Don’t…

call yourself an ally.

Just don’t.  You may think you’re an ally. You might actually be one, at times. But, don’t call yourself an ally.

Note, I didn’t say you can’t be one, nor did I say you can’t strive to be one. I’m simply saying don’t call yourself one.

I don’t care if you volunteer for the local LGBTA+ outreach group, if you serve on a women in tech diversity panel, or have all the “right” stickers on your car or laptop. You can do all the right things and be an ally, but don’t call yourself one.

Now, if members of the groups you’re helping want to call you an ally, that’s great. You’re doing good work. You’re doing something right. And it’s ok to enjoy the praise and thanks, a bit. But, still, don’t call yourself an ally.

Here’s the thing, I’ve got about every privilege box I can check in the US. I’m white, cis-het male, with a decent income. I have friends and family members that don’t quite hit all those boxes. I like to think I use my privilege to help others.

And it’s true, I’ve found in online debates I can say almost the exact same thing one of the people identifying as female says and somehow my words get taken with more gravity.

And yes, in the IT field, I’ve seen multiple times my coworkers talk over or ignore someone who wasn’t cis-het male, despite the other person’s knowledge and wealth of experience.

I’ve used my privilege to try to bring equality into the IT spaces I’m in. Sometimes I’ve succeeded, sometimes I’ve failed.

I’ve called others out for homophobic jokes, cat-calling and more.

But, as I’ve grown older, and I like to think wiser, I’ve realized even more, how I can’t call myself an ally.

It’s not for lack of effort. Let’s be clear, NO amount of effort will allow me to call myself an ally. And here’s why:

I’m not a member of the groups I’m trying to help. I’ve never truly experienced the discrimination and bigotry they’ve faced. Even when I’ve been associated with them, I’ve come to realize I’m “other”. This isn’t a fault or a failing, simply my reality. I can be among a group of gay men celebrating a friend’s birthday at the Green Lantern in Washington DC, and be perfectly comfortable, but know I’m “other”. And they know it too. The next day at work, even if I encountered a homophobic coworker, I can still disassociate myself from that weekend’s activities. It’s not a core part of WHO I am, it’s simply a part of something I did.

If I support women in tech, and I’d like to think I do, no matter how well I listen, I won’t truly have the gestalt experience of walking to my car at night wondering, if something happens, will someone’s first question be, “Well, what where you wearing?”  I’ll never be in a meeting and have an idea shot down and wonder, “was my idea dismissed because it was bad, or because of my gender presentation?”

I will always be “other”.

In a related manner, I can, intentionally, or unintentionally stop being an ally in an instant. I can intentionally choose to sit down and not be an ally.  Or, I can make a misstep and fail as an ally. And I don’t get to decide if I’ve succeeded or failed.

I will give an example of this: via Twitter I saw one woman speaker comment on how she felt offended that she had been asked, in part because of her gender, to speak at a conference. The person approaching her had made it clear he wanted more women to speak. Generally, this could be seen as being a good ally; making sure conferences aren’t full of manels and/or only have a slate of male speakers. Other women stepped in and said they wouldn’t be offended at all, that they appreciated the effort to include more women, even if at times it came across as ham-fisted or overly obvious.

So here’s the thing, the person asking probably thought of himself as an ally and might have called himself one. But, clearly the first woman didn’t agree, but others did. This is why he can’t call himself an ally, but others can. Perspective makes a huge difference here.

So in conclusion, let me end with what I opened with: not only can you work to be an ally, I would in fact encourage you to work to help others obtain the privileges and opportunities you have. BE an ally. But let OTHERS determine if you’re their ally. If they call you an ally, great! Keep it up.

If they however tell you that your actions or words are not helpful, listen to them. They are in the best position to determine what helps them. Unless they ask for input, don’t tell them what they’re doing wrong or why they’re wrong to not accept their help.

2 thoughts on “Don’t…

  1. I never thought of it this way, but it is a valid point. It’s like saying “I don’t make people feel uncomfortable.” Chances are you’re right, but it’s not your call. And it’s true, until such a time when it’s not. And it’s not your call.

    Maybe we need a term for “I’m trying, feel free to correct me, but I want to be better”. A term that would express the desire to be an ally, and also invite, not demand, that others tell you how they want to be treated. Of course, that means when someone tells you how you misstepped, the answer is “I’m sorry, how can I correct it?”, not “but told me it was okay!”.

    Apprenti-ally?

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