This past weekend, I had the privilege of spending a few days with the folks at the 2014 Christianity 21 Conference in Denver, CO. Along with some truly gifted thinkers and theologies, I was one of the 21 main speakers tasked with bringing a “big idea” to the event. The only requirement was that whatever idea I brought, it not be one that I had presented on before. Now, I have lots of ideas . . . mostly little ones that will never see the light of day, but I eventually settled on talking about the nature of being an Ally, more specifically, #AGoodAlly.
This group tends to be White, liberal-ish, justice minded, educated and from a mix of Christian traditions. I am friends with many of these folks and, while not always agreeing, appreciate the genuine nature with which faith, church and life are faced. Because this is a crowd that I feel comfortable being part of, I also wanted to push a bit on how I have seen them, us, myself behave when in the position of being an Ally.
As I have shared before, I am a bit uncomfortable with the term Ally in the fight for justice in the world and the church when it comes to issues of race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. As we have seen time and time again, even the best seasoned allies can get into trouble. We overstep our bounds, we overestimate our rolls, we flat out have meltdowns that eviscerate years of good will and we inadvertently add to and exacerbate the marginalization and exclusion that has drawn us to the struggle in the first place. What often begins as a welcomed gesture of solidarity between allies and the oppressed, seems too often to end up with us “allies” and those we are trying to support battling one another.
To be clear, I am not dismissing or discounting the role that Allies play in fight against injustice, marginalization and oppression for I firmly believe that all movements towards justice must be enacted across many lines of privilege and experience. People need to speak out within their communities, stand up against norms that they have been part of and step out of their places of comfort if they are truly committed to supporting marginalized communities.
Allies are crucial.
Allyhood is also as diverse as the communities to which we belong. In one case I may be the ally to a community (male to female) and in another I may need allies to stand with the community to which I belong (White to Asian). There is no ONE way to be a good ally.
That said, I think there may be some things that we can all keep on mind as we find ourselves of the Ally side of a struggle. So from my own experience and observations of the best and worst of Ally action, I would like to offer 10 postures, approaches and tips that I believe #AGoodAlly embodies and enacts.
#AGoodAlly uses the ally label sparingly; it is better to earn the title from others than to claim it for yourself. [Tweet it!]
When someone calls him/herself an “ally” I cringe just a bit. I don’t cringe because I doubt the intention or motivation behind claiming the label, but because, when used too often, it can begin to sound like a “if you have to tell us how awesome you are, then you are probably not all that awesome” kind of thing. I generally err on the side of NOT using it unless some from the group I am supporting uses it.
#AGoodAlly doesn’t make the struggle about them or fetishize oppression to feel part of the struggle. [Tweet it!]
Yes, the journey to supporting a group has been difficult. We have had to confront lifelong beliefs and, if it has not already begun friends, family and community have begun to question our state of mind at best and have ostracized us at worst. And while I do not want to diminish what allies going through, we must be careful not to trumpet our own suffering too loudly. You see, for many folks who need our support, LGBTQ, women, people of color, our suffering, ostracization and struggle most often pales in comparison to what they face for a lifetime.
#AGoodAlly knows when and where their voice needs to be heard — or not heard. [Tweet it!]
There will always be times when an ally must speak to his/her own family or community; but we must be careful that the ally voice does not become the default voice for the struggle when the realities of any struggle are best shared by those who experience the struggle in the first place. Allies must both speak for those who cannot speak for themselves while simultaneously working to create space where those voices can be heard in person.
#AGoodAlly knows that one cannot fully know and understand the struggles of the othered. [Tweet it!]
The “honorary [insert marginalized group here]” title is thrown around a good deal both by those who come from particular communities as well as those of us who want to be connected to them. Allies must be careful not to overstep the bounds of understanding. In our yearning to be compassionate we try to place ourselves in the other’s shoes, which is good; but not to the point where we claim, “We know what it like to be . . .” because allies by their very nature and possessing the ability to choose to be allied to a struggle for justice, can move in and out of the realm of struggle.
#AGoodAlly does not see struggle as a game to win, but as a lifelong commitment to solidarity and justice. [Tweet it!]
