The Practice of Allyship

A photo from above seven people standing in a circle, with their hand placed in the center in a gesture of teamwork. They are standing on top of grass and the skin on their arms is a variety of skin tones.

This blog post was originally published as a subscriber-only article entitled “Yopp’s Guide to Being an Awesome Ally,” at the beginning of January 2020. I decided to share it more widely because it was such valuable information and I also updated it as my opinions and understanding of allyship had shifted over the years. 

CN: broad discussion of oppression

I once saw a post from someone somewhat new to social activism saying he wished there was something like the safety pin or “black lives matter” or LGBT’s rainbow that was sort of a universal symbol for supporting progressive causes and being an ally for, well everything. I told him that the universal symbol for allyship is behavior– if you consistently engage in behavior that supports marginalized groups, in both public and private, without an expectation of repayment, then you’ll slowly earn the trust of the marginalized people around you and become known as “a good ally.” That was not the answer he was looking for.

The truth is, the word “ally” leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of many activists and there’s a very simple reason for that. In practice, the word “ally” is often used as an identity you use to label yourself with, with the implication that once you identify as an ally, no further work is required to maintain that title. The prevailing belief is that as long as you call yourself an ally, you are one. There are a few problems with this framing of the concept of allyship:

The Problem with “Allies”

Unlike the many labels used to describe marginalized identities, you do not determine whether or not you can be considered trustworthy around people from marginalized groups you are not a member of. That trust is earned over time, individually and collectively, and can be lost at any time. Allyship is not a badge awarded to you by someone more marginalized than you on a single occasion to be worn forever, and it definitely is not an award you can give yourself. When you say, “I am an ally,” you are already misunderstanding the actions involved in being one. Allyship is an internal practice, not a public persona.

In social justice, it can be easy to think in terms of “rules” that you need to follow and this is a particularly common pitfall within the process of learning to be an ally. But rules require an external source of enforcement and an external source of judgment on whether or not you are following them. It is not marginalized people’s job to grade you on your performance or sentence you to community service when you slip up.

The concept of “allyship” can better be understood as a set of agreements you make with yourself with regards to how you will change and work on your behavior toward marginalized groups, and your awareness of your impact on others as you move through society. These are agreements you must negotiate with yourself, assess whether or not you are meeting them with yourself, and enforce for yourself.

To get you started, here is my list of suggestions for agreements to make with yourself if you wish to enter into the practice of allyship. These agreements are relevant whether you are brand new to social justice or if you have been engaged in the world of activism for many years already.

1. Continually Reset Your Understanding of the World Around You

One of the greatest challenges of furthering social justice causes is that the realities that vulnerable groups face are not reflected accurately in our school systems or in our media. Growing up, we are taught many things about how our society works that aren’t true and we are protected from the harsh realities of problems that don’t affect us. When you’re beginning to learn about social justice, you’ll find out a lot you didn’t know, much of which will sound too terrible to be true. You’ll hear, “Society has taught you…” about things you thought were just the way things are. You will need to be willing to release your preconceived notions and assumptions about the world you live in and make space for new information to come in.  

It’s also very likely that you will have to do this over and over again. You may start to feel as if you understand a certain topic well and have a general sense of the issues that impact a specific group. But if you assume you know everything, you will be unable to notice the bodies of knowledge you don’t yet have, and you will be unable to update your information as it changes with time.

2. Be Comfortable with Discomfort

As an ally, you are going to discover the existence of society-wide problems that have been impacting millions of innocent people for hundreds of years, through no fault of their own; problems that are fixable and yet no one has fixed them. You are going to unearth many ongoing tragedies and dark realities. Prior to doing this work, society offered you the option of ignoring these tragedies, but the work requires you to no longer look away.

While making a positive impact on the world is rewarding, you will spend a lot of time in your learning process managing feelings of grief, fear, anger, and guilt. Handling those feelings is part of what you sign up for when you commit to being an ally. Finding out just how awful marginalized groups have it should be upsetting. You will have a much easier time if you go into allyship with the expectation that what you’re learning is likely to be unpleasant and difficult to hear and if you come prepared with tools to manage the resulting uncomfortable emotions.

In a high school classroom, there are seven kids sitting at their desks, taking notes and listening to the teacher standing in front of them. The teacher is a black man with a bald head, black glasses, a salmon button up shirt, and grey pants. The desks are arranged in a curve around him.

3. Listen to Marginalized People

As you’ll learn deeper in, the perspectives of marginalized people are underrepresented and underpromoted in media, and even if they do make it onto mainstream platforms, we’re taught to dismiss what they have to say. But marginalized people will have the most true-to-life perspectives on the issues that affect them. Not only do they possess in-depth personal experience that you do not, but an elaborate system of social patterns and institutional structures have actually hidden their problems from you. This means that even years into your social justice journey, you will still be learning about new aspects of racism or sexism or transphobia that you never knew existed. Your primary and most trustworthy source of information should always be the marginalized people that are impacted by a given issue.

