Don’t be a Mannequin: Advice on Effective Allyship

by Shel R, Originally published in The Omen in November 2013

The article tackles the question “What does it mean to be actively anti-blank versus passively anti-blank? It argues that to be an ally who is actively anti-blank means to put effort into taking work off of the shoulders of the those you are trying to be an ally to. It also describes a social phenomenon of people of an oppressor class frequently deferring to members of an oppressed class on what is or is not offensive, such that it creates more work for members of the oppressed class.

To be actively anti-[insert an oppression here that is not your own] requires that you don’t just side with that oppressed group when it is in the news. You have to be actively thinking about and engaging with that issue, trying to understand for yourself what is oppressive so that you can try and evaluate when something is problematic on your own. You see, a lot of people who want to be an ally, or who just don’t want to be “problematic”, will do this thing where they’ll defer to people from an oppressed group about what is oppressive and what is not. They are afraid that they’ll be wrong and end up being racist/(cis)sexist/transphobic/ableist/homophobic/offensive themselves, and they know that the oppression is not their own experience so they don’t think they’re able to evaluate things on their own. So they just defer to oppressed people about what to do and what to think. “Is this offensive? Is that offensive? I saw this comment chain online and I don’t know what to say but someone said the word trans and…” They want to just be a posable mannequin that is used for the cause.

The problem with this is that it does not actually help the oppressed people you’re trying to be an ally to. Oppressed people have to deal with their oppressions every day, constantly explaining it, it’s exhausting. A good ally should take work off of the shoulders of oppressed people. By deferring to your friend who’s trans all the time about how to refer to someone’s body parts or what they think about some article or thing you overheard in the dining hall, you’re just making more work for them that they might not otherwise even encounter and get upset about.

To be an actively anti-something ally, you need to actively learn about and educate yourself about those topics, really think hard and get to a point where you can see something and say “Wow, that is certainly racially problematic” and really understand why that thing is problematic, not just that you heard from your friend who’s black that things like that are problematic for some reason you forgot. (Because cognitively it’s more difficult to store and reference like 500 instances of specific examples than an understanding of a topic that you can derive your own examples from when needed). You have to get over your fears of talking about and engaging with these issues! A fear of talking about an issue only perpetuates the problem! If you do mess up, step back, apologize, and learn from it.

This is not to say that you should ever speak for or over the people you are trying to be an ally to. Do collect your people and explain to them why they’re being problematic, but do not try and “speak for the people”. You still don’t know what it’s like to be the kind of oppressed you’re being actively anti-, but you can still try and understand why some things are oppressive. When you understand for yourself, then you can and should actively engage other people in these discussions and educate them. Because people will listen to you, and you have more energy for this! Now you’re actually being helpful. A mannequin that is posed to be “right” is a passive prop that isn’t very useful. An actual living person who understands and engages with topics of oppression is a very useful person to have around.