In Praise of the Imperfect Ally

I’m going to start with a disclaimer, because why the heck not. This article will be full of links. These links are meant to be exemplars – and there are some great ideas out there. However, I didn’t create most of the content that I link to. The ideas aren’t mine. They may differ from mine. That doesn’t mean they don’t bear considering. Click links with the understanding that you may be offended and/or have your mind expanded. You have been warned.

For the uninitiated, let’s start with the basics: What is an ally?

Thanks Merriam Webster

Thanks Merriam Webster!

There you have it. An ally is either a war buddy or a person or group that gives help or aid to another army, country, person or group. So far, so clear.

In modern sociological circles, though, ally has taken on another, more specific meaning. An ally is a person who is not a member of an oppressed or inequitably treated group who offers support to that group or members of that group, be it verbal or through actions and deeds. This concept is as old as inequality, which means it’s as old as humanity, because it’s pretty clear that we have always played like that.

Allies would be the British citizens who were abolitionists, the men who spoke up for abortion rights, the straight people who picketed for marriage equality and neurotypical folks who have supported people with mental illnesses or differences. The world is full of allies.

And lately, they’ve gotten a bad rap – and a rather sizable list of rules.

That's...quite a few rules.

^^^^That’s…quite a few rules.

Being an ally is a balancing act. By questioning the status quo, an ally is choosing not to align themselves with the standard narrative of those who are “like them.” Being an ally is a choice, one that can be abandoned simply by being silent. As a member of a non-oppressed group, an ally can walk away, whereas a member of that group arguably cannot. As an outsider to the group one is supporting, the ally possesses less innate knowledge of what living inside certain prejudices entails. They operate with an incomplete picture, no matter how empathetic they may be. Their enthusiasm or privilege may lead them to overstep people they ally themselves with, thus making their friends more invisible as, again, a mainstream voice is given precedence. This is the tight-rope the ally walks. Add to this the glib dismissal of white knights and social justice warriors, and one can see how being an ally might not be very appealing.

But, we argue, it shouldn’t be appealing. If you really want to help people, then it’s not about you! It’s about the people you’re trying to help. And if it’s hard to be an ally, imagine what it’s like to be member of the group you’re supporting!

I get this. I really do. I’m a person with a mental illness. I’m a bisexual human. I am a woman who grew up in a patriarchal religion. I was a victim of abuse. I grew up in poverty in a rough neighbourhood. I also grew up as the daughter of a German Canadian and a Canadian whose family has lived in Canada so long that we don’t know what brand of European we are. In other words, I am super white. I am pale. I am the colour of peaches or fresh pine or almost all of the people you see on TV. In a lot of instances, I am the person in need of allies, but when it comes to race privilege, I would be remiss if I didn’t see that the advantages I did grow up with owe a lot to the shade of skin I was living in. My teachers were more respectful to me than my peers of colour, especially if those peers also spoke with an accent. The police were nicer to me, allowing me to explain and usually having a decent chat before sending me on my way. My race, a thing I did not choose and did nothing to accomplish, made my life easier. It still does.

 So it is from this perspective, and representing only myself that I say:

Let’s be nicer to our allies.

I’ve noticed a trend, one that may be tied into the current culture of shame that I plan to talk about in the future, toward attacking and talking down to allies.

Get it? It's a hot button. See? It's a button. And it's hot. I am a photoshop god. :P

It’s a hot button. See? It’s a button. And it’s hot. I am a photoshop god. 😛

I get it. This is a hot button issue. Folks are tired of other people speaking for them, or ignoring them when it comes time to consider issues that affect them. They are tired of having to explain the same basic things over and over again.

However, this frustration has resulted in a strange pattern of behavior – we are often less patient with our allies than we are with those who outright oppose us. We expect our allies to be on the same page as us, so we get frustrated when they show that they are not. We call them out on their slip ups. We dismiss them too easily. We tell them that it is not our job to educate them. We cloister into our small circles of those who share our experience and instead of finding bridges to understanding, we go all Bridge on the River Kwai and blow it up. Yet when someone opposes us, in an effort to show that we are the better person, the more logical person, the one on the side of right, we follow all the rules of engagement and treat them like equal conversational partners. ‘Till they go too far. Then we throw up a monkey picture and leave. What? Just me?

Works every time.

Works every time.

What was I saying?

Oh yes. I love my imperfect allies. Even though Hannibal Buress didn’t intend to make it easier for women to speak about sexual assault when he called out Bill Cosby, I’m glad he did. Yes, it would be nice if the dozens of women who spoke out before him were heard, but they weren’t. We can fight about that, we can work to change that and we can be right pissed about it, but I will continue to be glad that a man who was (so far as we know) not a victim himself helped bring an issue that was deeply buried to the forefront. For that, I’m grateful.

I think of the amazing ally Iris Long. She was a SAHM and a scientist who had no attachment to the gay community at all, yet she brought some major support to the New York based group ACT UP. She helped create the foundation for the treatment of AIDS because the science fascinated her and because she felt the urge to do a good thing. Was she a perfect ally? As a woman with no insight into the gay community, I’ll bet she made her missteps. But if our community had pushed her away because she wasn’t a perfect ally, it would have meant the loss of her care, her knowledge and potentially millions of lives.

Now, not all allies are life saving goddesses with crazy science brains, but I trust that most of them are sincere, good people who want to help. As sincere, good people, I hope they will listen to the voices of those they support. I hope they’ll try to be helpful allies. I hope they will give space and give time and give whatever they can in what is essentially a noble consideration. And in return, I hope we will be patient. I hope we will be willing to educate in a non-critical way (did a dismissive and superior teacher ever get through to you?) I hope that we will be generous, even when it’s hard.

I will close with a personal story, because it’s my blog and I get to do that. If you’re a reader, you know I wasn’t terribly fond of Bell’s co-opting of the mentally ill to essentially get their name out there and support their Astral merger agreement. Their #letstalk hashtag had me raging for a few days. I was frustrated, and I made that clear. However, some of my other friends with mental illnesses saw friends and family retweet the hashtag and it meant a great deal to them. They felt seen and affirmed by this small gesture from the allies in their life. What I took away was this:

No one will be everyone’s perfect ally. No one can be everything to all people. I encourage people to keep trying, though, because as an ally, you may be the support someone needs at the moment they need it. It is easy to judge and even easier to be silenced or stilled by judgement. This can lead to a society in which people do nothing for fear of doing the wrong thing. When it comes to being an ally, I say, for f*ck’s sake, do something.

And know that many of us are grateful, so very grateful, for our imperfect allies.