The concept of being an ally is something that has been making frequent appearances on my radar, as of late, so the purpose of this blog post will be to unpack exactly what being an ally means and some of the issues that may arise when considering the implications of this position. Being an ally is a seemingly positive concept, but in truth, there are many considerations we must take into account when aligning ourselves with this title.
Being an ally, simply put, is when someone takes ownership for their privileges and tries to use them in a way that benefits those who haven't been quite so lucky. It might be simpler to explain using examples. If you've never been homeless, but the bulk of your life's work goes towards improving conditions for those who don't have a home, you're an ally. If you're a male fighting for greater gender equality, you're an ally. If you are a heterosexual or cisgendered person who stands in solidarity with those who have faced oppression and injustice because they identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community, you're an ally.
Now while this is seemingly a concept that only brings about the good, there is a danger in aligning yourself with this identity. As an ally, you've had privilege bestowed on you, and this is something you must acknowledge and sit in for the realization of your allyship to take place. Not doing so is simply unjust. Because of this unearned privilege, because of this position you've been granted as someone who is not a victim of oppression, your voice is easily heard. Sometimes, even more so than those people you are actually working to improve societal conditions for.
In this powerful spoken word piece by Darius Simpson and Scout Bostley, the dangers of being an ally are very clearly highlighted. As the last line of the poem says, "The problem with speaking up for each other is that everyone is left without a voice".
Are issues of inequality being properly addressed when they are spoken for by people who have never experienced them?
This is one of the many thoughts I experienced two weeks ago, when attending a lecture for my International Development course. The speech in question was given by an obviously accomplished and distinguished international development professor, and the subject at hand concerned isolation onset by poverty and rejection of culture, with a special focus on Canada's indigenous peoples.
The prof spent the first 10-15 minutes of the 1-hour speech telling the audience about her family background. As it turns out, she came from a very well-off family that owned a very profitable business, which had grown over the course of many generations. Learning about her family history was interesting enough, but left me wondering if she was going to connect it to the issues central to the talk.
10 minutes later, I was fuming, as she launched into an explanation of why poverty was so isolating to a person.
Now don't get me wrong- the message that she was presenting was very interesting and informative, especially for the people in the audience who didn't know too much about Canada's indigenous population. In no way am I trying to discredit this particular professor or the important points that were conveyed in the speech. But I have to admit, I left the presentation feeling a little bit peeved. I lamented to a friend that I was tired of rich white people telling me what it felt like to be poor and marginalized. How could they know: It's not like they'd experienced anything remotely similar to that.
Then, I backtracked. Maybe I was being too hard on the professor. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that this professor was simply just being an ally to this community that lacked certain financial privileges. However, an important part of being an ally is recognizing and acknowledging your privileges, juxtaposing them with the experiences you are speaking for. Although the professor had talked about their family background, there was never any indication of acknowledgement of how this affected or related to the subject at hand. There was no "I recognize that I've been lucky enough not to have been in a situation where this kind of isolation could occur" or "I can't speak for myself, but I can speak to those I've been able to meet about their particular situation". There was simply no connection the prof drew between their privileged background and the subject at hand. And this is a fatal error when acting as an ally.
Maybe the prof wasn't intending to act as an ally. Maybe their goal was just to inform the audience of the facts at hand. But I would argue in this field of study, with so many intersecting identities at play, the concepts of social justice and more specifically, ally-ship, should be taken into consideration (said professor also used a phrase and explained that it meant _____ "in Africa". Africa has 54 different countries which have different languages and dialects, so I'm guessing it wouldn't mean the same thing across the continent).
This is where the considerations surrounding being an ally become even murkier. In a way, it becomes a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it seems unjust to speak about specific experiences of marginalization on someone's behalf, especially when you haven't experienced it. On the other hand, sometimes hearing about these situations from someone else is the only way that people will become aware of it. Think about it. We're perfectly comfortable listening to someone who we can identify with about the issue of homelessness for example. But how many people are actually willing to engage with the vast amounts of homeless people we see day in and day out, and learn all about their stories and their experiences?
Therein lies the most powerful ability of an ally- being able to communicate the experiences of marginalized communities to people who otherwise might not listen. And as long as this power of ally-ship is used while the unearned privileges of the ally are acknowledged and accepted by themselves, allies can provide a great amount of support in the fight against oppression. But being support is the glass ceiling in terms of one's potential as an ally. Because ultimately, it is not an ally's experience. It is not their story. And treating it as such actually may end up hurting their cause instead of helping it.