In your listening practices, it’s good to watch out for two common pitfalls: 

  1. Trust marginalized people to report on their own issues accurately. Society has most likely taught you to subconsciously doubt their ability to correctly identify and communicate the issues they face. Replace the impulse to downplay their experience with giving the benefit of the doubt to marginalized people discussing issues unfamiliar to you. 
  2. Listen more than you talk. The fewer societal problems you’ve faced in life, the more you have been encouraged to speak your mind freely. Quiet your thoughts and opinions and switch from output mode to input mode: absorb what’s being communicated to you without commenting on it. 

4. Receive Criticism Gracefully

When you walk into a whole world of knowledge you never knew existed, it’s only natural that you are going to make mistakes and unfortunately, the consequences of your ignorance are likely to fall on marginalized people. It’s important to keep in mind that, while this mistake is brand new to you, you are just one of hundreds of other people that have harmed them in the same way. As a result, you may not receive the patience and forgiveness from them that you’d hope you’d get when you mess up. When (not if) you are called out for a mistake, or you see a marginalized person expressing anger towards people like you (such as a black person complaining, “Why do white people always have to….”), try not to take it personally.

A banner ad for Kella's Etsy shop demonstrating social justice themed products: A brown apron covered in little baking illustrations and the words "Bake the world a better place," a sticker with five colorful intersecting circles and the words "The future is intersectional", a pink mug with a pair of ice cream cones making the shape of a heart and the text "you could never be ice cream you're too hot and a person."

It’s okay to feel upset or angry in the face of direct criticism but these are emotions you’ll want to handle on your own, not with the person calling you out, and not with other marginalized people. Practice holding space for their anger or if you can’t, walk away from the interaction so that you can cool down and manage your emotions privately. 

You can read more about receiving criticism and handling the news that you have unintentionally harmed someone in this article.

5. Approach New Information with Curiosity

When someone tells you that you’re wrong, it’s very difficult to immediately accept that you might, in fact, be wrong. It’s a very human thing to feel as if you’re under a physical threat of attack when you find out you’re wrong, which makes you fight back instead of using this new information to move forward. But it’s crucial that you learn the skill of being wrong without becoming defensive. Mistakes and ignorance are inevitable during your learning process. And social justice evolves so quickly that what you learned a few years ago could be outdated now.

You will be wrong. A lot. If you find that your goal is to always be right, replace it with the goal to always be learning new information. Approach contradictions to your knowledge base with the curiosity of a scientist: “That’s new information to me. I clearly need to expand my knowledge base on this topic. Would you be willing to tell me more?” 

A close-up of a collection of small, wooden figurines that have no features and are meant to represent people. There is one bright blue figure at the front, and the rest of the figures are white and appear to be following the blue figure.

6. Be Prepared to Follow and Let Go of Leading

If you feel inspired by a cause that impacts groups you are not a member of, that’s amazing! It can be easy to hear the rousing cry of established activists and want to offer your own version. But when you work on behalf of a different marginalized group, you will do the most good if you follow and support the leaders that group already has, rather than trying to become a leader yourself. You may have great ideas about how to shape activism (or your ideas might be terrible, it’ll take time to get a solid assessment of that) but if you’re new to a movement, you should not expect to lead the army or to give tactical advice to the general. You are a foot soldier. You are absolutely necessary for the movement’s success, and the decisions about the direction of the movement are not yours to make. 

7. Don’t Conflate Behavior with Identity

If someone has ever told you that something you did was sexist or racist, it’s easy for your first response to be, “I’m not a racist!” because truly, the majority of us don’t identify as racists. But racism and sexism and all the other isms aren’t a fundamental state of being, they are a type of behavior that have a negative impact on people of color/women/other marginalized groups, regardless of the intentions or ignorance behind the action. This distinction is a good thing because you can’t change an inherent condition. You can change your behaviors.

If something you did was racist/sexist/____ist, try reframing from “I am a racist” to “That was a racist action.” If you can set aside the idea of being a fundamentally good or bad person, it will be easier to adjust specific actions without feeling like your identity as a “good person” is being threatened. The same goes for if you hear about a favorite public figure of yours doing something “problematic.” If you focus on the behavior instead of the person as a whole, you can recognize that they’ve made a mistake and have room for improvement without feeling the pressure to immediately dismiss them and their work completely. 

