How do you support a cause that's not inherently your own?
You're disgusted by law enforcement's brutality towards black people, but you're a rich white girl.
You think it's bullshit that women make less money than men and are blamed by society when they're raped, but you've got a penis and a 401K.
You want to say something to your transphobic drunk uncle when he refused to call Caitlyn Jenner a "she," but you're a cis person who even doesn't know any trans people in the first place.
What are you supposed to do in situations like these? As someone with privilege who believes in a cause that's not their own, you want to show support; to show people in marginalized or terrorized groups that you're "there for them." However, being so far removed from their struggle and reality can make your support seem insincere or misguided. It can come off less as genuine concern for others, and more as a vaguely desperate desire for them to know that you care.
It would be great if simply caring translated into action, but we both know it doesn't.
More often than not, people who are supportive of social justice issues like LGBTQ rights, gender equality or racial injustice aren't always effective in their anti-oppression efforts. Despite their best intentions, some people who genuinely aspire to support marginalized groups actually cause more harm than good, ultimately perpetuating the systems they seek to change. Even if someone outwardly believes in a social cause, it often happens that certain beliefs are so deeply and unconsciously ingrained in society that even purported supporters of a group unknowingly subscribe to the very beliefs they reject.
When that happens, nothing improves.
Need an example?
The guy who's all for gay marriage, but thinks his gay friend is hitting on him when he hugs him hello. The friend who asks her friend who's just been raped what she was wearing and if she was drunk. Changing your Facebook photo to a French flag overlay after a terrorist attack because you've been to Paris and the Eiffel Tower was super great. All Lives Matter.
The problem with these things is not that you don't care, or that it's not nice that you're trying to be helpful. The problem is that these actions speak more about you than they do about the people you're trying to support.
There's a razor thin line between being helpful and appropriating someone else's issues for your own benefit. Frequently, blind support comes off as condescending and naive, only separating you further from the people you're innocently, but incorrectly, trying to stand with.
So, what's the right way to support a social cause you don't inherently belong to?
Use the allyship model. Long used by the members of the queer community to describe straight folks outside the LGBT spectrum who are aligned with the movement’s goals, it can easily be applied to any social issue you care about, but aren't inherently affected by yourself. The Black Lives Matter movement has actually replaced the word "ally" with "comrade," because the former felt too passive, but for the duration of this article, feel free to use whichever one applies best to the group(s) you stand behind.
According to the Anti-Oppression Network, allyship isn’t an “identity” or a label you choose for yourself. Rather, the group defines it as “a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people.” It's not ownership or martyrdom; it’s being a humble guest in someone else’s struggle, learning from it, and doing what you can to make the world a more just and equitable place.
This framework moves us away from the idea that working alongside oppressed groups is something you do for yourself. That's an extremely important distinction for everyone working with a community whose history they cannot claim for themselves.
Whether that's white people getting involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, men helping to enact feminist initiatives, or straight people supporting their queer friends, allyship reinforces that it's the job of people with privilege (you) to help elevate the voices that these issues directly affect (not you).
Being a good ally isn't as simple as it seems, and you don’t get to automatically call yourself an ally just because you understand what true allyship means. Rather, it's only the only people from the group you proclaim to support who can define you as such – otherwise, it makes it easy for self-proclaimed "allies" to defend their own offensive behavior because, don’t worry, they’re “allies.”
On that same note, only people who are part of marginalized groups can define their problems and the solutions they require. As an ally, you can't do that. It's not up to you to decide what a group needs or what they should do. Rather, it's your job to listen to the people you support tell you what they need, and do what you can about it.
Now.org writer and activist Allison Pierce has a great example of this:
"If I want to be an ally to people who are transgender or gender non-conforming, I shouldn’t tell them that if they want abc, they should do xyz to achieve it. I should instead ask them how they want to fight for their own justice and equality and what role I can play to help them achieve their goals. However, I also should make sure I’m not getting all my information only from them, and placing all the responsibility on them–the only person responsible for my education and knowledge is myself."
