Allyship refers to any white person who acknowledges racial issues in their life and works to deconstruct these issues in life and listens to those whose lives have been affected by racial discrimination. It is not an identity but rather an ongoing and multifaceted process.
When I first got involved in demonstrations across Pittsburgh, I often didn’t understand my role as a white ally and was often afraid to ask. Luckily, as I became more and more familiar with my role in and around the city, I began to understand the basics of being an ally. While I still have a long way to go in my role as an ally, here are some basic steps I learned in my journey that will hopefully get you on your own path to allyship.
Listen to Understand, not to Respond
The idea of listening to other populations as an ally can go a surprisingly long way. Of course, not only does it matter that we are listening, but it is also important to understand WHY we listen. Oftentimes I think it becomes the case that conversations about discrimination are looked at as a two-way conversation: one where both sides have an equal perspective on the same idea. I think this is true to an extent, but it should go without saying that allies never truly understand the experiences observed by populations who face systemic oppression. Because of this, we want to listen more for the sake of understanding others and less for the sake of responding to others. In this way, we also want to acknowledge that we don’t know everything and apologize when we get things wrong. While we don’t see these things the same way as our friends who face systemic oppression, any step in trying to understand discrimination is a step in the right direction.
This is perhaps a more abstract concept, but it absolutely still has its place in allyship. Marginalized populations often act as our primary way of understanding the issues surrounding our communities today, but that doesn’t mean that they are here solely as a resource for our understanding. Look at it this way: if the conversations you have with your friends of color and LGBT+ friends only surround you asking them about issues they have on a daily basis, you’re not taking their comfort or respect into mind. While members of marginalized communities are often glad to have these conversations with you, this isn’t always the case, so you need to understand that they’re not here solely to enlighten you on these issues. You need to be able to see the value in them not just as members of these populations, but as individuals who have their own interests, opinions, and needs. By doing so, we indicate that we respect the individual and their own mental health and safety, and prove that we value them not just as the token member of their population but as coworkers, classmates, and friends.
Understand that it’s Not About You
As allies, we lack the experiences needed to truly understand the black experience, or the trans experience, or any other experience kept by marginalized populations. And that’s okay. What is more valuable is for you to act in solidarity with them and to take part in undoing systemic practices that disproportionately affect them. Your experiences are valuable, but ultimately, you come from at least some perspective of privilege. Therefore, you should approach conversations, demonstrations, and other related actions with the understanding that it’s not about you. It’s about helping those who are worse off. It’s about understanding others. And, most importantly, it’s about change. In this understanding, we help show that we are here for.
Pay Attention to the World Around You
This generally is just good advice to follow in day to day life, but it applies doubly as an ally. Every day, more and more things happen in our country, in our government, and in the world. Paying attention to these things as they happen and understanding how these things affect people is a great way to stay up-to-date on the problems affecting your community today.
To that end, I would also encourage allies to take in information from as many sources as possible and to not be pigeonholed into one or two sources. Always look for quality information, and if you’re getting information from the news, try to find multiple news sources on the same topic to filter out as much bias as possible.
Take Care of Your Mental Health!
This may sound somewhat counterintuitive, but I still think it’s an important thing to keep in mind. Social justice areas are a LOT of work and can be particularly draining both as a person who faces discrimination and as an ally. Just as people of color and the LGBT+ population are not here solely to help us understand these issues, we too, must try to take some time to do things that aren’t explicitly related to social justice. Taking a few days off to spend time with friends, taking part in a hobby, or frankly doing any non-political thing is a great way to avoid burnout.
Put simply, there is a lot that goes into allyship. Looking back at this writing, there was a lot of information that I could have included but couldn’t simply for the sake of time or lack of experience. The good news, however, is that allyship comes in many different forms, and just by searching “white allyship” or any similar term online results in hundreds of thousands of articles surrounding the topic. It could literally take a lifetime to learn all of the ins and outs of allyship, so going slow, trying to do the right thing, and understanding your mistakes are all keys in helping people who face discrimination on a daily basis.