There will be times when it will feel like we are in a “no-win” situation, being challenged by the community we are trying to support as well as communities that we are trying to challenge. This is to be expected and it will feel unfair and overwhelming. But . . . if we fall into the idea that the main purpose of being an “ally” is to somehow attain a personal victory then we are only doing it to somehow elevate our own sense of self, which, if we believe that part of being an ally is confronting our own privilege, then ending up at the top of the medal stand should be the the last reason that we are allies in the first place.
#AGoodAlly doesn’t take everything personally and understands the insidious nature of institutional injustice. [Tweet it!]
If some of you have followed the twitter hashtags like #blackprivilege #notyourasiansidekick or #everydaysexism you would not be human if you didn’t feel the urge to respond with, “But not all X are like that” or “But I am not like that” or otherwise try to discount the idea and reality of institutional realities. While we may not always like or agree with what is being said, sometimes sweeping generalizations need to be expressed in order to understand the sweeping nature of institutional exclusion.
#AGoodAlly takes some things personally and knows that being an ally does not purge a lifetime of privilege. [Tweet it!]
Being an ally does not mean that all of a sudden we are devoid of any or all of the things that put us in the position of being able to choose to be an ally in the first place. Our positions of dominance be it gender, racism, ability, sexuality, etc., whether we want them to or not, continually play a role in perpetuating institutional injustices. With this in mind, we must able to name our own personal contributions to injustice and embrace the lifelong challenge to mitigate the negative effects of that privilege.
#AGoodAlly welcomes other allies and understands the power of diverse strategies and partners. [Tweet it!]
One of the dangers, especially for allies who have some public recognition, is that we acts as if we have been crowned THE designated and head ally for struggle X be it LGBTQ inclusion the church, race relations, sexism, etc. This gets played out in “you’re either with us or you’re against us” rhetoric around particular campaigns (usually out own) or condescension towards people who are new to the struggle, are unknown or are not deemed to hold any strategic value. Allies must be able to work together which includes welcoming new allies, supporting a variety of strategies and holding one another accountable so that we do not make this about us.
#AGoodAlly avoids saviorism and constantly reflects upon their role and place in the larger struggle. [Tweet it!]
This might be the most important of them all. Sometimes in our vigor and passion to fight injustice, we fall into the trap of saviorhood. The male that fights for women’s rights, the straight/CIS person who advocates for LGBTQ people, the White person confronting racism. I have no doubt that most begin with great intentions, but as we have seen over and over again, when unchecked and unreflective, even the most passionate and well-meaning person can being to suppress and oppress the very voices that we set out to support. Again, we must not buy into the idea that it is through our privilege that we will save an entire people, but it is through the deconstruction of that privilege that a people can be liberated from injustice.
#AGoodAlly expects no medals or accolades for doing that which should be done all along. Everyone wants to feel appreciated. [Tweet it!]
We all know that an occasional “thank you for for what you do” feels good. That said, one of the biggest dangers that allies face is to feel as though we somehow deserve recognition for standing with and speaking out on behalf of marginalized communities. This comes out most when we are critiqued and we and our defenders respond, with some version of , “…but look what Ally X has done for the struggle” or “look what I have done for the struggle” as if we not only get a “pass” on being criticized, but should be given an award for even being in the struggle in the first place. When we begin to demand respect and recognition for living in a way that ought to be the norm, we again, lift our own lives over and above those with whom we claim solidarity. So, while there must always be room for grace and forgiveness when we do get a little full of ourselves, allies must find affirmation in ways that don’t require us to be at the center of it all.
Now of course these are just a few tips and there are no doubt countless helpful ideas that may be influenced by personal contexts and the particularities of issue. To effectively stand in genuine solidarity with communities of struggle, we allies must always be self-reflective about our roles while simultaneously being sensitive the needs of the communities that we are trying to support. So in the end, no matter the struggles that we may face in choosing to ally with those impacted by the injustices of the world, if we are committed to a world that is just, reconciling and whole, we will always strive to be #AGoodAlly.
If you have more tips, please leave them here or use the #AGoodAlly hashtag on twitter. And again, if you would like to see, use and liberate the slides, feel free.