Ally is Not a Noun

By Dr. Makini King, Director of Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives

Most of us are good people. Most of us, as good people, would denounce inequality and injustice. When asked, many of us would acknowledge that inequalities must be made right. When pressed, some of us might say that this takes active work, because justice does not happen naturally.

In social justice work the term Ally is often defined as a noun; a person who uses their privilege to advocate on behalf of someone else who doesn’t hold that same privilege. Allyship is one of the first action-oriented tools one learns in social justice and bias trainings. Awareness of injustices; racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and ableism (to name a few) is of course, the first step toward advocacy, but awareness alone is not enough to dismantle systems of oppression. To be an Ally requires that a person not simply notice an injustice, but also take action by bringing attention to the injustice and requesting that it be corrected.

It is important to note here that Allies are not defined by the assignment of the term; one cannot simply declare themselves an Ally because they believe in justice. Allies are defined by their actions. In other words, the question to ask one’s self is not am I an Ally, but rather, how have I advocated for or supported marginalized people or communities today? Yes, “today” is critical to the assessment of one’s allyship, for the systems of injustice do not take days off and the work of allies must be just as steadfast.

Here is a thought experiment I encourage you to make a part of your daily habit. As you move throughout your day; sit in a classroom, a department meeting, a social space, or as you go to the supermarket, to your neighborhood and residence, or visit with your friends and family, I want you to think about the inequality that might exist in that space. This may not initially be an easy task, we tend to make the assumption that if we feel a space is safe, inclusive and pleasant, then everyone must feel the same way. I want you to think about what the experience might be like for people who represent marginalized or non-privileged communities; for example, people of color, non-Christians, immigrants, people experiencing homelessness, women, LGBTQIA people, indigenous people, people with disabilities, people with low income, or people for which English is not their first language. Consider who is represented in that space and who is not and then ask why. Then consider who has a voice that is being heard in the space and who does not and then ask why. Then ask yourself how you might ACT as an Ally in order to support those people who may not be represented, or who may not have a voice in order to actively make the space more equitable.

If acting as an Ally sounds effortful, uncomfortable and exhausting, that’s because it is. As good people who denounce injustice, and who believe inequality must be made right through active work, the discomfort and exhaustive effort is a small price to pay.