We’ve all had that moment: Just when we think we’ve become good allies, somebody tells us that we’ve done or said something problematic.
Our first reaction might be to deny it. After all, we’ve read the articles. We’ve gone to the conferences. We know all about privilege and oppression, and we’re committed to fighting the latter. How could we do anything wrong?
However, being an ally doesn’t mean that you can do no wrong. All it means is that you’ve agreed to support those who are marginalized.
First Things First: Nobody’s a Perfect Ally
Why? Well, first of all, nobody is. Perfection is not what’s important.
Secondly, prejudices are ingrained within us more deeply than we can imagine. Oppression is systematic and pervasive, so it follows that its effects won’t go away just because we want them to.
For example, my partner tells me that people feel uncomfortable around her because she’s outspoken and direct. She doesn’t preface her opinions with apologies, and she doesn’t mince her words.
In a man, these characteristics are considered ideal. They’re the traits of leaders.
In women, these same characteristics are considered undesirable. Women who don’t try to sugarcoat their words are considered bossy, rude, aggressive — you get the picture. People meeting my partner for the first time form that impression of her, and even friends sometimes get uncomfortable.
The point I’m trying to make is that these sorts of reactions are almost subconscious, so they might not even register as prejudice. Even if they do, it requires an active effort to catch those thoughts and train yourself out of them.
It’s the same for other types of prejudice: You can’t get rid of them overnight.
Lastly, the most important reason that allies aren’t perfect is that being an ally doesn’t erase privilege.
They come from oppression which is carried out not only in person-to-person interactions, but also in the law, the economy, and the media, to name a few.
The biggest mistake would be to assume that just because you mean well, the effects of that privilege will disappear.
The Pitfalls of Being Complacent
In its own way, being complacent as an ally perpetuates oppression. When you don’t think that you can do anything wrong, several things occur.
Let’s break it down with a personal example.
I was once in a workshop for Asian American women where several of the attendees were men. I assume they wanted to learn more about the oppression Asian American women face and about how they could support us.
As I’ve said, being an ally means agreeing to support those who are marginalized. Whether or not these men identified as allies, they were doing what allies do. So far, so good.
The workshop discussion eventually arrived at the topic of male privilege, and one of the male attendees began asking questions. “How can I be a better ally?” “What can I do about my privilege?”
As he barraged the moderator and the other workshop attendees with his questions, I began to grow annoyed.
I didn’t get annoyed because of the questions themselves. I got annoyed because this man was doing one of the first things complacent allies do: He started taking over a space that was supposed to be for women.
The workshop was supposed to be a space for Asian American women to talk about their own experiences and struggles. Instead, that man’s questions forced us to take up time and energy talking about him.
In other words, this man came into a space that was supposed to center women and demanded that we cater to his own needs.
I’ve seen other allies do the same thing. They come into spaces that are meant for marginalized people and ask those people to educate them about their privilege.
Because they’re there to help, they think that they’re entitled to marginalized people’s time and space.
That sense of entitlement is another way in which privilege manifests itself. Remember: The advantages of privilege are derived from directly oppressing a group of people.
It might seem innocuous, but taking up space to talk about yourself does oppress marginalized people. If you’re talking, then they can’t. Their voices are silenced.
I’m not telling allies to never speak. There are situations in which you definitely should (hint: it should be with other people who are privileged like you). I’m just saying that you need to make an active effort to check your privilege and the space you might be taking up.
Ironically, the man in that workshop was demonstrating male privilege in action quite well. When I told him this and asked him to stop taking up time with his questions, he began arguing with me that what was happening wasn’t an example of male privilege.
I tried to explain to him that it was, but it got to the point where he wouldn’t even let me finish my sentences. I got so frustrated that I yelled at him, and only then did he stop talking.
That confrontation illustrates several other pitfalls of thinking that you can’t do anything wrong as an ally.
First of all, it’s a perfect example of subconscious prejudices at work. Men talking over women is a common phenomenon. The man in that workshop thought that he knew better than I did what male privilege was.
He didn’t, and that’s where the second pitfall comes in: You assume that you know more than marginalized people about their oppression.
You might have done the readings and attended the workshops, but marginalized people have lived the very experiences you’ve studied. Therefore, you can’t tell marginalized people what is or isn’t oppressive. You just don’t know.
The third pitfall is related to the second one. When you tell a marginalized person that what you’ve done isn’t oppressive, you’re saying that what they’ve experienced isn’t real — and whether you mean it to be or not, that’s incredibly harmful.
I know that it can be uncomfortable to read about these things, and to consider the possibility that you might be doing them.
However, while discomfort is a normal and healthy reaction to grappling with your privilege, it’s never more burdensome than being oppressed.
What to Do If You’ve Made a Mistake
If a marginalized person calls you out for being problematic, then the first thing you should do is listen. Don’t react by saying “But that’s not problematic” or “You’re wrong.”
Marginalized people are told all the time that their oppression doesn’t exist. Racism? It’s over because we had the Civil Rights Movement. Sexism? That’s so 1950s, and women can vote now! Homophobia? Same-sex marriage is largely legalized, so that means everyone’s accepted queer people.
As an ally, you of course don’t say any of those things. You know that racism, sexism, and homophobia (to name a few) exist. But just knowing this doesn’t mean that you don’t perpetuate it.
When you deny that you did something problematic, you are saying that what you did wasn’t racist, sexist, homophobic, or whatever the case may be. You are saying that you know what those things look like better than someone who experiences them on a daily basis.
This isn’t true.
If a marginalized person tells you that something you’ve just done is problematic, you should take their word for it. After all, it’s their life.
So listen to the person who calls you out. Give a genuine apology, one without any excuses such as “I didn’t mean it.” Reflect on what you’ve done, so you can understand why it was wrong.
And then promise not to do or say the harmful thing again.
You’ll probably feel the urge to apologize constantly and feel bad about yourself, but try not to do either of those things. You’re not a bad person; you’re just human.
More importantly, doing these things doesn’t erase the hurt you caused.
It may be that the person you’ve hurt won’t forgive you. That’s their right. It will hurt your feelings, but in the grand scheme of things related to the particular form of oppression at hand, they’ve been hurt more.
You might lose a friend; they’ve had their humanity degraded, and not for the first or last time. And nobody owes you their friendship, especially after being hurt like that.
If reading this article made you uncomfortable, let me remind you: Being an ally isn’t comfortable. We don’t agree to be allies so we can feel good about ourselves, so your ego should be left out of the equation at all times.
Besides, while being told what not to do is uncomfortable, it’s nowhere near as harmful as being dehumanized.
The things you’re told not to do are harmful. As an ally, you’re trying not to harm people. It’s as simple as that.
Here’s the most important thing to keep in mind: Deciding to be an ally is only the first step. It means that you’ve committed yourself to giving support and checking your privilege. Both of those tasks can take a lifetime.
Prejudices are deeply ingrained within us, and they’re only reinforced by the messages that the world continues to send us. Not only that, but our complacency and ego can get in the way of recognizing those prejudices.
That’s why being an ally is not a state of being, but rather a constant process. We have to keep learning and keep rejecting our own sense of complacency. It may be hard, but it’s the right thing to do.
Kerry Truong is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. They are a queer diasporic Vietnamese womxn and graduated this spring with a double degree in English and Asian American Studies. When they’re not philosophizing about this at length, they’re reading, taking long walks, or cooing over all the dogs who cross their path. Read their Everyday Feminism articles here.