On Allyship

I’ve seen a lot lately criticizing allyship.  I have seen a lot of posts crop up on tumblr referring to “allies”, in quotations, as if such people don’t truly exist.  I’ve heard people talk about the idea that allies are bad or useless or don’t belong in movements.

As someone who considers herself to be an ally, I figured I’d say a couple words on this.

Allyship is a complicated issue, because it doesn’t mean you get to say “this is my movement”, but rather, “I support this movement”.  For example, my identity doesn’t fall within the LGBTQQIA spectrum: I am a straight, cisgendered female.  But I support LGBT individuals and I support the movement to promote their rights and well-being within society, so yes, I would consider myself an ally.

As far as I can tell, there are a two major things that are at the core of allyship, and they are:

#1: You can’t speak FOR the people you are standing WITH.

Look, I am not a person of color, I don’t live below the poverty line, and as previously mentioned, I don’t fall under the LGBTQQIA umbrella.  This means I don’t get to speak for those communities.  I don’t get to tell you what it is like to be within those communities or try to apply my own lived experiences to the experiences of persons within those communities.  That’s not being an ally, that’s whitewashing the stories of women of color, or speaking over the voices of other marginalized persons.  I don’t get to say that certain issues-~-disabled issues, racial issues, income issues, etc.-~-don’t belong in discourses on social issues, including discourses on feminism.  Those voices do deserve a place in the feminist movement.

And I think that matters, because as a feminist, I do think those voices absolutely NEED to be heard if we’re going to achieve real equality.  The voices of women of color need to be brought into conversations on rights and protections under the law.  Our conversations about gender based violence and reproductive justice need to include more perspectives about ableism and the ways that disabled persons are impacted by these issues. Any discussion we have about fair pay, access to education, or equal opportunity has to include the voices of women who live in poverty and who struggle with issues that middle and upper class women have not necessarily lived with.  These voices matter, and I want to believe that I can in fact acknowledge that.

Which brings us to…

#2: You should be supporting the work already happening within those movements.

There are a couple ways that allies can do this that can actually be productive.  First, allies need to be willing to check our own privilege and accept that our lived experiences are not generalizable to other groups.  I am cis, which means that my lived reality does not match that of a trans* person.  That doesn’t make their reality less legitimate or less important or less relevant, it just makes it different, and that’s something that activists need to acknowledge in order to support other movements and to make their own movements more accessible.

Second, allies need to join with activists within the movement in drawing attention to the issues, by supporting those who are already doing meaningful work.  Able-bodied feminists do need to draw attention to disability rights and disability issues related to feminism, and we need to amplify the voices of disability rights activists who are speaking from within the community, who are experts on the issues, who have lived these stories and are trying to tell them.  This means sharing stories and reblogging posts and pointing people to important articles and events and books and conferences and helping to drum up noise about issues.  Even if they aren’t our issues.  Before Sandra Fluke gave a speech at my school last year about immigration as a feminist issue, I had never really thought about it.  She may not be an immigrant, but her willingness to talk about the issues and to amplify the voices of immigrant women who were already fighting for immigration reform that addressed their issues helped women like me realize that these WERE issues we needed to be fighting for.

Third, allies need to be ready to do research and point out problems where they encounter them.  I honestly don’t know enough about every issue to speak authoritatively about it, which means that before I start formulating opinions or calling people out on things, I should probably be educating myself.  In a day and age where internet is publicly accessible, this seems like a pretty reasonable expectation.  But allies also need to be ready to point out when people are being offensive or incorrect.  I’m sick of people saying that allies are standing by and saying that “everyone’s opinions are valid”.  Sorry, but if you support a rights-based movement, then those who are opposing giving people their rights may in fact not have a valid opinion.  If your opinion is that gay people should be put to death, I’m sorry, but I’m going to disagree with you.  I guess you have a “right” to that opinion, but you don’t have the right to impose it on the rest of us, and frankly, I’m going to say you’re wrong.

Fourth-~-and I know you’re probably tired of my psuedo lecture by now but I promise, this is the end-~-is this: allies need to make sure that they don’t try to take over or subsume a movement.  Our presence and our work can’t be made to be more important than the work done by members of a marginalized community.  I truly believe that allies can play a useful and positive role in helping to support movements to alleviate and end marginalization and oppression, but only if we recognize that we’ve been cast in supporting roles, that we are not the lead in this case.  I’m proud to say I stand with the LGBTQQIA movement.  I’m proud to say I stand for comprehensive reproductive justice.  I’m proud to say I believe in intersectional feminism, and in disability rights, and in a society that actually cares about its most vulnerable members.  But I don’t for a second believe that the work done by my white, straight, able-bodied self is more important than the work done by activists within those communities.  I do believe, however, that if I am willing to acknowledge that fact-~-if I am ready to check my privilege and to put ahead of my own voice the voices of those who are speaking from experience and expertise-~then I can hopefully be a positive reflection of good work already being done.  If we are all willing to play appropriate roles in this work, maybe we can all actually be productive, make some headway, and really make some change.


~ by Randi Saunders on December 18, 2013.

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