An ally is a person who actively supports and participates in struggles against systems of oppression. They are usually part of a dominant or privileged group. This privilege can be based on race, gender, culture, sexuality, class, etc. An ally works against these privileges by supporting the work of non-dominant groups. They understand that learning about yourself as a member of a dominant group is an important starting point for being an ally.1
Allies recognise the unearned privilege they receive from society’s patterns of injustice and take responsibility for changing these patterns. Allies include men who work to end sexism, white people who work to end racism, heterosexual people who work to end heterosexism, able-bodied people who work to end ableism, and so on. An ally understands that as part of an oppressor/dominant group they did not individually create the power dynamic they benefit from, and they cannot just solve it by acting out of goodwill. They understand that they must act with others to contribute to change. They believe that to do nothing is to reinforce the status quo; not to decide is to decide; if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.2
Ann Bishop, in her book ‘Becoming an Ally’ says that allies are distinguished by the following characteristics:
- their sense of connection with other people, all other people
- their grasp of the concept of social structures and collective responsibility
- their lack of an individualistic stance and ego, although they have a strong sense of self
- their sense of process and change
- their understanding of their own process of learning and realistic sense of their own power
- their grasp of “power-with” as an alternative to “power over”
- their honesty, openness, and lack of shame about their own limitations
- their knowledge and sense of history
- their acceptance of struggle
- their understanding that good intentions do not matter if there is no action against oppression
- their knowledge of their own roots and background
How to be an ally?
There is no one way to be an ally. You will have to decide how to act as an ally, but there are a number things that you should keep in mind before you begin:
- The experience of being part of a dominant group is hidden from you. This is part of the ‘invisible knapsack of privilege’
- You need to hear the experiences of people who are part of non-dominant groups and analyse things. You cannot see oppression as clearly as people from non-dominant groups – this can be an unsettling feeling.
- The process of working against the privileges of being part of a dominant group can be difficult and painful because it means you must accept an often shameful history that you’ve inherited
- One must balance the individual and collective dimensions of oppression. Individual feelings of guilt do not inspire action against oppression. It is important to keep in mind that oppression works on a collective or structural level. Try not to over-personalise struggles against oppression, power and privilege.
Here are some suggestions to guide you on your way to becoming an ally:3
- Learn, reflect on, and understand the patterns and effects of oppression, take action with others, and take risks
- Work with members of your own group and help them understand oppression and make links with other forms of oppression
- Listen to members of the group you want to act as an ally with, and reflect on what you hear
- Remember that everyone in the dominant group is part of the oppression. Oppressive attitudes and systems are part of the air we breathe. It is inescapable. For this reason, members of a dominant group cannot claim that they are not sexist if they are men or not racist if they are white. Undoing oppression is an ongoing process. When someone, for example, claims that they are not racist, you know that they have barely begun the process of unlearning their privilege. Someone who has gone down the road of confronting racism will understand that this work is ongoing and they will claim that they are anti-racist rather than non-racist.
- After accepting that every member of a dominant group is part of the oppression, try not to feel that you are a ‘bad’ person. Instead of feeling guilt for one’s history, take on the responsibility of changing systems of oppression!
- Keep in mind that as a member of a dominant group you are unable to see the oppression as clearly as members of a non-dominant group can. When someone points out your oppressive attitudes or language to you, your first response should be to believe it (i.e. listen and do not become defensive). Think about, reflect on and learn more about the oppression taking place in that particular situation. Try not to become defensive. Instead, use it as an opportunity to learn.
- List your privileges and help others see them. Reveal the invisibility of privilege.
- When you hear an oppressive comment or see an example of oppression at work, school, anywhere, be the first one to speak up and don’t wait for a member of the non-dominant group to speak up first.
- Avoid thinking that you ‘know what is good for them’. Do not take leadership. Members of non-dominant groups will know what they need and can develop their own leadership to strengthen their organisations.
- Do not take public attention or credit for a non- dominant group’s process of liberation. Refuse to act as a spokesperson. News reporters may be interested in speaking to you because they are more comfortable with you or curious about you. Only speak in public if members of a non-dominant group ask you to speak from your point of view as an ally or because speaking out will be dangerous for them.
- Do not homogenise non-dominant groups. There are disagreements and differences within non-dominants groups just as there are differences within dominant groups. There is never complete agreement in any group or community – always expect debate and discussions on ideas and issues in all groups.
- Learn as much as you can about the oppression. Your ignorance is part of the oppression. Members of a non-dominant group will not necessarily have the time, interest and energy to teach and answer your questions, so do some self-education.
- Work with other members of your own group to unlearn the process of oppression. Share ideas and strategies around being an ally and avoid taking over the voice of non-dominant groups.
- Do not expect members of non-dominant groups to provide emotional support in your work as an ally. They have their own struggles on which to focus their energies.
- Assume that oppression is everywhere, every day. Be aware of who is at the centre of attention and who is at the centre of power. Notice how oppression is denied, minimized and justified. Again, learn about histories of oppression and understand the connections between forms of oppression.
- Do not be surprised if you are confronted with hostility (from non-dominant groups). There is a reason for this – think about your role in causing this to happen.
How to Educate Yourself About Anti-oppression4
- Find relevant books, classes, websites, mailing lists, movies, etc.
- Go to the source and read books written by people who represent these issues through their own experience.
- Listen to a variety of voices.
- Share the knowledge you have and the knowledge you’ve been given about anti-oppression
- Go the distance! Chances to increase personal awareness don’t always just come to you. Be proactive to find the information you need.
- Don’t be judgmental – have compassion when people make mistakes.
- Push yourself to act and push your boundaries. Challenge and allow yourself to be challenged.
- Explore power and oppression in all aspects of your life.
- Be involved in groups that deal with and confront issues of oppression.
- Don’t try to make others educate you – take responsibility for yourself.
- Find people you can discuss these issues with and seek a diversity of opinions.
- Take time to help yourself – this is tough work!
- Be honest with yourself.
- Know where you stand on these issues but also don’t be afraid to say that you don’t know.
- Think critically about the world around you.
3From the Green Justice Guide, compiled from Ann Bishop and Paul Kivel
4Amplify, p. 191