On Being an Ally or, I CAN Breathe

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be an ally.

Allies, of course, can be found in all kinds of movements; there are white allies and straight allies, male allies and upper class allies. And allies serve an important role – even if you don’t face a certain type of oppression directly, you have, I believe, an obligation to recognize and work against that oppression.

But being an ally is also complicated.

Complicated, but not that complicated. It’s complicated the way every day life is complicated. The way it’s complicated when someone asks how they look in an outfit, or its complicated when you move from “dating” to “exclusive.”

It’s complicated because social interactions are complicated.

I wonder how complicated being an ally would seem if we were all more used to talking about issues of discrimination and oppression. It would still be complicated, I imagine, but perhaps not paralyzingly complicated.

I heard a white man on TV the other day frustratedly complain that he wasn’t sure whether he was supposed to use the term “African American” or if it was okay to call somebody “black.” I just don’t know what you people want me to say! he exclaimed.

I think it was at “you people” where he really went wrong.

Being an ally is full of tension. It’s full of competing concerns and changing expectations. And that’s okay –

Life is full of tension.

As an ally, you should defer to the leadership of those most directly affected. You should be mindful of your power and privilege and do everything possible not to exert that power over others. You should listen, you should learn, and you should engage in the ways you are asked to.

But as an ally, you can’t let the work of speaking out always fall to those most directly affected. You should be the one raising questions of equity. You should be the one pointing to areas that need to change. You should be the one pushing the envelope and speaking out.

On the surface, it sounds like those things can’t co-exist – how can you simultaneously defer leadership and lead the charge?

It’s possible, I believe. And it’s complicated, but not that complicated.

Listen and learn, speak up and fight. Do the best you can, but always know you will make mistakes. Do your best to encourage those around you to point out those mistakes. Do your best to learn from those mistakes and do your best to help others learn from those mistakes as well.

It’s a journey for all of us.

In the wake of the recent grand jury decisions, I’ve been faced with some specific questions about what it means to be an ally.

Should a white person participate in a die-in about police killings of African Americans? Should a white person gesture “don’t shoot”? Should a white person yell, “I CAN’T BREATHE!”?

I’m not sure there’s a universal answer to these question, but doing the above doesn’t feel quite right to me.

I CAN breathe. Police are unlikely to shoot me without repercussions. I am white. That comes with privileges, and claiming too much understanding of things I don’t experience is inappropriate.

I am not Trayvon Martin.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t fight. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t fight. It just means my role in the fight is different, just as my experience in the world is different.

I don’t know if the word “ally” is too passive, I don’t know if a more active word would abuse too much power.

But I do know I have a responsibility to speak up and to speak out. I know I have a responsibility to do so in a way that is respectful of all people. I know there’s not a secret activist etiquette handbook, and I know I will make mistakes along the way.

I know I will do my best to apologize for those mistakes, and I know I will resolve to do better next time.

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