How to be a better ally
This is a post about how to be a better ally in support of oppressed groups. It uses feminism as the main example. It is primarily aimed at men who are aiming to become better allies to feminist women, or cisgender people who are aiming to become better allies to transgender people. Hopefully, it also applies to anyone who wants to support or advocate in legion with people who lack the cultural and lived privileges you have.
If you're reading this, you probably have all the qualities I'm going to suggest. Awesome! That said, maybe you can pick up something regardless. Let's start.
You earn 'ally' status
You don't get to decide whether or not you are behaving in an allied way/as an ally: people you're supporting do. This is the primacy of lived experience. This might seem blindingly obvious, but it's a big problem in the ally community. While there's no hegemony of oppression, no feminist cabal – despite the message depicted by high-profile pundits – there are people who are actively oppressed by society, and there is you: an individual who wants to support them. So they come first, always.
White Knighting, Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism, Mansplaining – these derive in part from a lack of ability to see how you, as an ally, fit into the bigger picture. And this is all about big pictures. If you assume your allied status where it isn't granted, you remove the right of the oppressed party to grant this right.
Removing this right to choose is simply another oppression on your part. If they reject you, the problem lies with you. Rethink.
Listen. If an argument made by a member of a group you're trying to support comes across as wrong, think on why, and examine your position slowly. Then raise it as a question: this is your understanding; you want to improve it; why/how is it wrong? How can it be better? What is missing? Question from a place of learning, and with a genuine desire to understand.
Equalism is insufficient
A lot of people who wear the 'ally' mantle like to think of themselves as 'equalists'. To give a feminist example: feminism is awash with men who believe themselves to be allies because they treat men and women equally (in their eyes). At the moment, that's not enough. The reasons are twofold: firstly, because you haven't a hope in hell of accurately and 'objectively' examining where your subconscious cultural biases lie, and secondly, because the bigger picture is so drastically tilted in one direction that to sit in the middle of the seesaw fails to shift the balance in any significant way. Affirmative action is, for many intents and purposes, the only action.
Plenty has been written about the first reason why equalism is insufficient: it ties with systemic oppression, which is (broadly speaking) a set of unexamined – and possibly unexaminable – cultural biases we act out unthinkingly. It's not impossible to discover and root out some of these biases; we'll talk about an approach for that later.
Regarding the second: it's not about you at the moment. Anti-feminists and unthinking oppressors outnumber positive-action feminists, and will do for a fair time to come. Therefore, taking an egalitarian 'middle ground' does little more than reinforcing the status quo. With enough action, this will change. Hopefully, with enough time, we can turn ourselves to egalitarian matters: but the field needs to be balanced first. When trying to balance a seesaw with so many people sitting on the oppressive end, it does little good to sit in the middle.
Allies are Advocates
Advocate outside of feminist groups. This is hardest, but you cannot reasonably call yourself an ally if you're not willing to fight on behalf of those with whom you are allied. At best, you're a neutral party on good terms. Advocacy means spreading language, speaking up when you hear the same old views talking, expecting people to question their own assumptions, and making more allies. Leaving the social rebalancing to an oppressed group, while refusing to take part yourself, is not allied behaviour.
Question all your assumptions
Remember cultural bias? Culture goes deep in all of us, informing almost everything we believe. Read around everything. Challenge every assumption you make. Our body of human knowledge is founded on patriarchal ideas, and wrought through a patriarchal history. The sum total of human understanding is skewed in the favour of a dichotic elite, and some of it is wrong as a result.
Sure, there are obvious assumptions you can challenge. Pink for girls; blue for boys – why? But challenge harder, read further. Where did misogyny come from? Who's exploiting it for gain? How about the ideas of 'man' and 'woman' as opposed categories? Are there cultures that fly in the face of this trend (yes, there are). Why? Why does our own not admit of them? Which of the hundreds of competing historical cultural groups benefitted? What about 'male' and 'female'? Are genitalia the whole picture? Are chromosomes?
A lot of what you have intuited and been taught – those things that found the skewed set of assumptions that are the basis of the way you see the world – carries the principal idea of constantly reinforcing dichotic (binary, opposed) thinking: usually for the benefit of retaining a status quo (in favour of a more powerful entity that gets to dictate cultural 'truths'). Be suspicious of anything over-simplified: the truth of anything is rarely so simple.
Those are a few things, off the top of my head, that I believe are important in a good ally, and which I see lacking in so many. I consider myself to be an ally in accordance with these things, because I have been referred to as such by the groups I claim to support. But I am alway hungry to be a better one, and to help shift the seesaw somewhere back towards a middle ground. I suggest that, as an aspiring or qualified ally, you do the same.