Have My Back: A Quick and Dirty Guide to Being An Ally

There are lots of really great, in-depth guides to being an ally, as well as some written to aid specific allies in specific contexts.  They make the rounds every once a while, but often don’t seem to reach the people who need them. That’s why it didn’t surprise me that, at Eschaton this past weekend, one of the questions asked of the gender panel was, in essence, how to be a good one.

While Ophelia, Natalie, Ania, and PZ shed quite a bit of light onto the topic, I contributed this: Simply put, have my back.

Don’t get in front of me and talk for me. Don’t stand off to the side and do nothing. Back me up.

It’s quite easy to see the problem with standing off to the side and doing nothing, but a bit harder to see how presumably supportive action can be problematic. I will present a snippet from this weekend — anecdotal evidence, if you will, but useful in illustrating what I mean by someone getting in front of me.

I traveled to Eschaton on the red-eye on Thursday night. Since it was a full flight from LAX to Toronto and I was the second last person to board, I had to look around quite a bit for a place to put my bag in the overhead bin without damaging someone else’s luggage. As I examined the one bin with any empty space, I figured out the best possible configuration in my head — placing a smaller bag sideways — and was about to make my move. Before I could, however, a man suddenly rose from his seat, snatched up my suitcase, and shoved it roughly into the overhead bin. He completely squished the bag I had intended to move and made it impossible to close the bin in the process. The owner of the smaller bag shot me the stink-eye. I said, “Hey, let me tilt that bag,” but before I could, the “helpful” man rearranged the squished bag so that the bin could be closed.



This was a case of someone standing in front of me. Instead of allowing me to do what I needed to do, he assumed that I was helpless and needed his assistance. He may have had good intentions, may have wanted to be nice, may have wanted to help, but in doing so, he touched my belongings without my consent, potentially damaged someone else’s belongings, and robbed me of agency.

He also validated the sexism of a flight attendant who was passing by, who remarked with warmth “See? This is why we need men! I don’t care what anyone says!”

Similarly, some people act for others with the intention of helping in some way, but end up overwhelming the agency of the very marginalized folks they intended to aid. They may do so for what they feel are good reasons, but their over-zealousness is not helpful.



This is especially true when taking into account that many members of marginalized groups might exhibit what is thought to be reluctance to engage but is really deliberation and care learned over years of addressing the issue at hand.  In other words, I was hesitant to just shove my bag into an overhead container lest I be stereotyped as a careless woman lacking spacial reasoning.

As a man, he could shove bags into bins thoughtlessly and then correct his mistake without someone accusing his entire gender of some sort of deficiency. The flight attendant didn’t even notice his error; all she noticed was a man placing a woman’s bag in the overhead bin. At the same time, the owner of the bag blamed the man’s carelessness on me while allowing the flight attendant to praise the man without interjection. I would have been better “helped” by the man not assuming that I was helpless.

In other words, if you’re really an ally, try giving the group you’re trying to support a little credit.

Caveat: This was an example of someone who was, as far as I knew, not a self-identified ally. They have their own peculiar way of  (not)”helping,” which I will discuss in a follow-up tomorrow.

Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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  1. Definately a good lesson you provide here, and an excellent example provided in the story.

    I was over-zealous once or twice on this site.
    I could’ve used the lessons given here for guidence.

  2. A surprisingly apt and pertinent example (whether or not he’s a self-described ally). Pretty much a perfect metaphor for helping in general and one I’ll have to remember to explain Agency.

  3. Well recently there was a local African American’s group on a campus nearby. At a bar I heard one of its members ranting that their open membership policy had led to so many “white allies” showing up that group discussions became more about race politics, and helping white folk understand their racism than it was about the black people in the group building community.

    When they brought this up, the white allies were offended, hurt, and complained that they were being ostracized.

    The white allies were standing in front. And the group had to meet eventually in secret to avoid them.

  4. This is a great topic – one that, as a white, heterosexual man, I’m sure I can learn alot from. Often, oppressive dynamics give rise to the oppressor being “helpful” in exactly the way mentioned in your text. The actions are taken not to help the marginalized person, they are taken to make the helper feel good about themselves. Regarding dr dr’s comment – we have affinity groups a my workplace and these group must be open to everyone. I have always had a problem with this policy because of the exact reason he gives.

  5. This is indeed one of the most important things allies (or prospective allies) need to keep it mind. Being an ally isn’t just about knowing when to act; it’s also about knowing when to back off. If you fail to act when you should, the worst that can happen is that you don’t help when you could. But if you act when you shouldn’t, you can actively cause harm. Both the post here and dr. dr. professor’s example are good examples of this.

    I think the most concise way to explain this to prospective allies is to simply say, “It’s not about you.” I know it may hurt to be excluded or told your help isn’t needed at a specific moment, but trying to help when it isn’t needed isn’t actually helping anyone. You’re just getting in the way.

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