What is an ally? Well, if you go strictly by definition…
Ally: (verb) combine or unite a resource or commodity with (another) for mutual benefit. From Latin alligare ‘bind together’…
Within the parameters of social work, it is this:
The ally model of social justice is a philosophical approach that is congruent with social work’s values and emphasis on social justice and human rights. Using concepts from multiple identities and social justice, it directs those with privilege to act on behalf of those without privilege who belong to a different social group.
Personally, I say that it’s about making space. As an ally, my end goal is to use whatever power, privilege or resource I have to make space for another.
The reality is most individuals have privilege in some regard, and we all have bias. I’ve always been open minded and quite curious, which directly impacted the community I built around me. I have a diverse group of friends, colleagues and network due to those two traits. My relationships in turn put me in a position to witness and begin to understand what social injustice is in various forms. The most impactful aspect of this is that it brought to light my role within those realms. I started gaining more awareness into my own personal bias and prejudices, and about 12+ years ago I started to deliberately learn and unpack my own role within society. This was the start of my journey, which would help me evolve into an ally in various ways.
Due to recent events and the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, there are many individuals getting started on that very same journey. Reflecting on exactly what social justice, systemic racism and privilege mean to you, while also becoming keenly aware of your role within these frameworks.
This process is going to bring up a lot of different questions and feelings. We are all witnessing and experiencing feelings of extreme discomfort, fragility, anxiousness, guilt, fear, embarrassment, anger and sadness. Belief systems that we’ve had about ourselves and our world are actively being challenged, and so it’s a time where we can easily feel overwhelmed.
Here’s the thing … that’s okay. There is nothing wrong with feeling any of the above. Also, feelings aren’t facts. I urge you to push through the discomfort and continue the journey — it’s so worthwhile. It will not only impact the state of your life, but also your home, your community and humanity as a whole.
Being an ally doesn’t happen overnight. I’ve made many mistakes along the way and wanted to share my learnings. These are real-life examples based on lessons learned, but rather than name names, I am providing tips which I hope help move you along in your journey.
1.Don’t blindly follow the hype or the most popular voices.
There are a lot of activists, organizations and performative allies out there. Research the individuals and organizations that you hope can teach you. Why? Because social justice work and activism is hard, grueling work — many of the most impactful, brilliant guides aren’t the most famous or most well-known. Dig a little. It makes all the difference. There are many individuals that take advantage — even more now that there is momentum. Go to people who have deep knowledge and are in it for the mission. How long have they been doing this work? How are they obtaining their ideas and credentials? Ensure that the voices guiding you on your journey are worthy of that trust.
2. Don’t add more work to the already oppressed.
Don’t start demanding an education from people of color (POC), Black friends or for that sake anyone who is in an oppressed group that you are aiming to be an ally for. Unless they offer to be your go-to, don’t give them that responsibility. Ultimately, it is not their job to fix this. It’s ours. A big caveat to this is also ensuring that you don’t ignore or minimize their voices or stories. Aim to learn and get your information from the source — meaning take the time to find activists within the group that want to guide you along your journey when at all possible. For example, while I know there are plenty of white and/or POC allies and activists, they ultimately are still working through a different lens than a Black American. They may understand systemic racism and they may be passionate about it, but they should never be front and center over the community you are aiming to be an ally for. Remember ultimately the goal of being an ally is to make space. Making space means that you remove yourself from the narrative. Do as much listening and learning as possible directly from the community being impacted first.
3. You’re going to get it wrong.
This journey is full of hiccups and mistakes. Unlearning something like this takes time, be patient. Systemic racism is deep and has hundreds of years of history woven into the thread of society. You can’t just figure it out and change yourself overnight. This will take time. Be accountable. Don’t beat yourself up too much when you make a mistake. The key is owning it and then committing to doing better. Apologize when you should and appreciate when someone brings something to your attention — they just helped you grow and understand something.
4. Don’t fake it. Don’t rush it.
Don’t think that by doing the work you’re ever going to be “cured” or 100% not racist. There will most likely always be some pieces of it present, whether unconscious bias, feelings or thought processes. That’s the reality. You will get better at being aware of it, you will get better at working toward addressing it each time. Rushing and/or faking it will hinder you and give you a false sense of achieving something. There is no “finish line.” This is going to be a continuous progressive effort for the foreseeable future.
5. Self-love is an integral ingredient to being an ally.
This kind of work or journey is grueling. It comes with some incredibly amazing feelings and moments, but it also triggers a lot of difficult conversations and emotions. Take the time to care for yourself through the process. You are making a commitment to something larger, and it can be easy to forget about yourself. Don’t! Take the time to decompress, to feel joy and happiness and rest. You are no good to the overall fight if you’re burnt out. Anyone who has ever done any form of activism or social justice work will tell you that it brings the most beautiful moments of humanity but also, at times, the worst. You don’t get to hide from either. You have to ensure you keep filling your tank up so you can keep pressing onward. You will be challenged every step of the way. As you grow, the impact of this work in your life and in your community becomes more and more rewarding. Being able to say you are part of changing, shifting and eliminating something that is evil is an immensely beautiful and worthy thing. Eventually, you learn how to balance and integrate it with your overall self and lifestyle. Until then, make sure you don’t run out of gas. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
There are other lessons but these five are by far the most universal, and the ones which I lean into the most often throughout my growth and my journey. I hope they bring you some encouragement and perspective. I hope they inspire you to join me. If you’re still not sure where to start, I suggest considering the YWCA 21-Day Racial Equity & Social Justice Challenge. rbb has a team so you can register and join our team or start one of your own.
I am still a work in progress and constantly pushing forth in various ways, but I always welcome feedback and connection. I also have an arsenal of books, documentaries and resources that I am happy to share with you. So, if you want to chat, let’s chat. I’m here.