ally with, part of the
work is never becoming complacent, and never being able to throw our hands in the
air and say “not my problem”. While an ally may have the option to divest from the
problem, being an ally means not doing so just because it’s the easier thing to do.