With that said, here are some tips Pierce gives in her article about allyship:
Listen. Listen to the people to whom you’re trying to be an ally What do they want you to do, if anything? What is your role? Listen to their experiences with oppression and/or marginalization. Take their word for it, and don’t argue–it’s their life, they know it best.
Amplify. Instead of interjecting your point of view on something you don’t or haven’t experience, try to amplify the voices of those who are part of that group. The most important people to talk about these experiences are the people who have actually experienced them.
Reach out to other people with privilege. If a privileged person says something offensive about a population to which you’re trying to be an ally, speak up. Talk about the lived experiences of people in that group and try to amplify as much as possible. Hold yourself accountable for slipping up.
Ally is a verb, not a noun. Just because you were an ally at a certain point doesn’t mean you’re an ally for life. (It’s great that you called someone out on a sexist joke, but that doesn’t mean you get a free pass for all future behavior as a result.) Truly recognizing your privilege means actively striving to be a better supporter in a very consistent and constant way. When you make mistakes, you have to own up to them, not deny them on the basis that you’re an “ally.”
On top of those tips, the single most important thing you can do as an ally is ask people what they need and what you can do. I asked some friends of mine who belong to gender and racial minorities what they felt allies could to to advance their respective causes, and I got some really interesting answers that offered some good insight for anyone who wants to support a social issue that's not their own.
Initially, some of this stuff seemed glaringly obvious in print as I was typing it up, but when I pictured actually enacting their advice, I realized that it would take more motivating and effort than I thought — which exactly proves the point I'm trying to make: Allyship is action, not reaction. And action isn't always easy or convenient.
"The best thing you can do is educate yourself. Read up on what's going on, gather all the perspectives you can, and try to see the issues through the eyes of the people who actually face them so that when you're confronted with a situation in which someone says or does something ignorant, you can say something intelligent in our defense."
- Marcus, gay black male, 24
"Even though you're aligning your support with a group of people, keep in mind that that group is still made up of individuals. Each person in it is likely to have a slightly different idea about the support they need, from who and when. So, keep in mind who exactly you're talking to when you're speaking to someone about injustices they face. Try to ascertain whether they just need you to listen to them or if they're interested in your opinion. Some people, depending on who they are and what their experience has been, might desire empathy and action, while others might believe that since an issue is not your own, then you don't have a right to speak on it. So, before you say anything, know both what you're talking about and who you're taking to."
- Nisha, feminist and women's rights activist, 30
"In order to see a certain issue from the perspective of the people who deal with it, you need to put yourself in their shoes. You can do this literally but placing yourself in locations and situations that make you feel uncomfortable, but are experienced by marginalized groups every day. For example, if you call yourself an ally (or comrade) to racial minorities, go to a part of town where white people are the minority and see what it feels like not to fit in. Experience what it's like to know you're being judged and that people are making assumptions about you. If you're a man but you're pro Planned Parenthood, volunteer for them. Be one of those people that walks women into the clinic as they're harassed by religious zealots on their way into the clinic."
- Hassan, Saudi-American, 26
"Friendship is the biggest challenge to prejudice. You can't call yourself an ally if you're not close to the people you proclaim to stand behind, so open yourself up to friendships and romantic relationships with types of people you might not traditionally find yourself connecting with. You don't have to force anything; if a relationship feels wrong, it probably is. But if you can widen the scope of human beings you associate with and develop meaningful relationships with them, the differences between you and them will seem as marginal as they actually are. And when you realize that you're no different from them, actual allyship becomes inherent. You don't have to proclaim to be an 'ally,' because you're more than that; you're actually a friend."
- Francis, trans woman, 34
So, next time terrorists mass murder people in your favorite vacation city or you notice an instance of workplace sexism, ask yourself not how you can let the people who are affected know that you care, but what they need. Listen to them, show up for them, and know that supporting them involves you moving more than just your fingers across a keyboard.