I’ve been there. I’m sure many of have as well. You’re speaking to a friend, and the conversation turns south. Before long your friend says, “why would you say something like that? I’m an ally. I’m on YOUR side!”
You know your friend to be a mostly well-meaning ally. An ally being someone that is part of a privileged group (i.e. white people, men, straight people, cis-gendered individuals and the like) that stands for the rights and equality of members of a marginalized community. These allies are frustrated with people in these marginalized communities when they level criticism towards them on a personal level, or towards allies as a group, in general. Of course, they believe this criticism to be unwarranted and what usually ensues is a verbal sparring match, or a keyboard battle to the death.
Members of minority groups want allies to change a behavior or train of thinking that they know to be detrimental to them. In turn, these allies get defensive and respond with arguments that run along the lines of “don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” or “I’m doing this out of the kindness of my heart. I don’t appreciate your critique of my attitudes and speech.”
What it ends up amounting to is, “I am an ally. I’ve done my part. Why are you asking more of me” type of attitude. In doing this, they show that they believe being an ally makes them above reproach, that these people are being unfair and impugning their character without basis for it.
The issue with allies believing that minorities’ denunciation of practices and norms that are harmful to them is that the allies are now making the discussion about them personally. In most scenarios, there is nothing inherently wrong with that. But when the conversation or discussion is about how they, as an ally, might be hurting the group they claim to be standing for? It’s selfish and self-centered. The needs of the marginalized group are put on the back burner, and instead the conversation is about the ally’s perceived sleight and hurt feelings.
A lot of the times these allies’ hearts are in the right place and they truly think that the criticism will hurt the group’s cause. That it will turn away potential allies. That it will do more harm than good. Even more, though, it shows that these individuals believe that upon deciding to call themselves an ally and standing up for people that cannot do so on their own, the hard work is virtually done.
They will show up for rallies and protests, argue on the behalf of people of color, LGBTQIA+ individuals, women, Muslims etc. They write that they are #anti-racism and an #ally in their Twitter bio and occasionally tell their uncle that saying that slur is not okay. Which on it’s own is a good start, but being an ally is so much more than that.
By definition, being an ally is and should be a mostly uncomfortable experience. An ally is, by default, part of a privileged group and enjoys the benefits of that privilege at the expense of minorities. They have been molded by a society here in the United States that has instilled in them, consciously or unconsciously, problematic behaviors and attitudes.
None of us are immune to it’s effects. A HUGE part of being an ally is a continual checking of your viewpoints and actions. Really taking the time to do genuine introspection and self-evaluation and see if any of the problematic views of our society at large have influenced our views.
Finding out that something that you have been told your entire life is not right and making a concerted effort to consciously CHANGE your viewpoint is extremely difficult. Unfortunately that is burden that allies must bear. Doing the right thing includes speaking out when you see injustice and educating people and breaking down stereotypes and walls about and for minority groups.
The most IMPORTANT part of being an ally is being humble, sincerely listening to criticism and challenging themselves to be better so that they can do all the other important work effectively and efficiently. If valid criticisms of an improper viewpoint turns away “potential allies,” they did not come into the situation with the proper understanding of what being an ally means.
You don’t do it because it’s easy or because you want to be recognized for all the hard work you put in. The motivation should be doing it because it’s the right thing to do. If valid criticisms of a system or behavior causes someone to quit being an ally, then they were never an ally in the first place.