Social Justice 101: Allyship

By Finn Phoenix

A friend of mine recently asked me to write down what allyship meant to me. In generating an answer, I thought a lot about the people who have played this role in my own life, and examples of situations in which I felt allyship from folks around me. As a queer, trans, chronically ill kid growing up in the rural/suburban midwest in the 90s, any and all measure of safety came at the full expense of visibility, so I am really grateful to a steady presence of allies in my adult life.  Allyship can come in various permutations, but as I pulled apart those situations, the pieces that made me feel less solitary in my struggles were consistent. This is my experience of what the bottom line of an alliance relationship is about: a sense of shared effort and work for a common outcome.

One of the most important things you can do is to regularly check your intentions.

Self-awareness and self-reflection are key. Understand your motivations, and check your ego before you move forward. While there are many valid intentions it is important to consider why you are taking on work, and what is motivating your intentions. For example, if you are moving forward to placate white guilt or other negative feelings, take a step back. Part of being an ally is being aware of when you are in a space to position yourself appropriately alongside folks toward collective liberation.

If you find yourself having problematic intentions, this is okay. Everyone becomes an ally for their own reasons, and during their own point in the process of understanding. However, this is a great time to visit a public library and/or the internet. Find some resources and take on the work of educating yourself seriously *before* participating to avoid negative impact behaviors such as tokenizing, patronizing, or emotional/mental resource exhaustion.

Avoid at all costs being the person that shows up to ‘help’ and asks a lot of invasive questions about bodies, identities, or experiences. The emotional and intellectual labor of your personal unlearning and understanding is your work, not theirs. Do show up if and when you have sought out appropriate informational resources, put work into setting positive intentions, and are able to show up in, at the very least, a neutral capacity. If you feel you’ve exhausted your reading material and primary resources and still need more guidance, it’s best to seek further information from established and trusted allies. When you are ready to show up, be ready to truly listen and take guidance. This will let you know what roles you can or should play.

Take honest stock of the spheres of privilege you occupy. Privilege manifests in many layers of power and resource distribution. Some of the most important work we can do both for ourselves and our fellow humans is to understand the intersectional structure of our own identities, what privileges we’ve been given access to, and how they have impacted our own experiences and shaped our lives and perceptions. Individuals who have been the most effective at showing up for me in an ally capacity have primarily filled in gaps in resources I was lacking or which were depleted at a critical moment, provided access for me to build my own skills for the future, or to harness and build a critical community structure that would allow for long-term resource sharing.

Do not underestimate the value of emotional labor or physical presence in particularly vulnerable moments. Know and be ready to communicate your own boundaries and limitations.

Be ready to receive feedback. Allyship is about community relationships and collective liberation, so be ready to take criticism, hear folks out, and adjust behaviors that are not having intended or positive impacts. Remember that focusing on how to be more impactful is the best use of your energy after feedback, and that defensiveness is a mechanism that keeps us from learning more effective behaviors. Solidarity is a process for everybody involved; it requires consistency and a willingness to identify areas of growth and improvement to be sustainable.

Finally, accept that the title of ‘ally’ is not a self-assigned label, but one that will be offered when you are fully and wholeheartedly engaged in solidarity work for collective liberation.