Being an Ally, Use of Privilege and Trust

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Social Justice Solidarity: Dialogue (Photo credit: Grant Neufeld)

In social justice, an ally is someone who works for the rights of a group without being a member of that group.  As a white, cisgendered (look the same gender as I feel), able bodied, college educated, middle class woman, I am a feminist, but when I work for racial equality, social justice for the poor, or equal rights for LBGT people, I am an ally.

For those of us who devote our lives to social justice, ally work is often a major part of what we do.  It is both important work, and difficult work to do well. Ally work is deeply tied with privilege.  In social justice work, someone who has privilege is someone who gets unearned benefits because of some circumstance of birth or upbringing. For instance, because I’m white, I get white privilege, which grants me multiple advantages over people of color in both small and large ways throughout my life.

My privilege is a fact that I have little control over.  What I do with that privilege, however, I have a great deal of control over. And there’s the rub.  No matter how hard I try I will inevitably misuse my privilege on occasion.  I will say things thoughtlessly.  I will frame things in a way that is hurtful or damaging to those I try to help.

While I was thinking about this piece, Sarah at Feministe published The Right to Fuck Up. It talks more generally about mistakes than I do here, but it does make the same point that as human beings, we will make them, and it’s okay.

In ally work, though, there is a caveat.  Ally work is dependent on building trust.  People who are oppressed by virtue of circumstances of birth have a long history of being put aside, devalued, and not listened to by people who are not oppressed in the same way.  By the time someone enters social justice work on her own behalf, she has learned, rightfully, that trust is something that needs to be earned by those who claim to be allies.

So allies can’t make too many mistakes.  And if they do make mistakes, they need to make real amends — not “I’m sorry if…” apologies or half-hearted promises to not do it again, but real changes that make it less likely that it will happen again.

Here’s my own story of ally OMGWTFBBQ.  This one is kind of minor, and no one called me out on it but myself, but I have spent the entire week fretting about it — another factor that led to this post.

Nearly twenty years ago, long before I started doing ally work, I wrote a really nifty little story for middle school aged kids, about cats solving their own problems, and called it “The Cat Confederacy”.  I named the cat group that because of the nifty alliteration, and not because of any connection to the antebellum south, but still, there it was.

Well, this spring I dusted it off and decided it would make a lovely little ebook at the 2.99 USD price point, a one off short story a kid can read over and over.  I have a couple other stories written in the universe, and my readers consistently tell me they love the stories, so I figured I’d publish it first, then each of the other two, while working on more.  I figured there had to be one or two people out there willing to spend the price of a coffee on my little story.

I spent several weeks polishing the story.  I’ve become a much better writer over the years, and the end result is a much more satisfying story.  I renamed the story “A Matter of Some Urgency” to match the language tone of the main character, and renamed the series, rather than the story, “The Cat Confederacy”.  I was bothered by the word “Confederacy”, but I really didn’t want to give up the nifty alliteration, so what’s a writer to do.

Fast forward.  I have it published on Smashwords, and have submitted it for publication on for Kindle, and a friend on Facebook sees a note I’ve written about it and makes an offhand comment about how she can’t see the title without thinking Civil War.

And. That’s. So. Not. What. I. Wanted.  Cats don’t even have a concept of racism.  They have a concept of class-ism, but even a cursory glance at a mamma cat’s litter lets you know that mamma didn’t discriminate about who the father could be.

But here’s the funny part (funny, slap upside the head, funny — not funny, ha ha, funny).  The second my friend wrote that, I realized that with a change of a few short letters, I could completely eliminate the problem and retain the alliteration I loved.

Twenty years of defending the title of my story in my own head because “I had no choice”, and in ten minutes I had amended the document file, and in another forty had amended the title, and now, two days later, I proudly have “A Matter of Some Urgency,” A Cat Confederation Story published on Smashbooks and resubmitted to

See, that’s what privilege does.  It blinds you.  This really is a silly little example, but I really was utterly blind that there was a simple solution — because it was not that important to me until it was pointed out at the right time, in the right way.  To quote Sarah, I fucked up.  (Not my usual public language, try to keep my blogs PG-13, but no time for clutching pearls here.)

None of my African American friends pointed out my mistake to me, and I’ll always wonder whether it was because it wasn’t that big a deal, because I’d earned their trust and they knew I ‘meant well’, or because even though it irked them, it was just another instance of “allies behaving badly” and they didn’t have the energy to mess with it.

I’m not going to dwell on it.  I fixed my mistake, and go back to trying my dangest to being a good ally, and remember, always that trust has to be earned again and again, no matter how long you do ally work, no matter how much you’ve done.

Ally work requires you to develop and sustain consciousness of privilege.  I will never, ever complain about that, because not only my ally work, but the consciousness it has brought to my life, have enriched my life greatly. Thank you.


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