8. Utilize the Power You Have

One of the best ways you can help people who are marginalized in a way that you are not is to act as a megaphone for them. If you’re not impacted by many forms of marginalization, there’s a good chance that you have much more influence over the opinions of the people around you than you think you do. Whether your strength is social media, starting diversity initiatives at work, or just passing on info to your friends and family, look for ways to promote the work of marginalized people. Signal boost their words, their requests, their goals. Correct misinformation. Be vocally positive when you see something wonderful happening that supports your goals for inclusion and be outspoken and critical when you see a problem.

You can read more about how to make a positive impact on an individual social level in this article

9. Rewards Should Come from You

You may have noticed that a frequent requirement of being an ally is accepting things that are hard for you and being responsible about how and when you manage those feelings. Being an ally is a lot of work. But it’s also good to avoid making requests that marginalized people give you credit and appreciation for helping them. While the work you’ll do is hard, from the marginalized person’s perspective, it doesn’t feel good to offer appreciation to someone for refraining from hurting you.

External validation for allyship is a gift to treasure and it’s something you may have to go long periods of time without. This is why when you commit to allyship, you need to be clear with yourself on why doing so is worth it to you. What reward do you get internally when you help people? Does it make you feel good to know that you’re making the world a better place? Do you feel more at peace with your own sense of ethics when you genuinely choose the right thing to do instead of the easy thing to do? Giving yourself that credit and appreciation will also protect you from burnout, which is a real risk when fighting society-wide problems that take years to fix.  

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10. Lean Into Uncertainty

Any time a marginalized person makes a list of guidelines just like this one about what to do and not do as a person supporting their cause, the resulting allies will encounter a situation where they follow the guidelines and they still get into trouble. Maybe a specific marginalized person disagrees with the guidance, or you accidentally harmed them in some other way not covered by the list you read. Marginalized people are not a monolith, so no guideline will be universally applicable, and even if they were, there is no way to write out guidance to anticipate every possible circumstance.

If this situation happens to you, it may be tempting to use the existence of a list like this as a shield from accountability. “But I was only doing what the list said to do!” “But I thought I was always supposed to [X Behavior].” “But my [marginalized] friend said it would be better if I did [Y Behavior].” Following “the rules” does not mean you will correctly judge how to behave ethically in every instance.

Carve Your Own Path

Uncertainty is a necessary state to live in when practicing allyship. Why?

One of the key traits of existing in society with different privileges is having specific pathways to desirable outcomes carved out for you. The system was designed for a person like you to use it, successfully move through it, and access the reward at the end. If you haven’t encountered systems that were not made for you, it may seem like systems should always be made optimized for the success of the people using them. That seems intuitive, doesn’t it? Why make the system if people can’t use it or if it doesn’t accomplish the goal it claims to accomplish?

But learning about the existence of oppression teaches you that many systems are intentionally designed to exclude specific people, or they are designed to achieve a different, less ethical outcome than you were taught that they did. Living with marginalization means moving through a world that was either a. not built for you or b. built to punish you for existing.

In a similar way, the practice of opting out of the benefits of your privilege and instead supporting and lifting up marginalized people is not built into our current society. There is no streamlined pathway for you to follow with “Being a good ally” at the end of it. It’s a brand new path that millions of people are always hacking away at to make it bigger, wider, more easily accessible, and they are all, individually, having to figure out which direction their next step should be to hopefully meet their goals. Practicing allyship means not being certain what the right thing is to do, being confronted with only bad options, having to wrestle with complex ethical questions for which there is no “correct” answer. The fact that you don’t know what to do means that you are walking away from the established “norms”, and in a direction not many people have walked before. You are heading toward something completely new.

You are also likely to encounter resistance to moving toward forging your own path instead of using the existing ones. You may lose privileges you were accustomed to having and experience bits of the disadvantages that are the daily fare of marginalized people. The point of being an ally is seeing that struggle as worthwhile if you are creating a world that will be better and easier for people other than you to live in.

11. Educate yourself

Allyship involves a lifetime of self-education. There will always be more for you to learn. But self-educating can be challenging because as I mentioned at the beginning, established or standardized collections of social justice information are few and far between. Luckily, you’re in the right place. 

Yopp is dedicated to offering you free educational materials to equip you to participate in the world of social justice in whatever way brings out your strengths. The fact that you’re here, reading this article means that you care a lot about people who are suffering through no fault of their own. You want to know how to help. We want to teach you how. 

I highly recommend jumpstarting your learning process and getting to know Yopp by reading the following articles: 

Happy learning! 


About the writer: Kella Hanna-Wayne is the creator, editor, and main writer for Yopp. She specializes in educational writing about civil rights, disability, chronic illness, abuse, and Dissociative Identity Disorder. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine blog, The BeZine, and Splain You a Thing and in 2022, she released a self-published book of poetry, “Pet: the Journey from Abuse to Recovery“. You can find her @KellaHannaWayne on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Medium, and Twitter.

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