Graphic design by Joanne Leong.
Conflict is in all of our histories, presents and futures. Some people are oppressed, and some others do the oppressing, experiencing privilege at the expense of the former. Not all who benefit from oppression consciously discriminate, and those at the winning end – white people, straight people, cisgender men, wealthy people – have no reason to engage in conversations that could potentially endanger their privilege. So if it’s not realistic to expect oppressors to directly address what’s going on, how do we move forward in hope for a more just future?
Here’s where allies are super important. Essentially, allies are people who use their position of privilege to promote views that favour the oppressed. Allies are in a position to relate to the oppressors, and have a significantly higher chance of being heard than the oppressed themselves. Straight and cisgender allies can navigate spaces that queer* people are unable to because their safety is not endangered as a direct result of their identity. A white person in a white family can discuss race in a way that doesn’t confront their racist relatives because the issue is presented in a more distant and less confronting way – as compared to if a person of colour were present, calling them out on their language and actions.
Allyship is often perceived to come in public declarations: in e-mail signatures or laptop stickers claiming ‘I am an ally’, and in attending protests or sharing Facebook posts. While these gestures are important as they establish that an office, correspondence or space is safe for those who may be unsure of how they may be treated as a result of their identity, I have personally found what I term ‘private allyship’ to be just as important. These are your white friends who call their out white peers for racial microaggressions, siblings who casually bring up conversations of queerness* with your parents to prepare them for your potential coming out, and friends who you can talk to at night when you’ve just been through a rough time.
In instances where identity may not be explicitly visible – such as closeted queer* people, or those who experience mental illness – allies can serve to create a safe space for others without outing them. This includes using the gender-neutral pronoun – ‘they’, in English – referring to significant others as ‘partners’ instead of gendered terms like ‘girlfriend’ or ‘boyfriend’, calling out others on ableist language and steering conversations in directions that will make the situation more comfortable for everybody.
Ultimately, allies are just that: supporting roles in a movie that should star those at the losing end of the unfortunate ‘-isms’ that feature in our lives. They provide platforms for lesser-heard voices and express solidarity without taking space away from the very people they are supporting. This includes knowing when to let others do the talking, stepping back to unlearn and relearn things from those affected, and recognising that sometimes people may not want to be fought for.
Being an ally involves actively acknowledging and challenging one’s privilege, and this can breed an unhealthy sort of ‘pseudo-guilt’ expressed through proclamations about how awful one’s fellow white, straight, cisgender or able-bodied people are without really doing much else to break down these systemic issues. This is a form of ‘performative allyship’, which involves big gestures that people perform to appear to be in support of particular causes without sincerely dedicating themselves to the fight. Unfortunately, these sorts of actions don’t do anything to promote social justice; they merely draw attention away from legitimate discourse about these issues.
Some allies, on the other hand, end up going a little too hard and put themselves in harm’s way – for example, attempting to push particular conversations in extremely hostile environments. Not looking out for their mental well-being while fighting the good fight isn’t smart either, as allies – being ‘advocates with privilege’ – are prone to activist burnouts as well. It is important to always recognise when to take a step back, as everybody has the right to put their safety and health first.
Conflict is in all our histories, presents and futures. But with more non-performative allies promoting social justice in their circles to support those who are discriminated against, expressing their solidarity, and most importantly listening to and uplifting the voices of the oppressed, the fight can be made just that little bit easier.