Inclusive Language Series: Defining Allyship

Allyship: what it is and what it isn’t

Valentina ally video from TikTok as a pop culture reference.

Ally: to unite or form a connection or relation between

Folks who support a marginalized community may refer to themselves as an ally. While allies are important to the advancement of equitable reform, oftentimes allyship is hollow and self-proclaimed with little action or follow-through. A feel-good title that helps folks with privileged identities cope with unjust systems that disadvantage other identities in favor of their own. In order to earn the title of an ally, you need to take action, even when doing so is difficult.

Marginalized communities face additional obstacles and barriers in order to live authentically in tandem with mainstream culture. The last thing communities need or want are people from dominant identities self-proclaiming their allyship without doing anything to bring about meaningful, positive change. In fact, in many instances, so-called “allies” can be more harmful because they are not able or willing to recognize their own ignorance and the ways they reinforce systems of oppression.

Being an ally is prioritizing the humanity of marginalized communities over your desire to be likable. To be an ally means that some people will not like you because challenging societal norms is difficult. And for many, rocking the boat and causing conflict is not something that comes easy. Being an ally includes speaking out against processes and behaviors that marginalize and denigrate people within specific communities. It means using your social currency for good. Something that is integral because oftentimes people with privileged identities are heard differently and scrutinized less harshly for their advocacy than people who hold a marginalized identity that they are advocating for.

Examples of what allyship looks like

  • Speaking out in the workplace about homophobic policies/practices
  • A student confronting their friends when they mock someone’s accent or culture
  • A student confronting a peer who purposefully misgenders someone living in their community
  • Holding yourself accountable when you make a mistake and not expecting praise from the marginalized group you are seeking to support.

Being an ally is hard work, and if you don’t feel like it is, you may need to reevaluate if you are truly an ally. Being an ally is not simply accepting an identity/community and believing they have the right to exist. That is the minimum and not worthy of title or praise.

If you feel like you are putting in the work and self-proclaim to be an ally, expect your allyship to be challenged by people from marginalized communities. Expect to show your work.

If this doesn’t feel good, you may need to do some self-work and reflection to better understand why you wanted to be an ally in the first place. Was it because you genuinely cared about the community, or was it because you wanted to feel like you are a good person? Being a good person is not synonymous with being an ally.

If you are engaging in allyship with communities, you need to do so thoughtfully. While it is important to speak up and out against injustice, you need to be conscientious of people you may be speaking for or over. The best way you can advocate for a community is by magnifying the voices of leaders within the community. You do not need to speak for an identity group that you don’t possess. This can be difficult and is often very nuanced. We wanted to provide an example below to help people conceptualize this if you are struggling. Keep in mind that in allyship and social justice work in general, you are going to make mistakes, and that’s okay. Own up to them and do better. We are all works in progress.

Reflection Questions

  • What were some examples you have experienced or observed as allyship?
  • What are some ways that you can engage in allyship with communities?
  • What are actionable goals that you’d like to achieve as an ally?