In my last blog, I wrote about why allyship is essential to advance the common good and create a world that works better for everyone. I described how allyship has been key to progress and social movements, and how all of us can, and should be, allies to movements we as “dominants” don’t personally benefit from — on the surface. I discussed how we must break binary thinking — “either-or”, “us-them” — and learn to be better allies ourselves, or as “nondominants” to accept and work with allies more effectively.
What I didn’t cover was how to do this. Here are a few strategies allies can use to be better at allyship. Next time, I will discuss how nondominants can partner more effectively with allies.
Be clear about your intent. Are you looking for praise or acceptance from those on whose behalf you’re fighting? Are you trying to heal your guilt? To look or feel like a good person? Nondominant group members will see right through you, and you will be disappointed. As one LGBT friend put it: “No one is here to congratulate you on not being a dick.” Find a compelling purpose that fuels you outside of anyone’s approval: alignment with your values, positive effect on people you love, creating the kind of world you want your children to live in, or building the kind of society where you yourself can be at your best.
Listen to feedback. Ask nondominants what you can do as an ally; don’t assume. Request feedback and accountability. Be ready for feedback even when you don’t expect it, didn’t ask for it and don’t like the form it’s coming in. When your intent or impact are called into question, don’t start by explaining your good intentions or justifying your behavior — start by acknowledging and repairing the damage you did, however unintentionally. Avoid going to a place of shame or counterattacking. Your good intentions are an excellent starting place, but they’re not enough by themselves. Communicate openness, curiosity and gratitude about feedback; think about it; incorporate any necessary changes into your behavior; and move on.
Learn. Educate yourself. Be curious and mindful about how the quantity and content of your questions might feel invasive to nondominants. Learn more than the most superficial information presented in the media about a non-dominant group’s experience or challenges. For instance, most transgender people’s experience is a far cry from Caitlyn Jenner’s, and many straight people don’t know it’s still legal to fire someone for being LGBT. Learn the words and language that are appropriate and not appropriate, and why.
Act. Be courageous. Take risks. Make mistakes. Learn from mistakes. Put your foot in your mouth. Be a work in progress. Apologize. Refuse to apologize. Refuse to back down. Take a stand and do the right thing, even when you know no one from the non-dominant group will notice or give you credit. Do something substantial and meaningful — just paying lip service to a movement, then showing up at the after party claiming others’ struggle and symbols as your own comes across as disingenuous at best and downright oppressive at worst to nondominants. Be “more invested in LGBT liberation than just slapping a rainbow on something and thinking that your work is done.” Same goes for racial issues.
Don’t expect gratitude or comfort. It’s not the job of nondominant groups to thank you, comfort you, educate you, or take care of you. Some will. Every group is diverse; there is no one monolithic opinion in any one community. Others will never acknowledge, understand or appreciate your efforts or contributions. But if you’re clear about your intent, that won’t matter. As one friend said, “Our lives are at stake here, and having to stop and clap every time you act like a decent human being takes away from the real work.”
Build your resilience. Learn to tolerate discomfort. Learn to hold others’ anger, even with you. Learn to hear others’ pain without needing to change, shut down or fix them or their feelings. They are not broken; sometimes just witnessing their truth is enough. Learn to listen with understanding and compassion. Learn to tolerate ambiguity and mixed messages. Learn to tolerate feeling incompetent. Learn to manage your own emotions and choose behaviors more mindfully. Learn to take more things less personally. Learn to be in it for the long haul.
Be the change. Keep your eye and your heart on your intent. If you want a world where everyone is heard, respected, celebrated and included, model those behaviors in how you communicate with nondominants, other allies, and even those who disagree with you or hate you for your commitment.