I didn’t start hearing the term “ally” until college, when a girl in my dorm identified herself as an “ally”, meaning, “someone who stands for LGBTQ people and their rights.”
On one hand, I appreciate the idea of choosing an identify for oneself. “I am someone who chooses to spends energy, money, and relational capital working for this other group of people.“ If I identify myself that way internally, then it becomes a metric that I can use to help make good decisions—and avoid bad ones—in the future.
But on the other hand, identifying myself as an ally is a bit… presumptuous. If another country behaves poorly to your country, they don’t get to keep proclaiming themselves an ally while all the while not acting like one. Similarly, proclaiming oneself an ally seems to be a bit like declaring, “I’ve made it!”
The thing is, I’ll never have truly “made it.” There will always be ways I can grow toward understanding and caring better for others, especially those different from me. There’s not a particular point that marks the day when I can finally stop striving and just rest in having achieved the appropriate point of wokeness.
As I mentioned in the last post, I very much appreciate Ibram Kendi’s contention that a person isn’t categorically racist or anti-racist; rather, I can be racist right now and anti-racist later, or act in a racist way now and a racist way later.
Just like racist or anti-racist aren’t fixed identities, I don’t think “ally” is a fixed identity. Rather, being an ally to Black people, to me, means acting or speaking in anti-racist way. In those moments, I’m acting like an ally.
I saw this Instagram post recently and really appreciated the way that ally is defined not just as an identity that someone can put on like clothing, but actions that someone can take or not take. I know if that country is crossing over my borders. I know if that friend is taking the actions of an ally or not.
I talked with someone recently (a white woman) who was upset when she was told that her Facebook post, saying something like, “I don’t get why Aunt Jemima is such a big deal. Black people can you explain it to me?”, reflected her own unwillingness to educate herself.
Her response wasn’t “I should’ve, I just didn’t think about it”, or, “Huh, I didn’t realize that it takes a lot of energy for my Black friends to always be responsible for teaching me.” Instead, it was purely defensive. “I’m a good person!”
There are so many things in that one interaction–white fragility, centering of whiteness and white people, etc.–but the biggest way it interacts with this Instagram post, to me, is how different many white folks’ idea of an ally is from what a realistic, useful, effective ally is. Read the post. I need to stop decorating it.