Screen shot 2013-08-18 at 9.47.52 PM

Thoughts on the Challenge of Being an Ally | By Mary Rolf

For me discrimination of any kind is about loss. Something essential to your personhood (dignity, sense of worth, feeling of safety, etc.) has been taken from you and you are justifiably upset about it. Sometimes it’s something you’re afraid to lose based on past experience. Sometimes it’s something you didn’t know you could lose and the shock is sickening. It feels awful when another person doesn’t respect your loss. It feels worse when they don’t understand how they are contributing to it.

We readily admit that some losses are beyond our comprehension. When someone’s house burns down we don’t tell the displaced person that we understand completely. When a friend’s child dies we acknowledge that we simply can’t imagine what he’s going through. It’s presumptuous to say otherwise. These intense physical and emotional losses are relatively clear cut. Discrimination is a trickier beast. At some point we all experience it for any number of reasons and we all know more or less what it feels like. It seems like we should be able to empathize.

That’s not necessarily true. Empathy depends on the assumption that you can effectively put yourself in someone else’s shoes, which is only possible if you share the experience. But discrimination is nuanced enough – by factors including but not limited to gender, race, socioeconomic status, and health – that much of the time we have to admit that we just don’t know what it feels like. Our experience is not the same. I can only empathize authentically with the forms of discrimination I’ve experienced personally, for example, let’s say discrimination based on gender. This doesn’t mean if you don’t share my experience and can’t empathize you aren’t allowed to speak at all; it simply means because you can’t empathize you can’t speak for me. You can certainly stand alongside and speak with me about the issue. That’s called being an ally. That said I also have to recognize that I experience gender discrimination as a white heterosexual female. My experience of gender discrimination is quite different than a trans/ bisexual female who may also be dealing with racism.

I must acknowledge, too, that in some twisted ways I actually benefit from discrimination against others. This is what it means to start examining one’s privilege – another essential part of being an ally. I appear healthy and fit by society’s standards so I do not suffer from ableism. I do not know what it is like to be a person of colour and on the receiving end of racism. While there have certainly been times where I felt being young was a challenge credibility-wise, ageism against the elderly is by default in favour of my youth. I sympathize with victims of all these forms of discrimination, but as much as I might want to, I cannot empathize.

In observing a few debates around gender equality recently I’ve noticed that admitting this is sometimes a problem for people who consider themselves to be allies. They have all the best intentions. They care deeply about equality. They want to champion it and educate others about it. They are shocked when the very people they are trying to support object to the way they are expressing their views or point out gaps in understanding where other forms of discrimination intersect with the debate. For instance, this week on Twitter some women of colour objected to Sunday’s #twittersilence day, which was intended to raise awareness of online abuse and threats of violence. These women of colour pointed out that choosing silence is a luxury, one they didn’t feel they had because in their experience they were silenced whether they chose to be or not. It was not an effective campaign for them. In fact, it further isolated them. From a position of relative privilege it’s tempting to say things like: “Isn’t there room for everyone in the debate?” “If you want equality shouldn’t it start right here?” “Why are you wasting time and energy on infighting?” “Aren’t we all on the same side? Stop lashing out at the wrong people.”

This isn’t frivolous infighting, it’s people who care about an issue saying that their problem is not being addressed in the current climate. That’s an important message. As Michael Kimmel puts it, “privilege is invisible to those who have it.”

The way I have come to see it, being a true ally means respecting someone’s experience as they experienced it. I define it in my own life as speaking with those you’re supporting, not for them. It’s not about saying “Me too! I was also once discriminated against in this other way, I totally get you. We’re discrimination soul mates.” Nor is it about saying “Your quest for equality will tip the scales in the other direction and discriminate against me. Stop trying to start discriminating against me!”

What it is about is listening. The novelist Thomas King once wrote that “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” In order to understand each other we have to respect the stories people tell us when they talk about themselves. This is at the very heart of being an ally.

If you consider yourself an ally against any form of discrimination, that is a really wonderful thing. You’ve seen a pattern or issue that you object to and are willing to fight for change alongside the people who are experiencing it. You’re making yourself part of the solution, and with your help the tides of public opinion will slowly but surely change. Sometimes listening is hard. When you feel strongly about something you want to do more, to act. The challenge of being an ally is understanding that listening is active, not passive. Thank you for listening.

Mary would like to send thanks to Gina Catena for the video and encouragement.

Screenshot from

Related posts: