How to Fail at Being an Ally

As I wrote last week, people who do not identify as allies cause undue and often unintentional distress in marginalized groups. Some of them might be indifferent, some might not. Either way, in their case, it’s a simple lack of awareness. Presumably, one would expect more from fellow activists or self-identified allies, right?

Wait, do I hear a mass eye-rolling from Internet-land?

Indeed, if you know anything about the matter and/or have engaged in enough social justice-related activism or even just dialogue, you know that half-baked “allies” are often worse than the simply ignorant.One problem that allies can have is not checking their own privilege. Even when deliberately trying to be anti-sexist or anti-racist, an ally can be quite blind to their own bigotry, assumptions, or behavior.


Unpack your own knapsack, first.


Once, at a conference, I met a man who, upon hearing I wrote for this site, remarked that he knows how much we deal with and proceeded to apologize for his penis. I took a moment to quell my annoyance, then responded with a very flippant joke about how men always make everything about their penises, immediately following it with a clarification about how odd it is to have to comfort someone about their genitalia. I pointed out that we didn’t know each other and were in a public place, so his “sorry” had put the onus on me as the female feminist to clarify that I don’t hate men and am not opposed to penises. We talked further and I explained that I found his remark to be more than slightly off-base, including but not limited to its ciscentrism. He got defensive but then nodded along. As we parted, I promised to attend his panel the next day.


“How dare you brand me a racist? I’m an ally!”


The panel was comprised of two women and the man, the latter of whom served as moderator. At this particular con, mods often participated a great deal in the actual talking, but he crossed the line. He spent most of the time talking and expressing his own opinions loudly, brashly, and with much vulgarity. His fellow panelists barely got a moment to speak beyond their introductions; when he wasn’t speaking right over them, he couldn’t even remember their names, referring to them as “the librarian” and other generic terms. Later that day, when I ran into him in a hallway, I decided to just call him out. As I spoke, realization dawned on his face; he was somewhat chagrined and said that he hadn’t even realized what he had done until I pointed it out: apologizing for his genitals might be useless and potentially embarrassing to me, but nigh literally erasing women’s voices was blatantly sexist.

Similarly, there are men out there who will “apologize for their entire gender” (as if they had the authority to), straight people who declare their distaste for those “boring breeders,” and even white people who say “kill whitey” and cis people who say “die cis scum” without a trace of irony — and yet will turn around and impede the voices and actions of the very marginalized groups they claim to support.

In the case of the more hyperbolic statements, the very words that these unhelpful allies to marginalized groups choose to use in order to pledge their allegiance can be an impediment. Those who do not yet support or who actively oppose the group will hear them and say, “See? Their arguments so hateful and reductive, therefore they are wrong” when said arguments might not have even been posed by someone who was a part of said group.

Being a good ally means realizing that you are the reinforcements, not the primary corps. Allies are called upon to speak up and out when no one of an oppressed group can, but otherwise, they should talk a bit less and listen a bit more.

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. I really try to be aware of my privilege and not speak “for” women. I’ve found myself still having to support Rebecca (and Skepchicks in general) elsewhere, but I always frame my responses as “she said this”, “she didn’t say that” and “I think…” I try and hope I’m never “that guy”, and I know that I have at times when I was younger. (Oh the trials of being a CIS-hetero white guy! I don’t know how I’ll ever survive.)

  2. Nicely stated, and good analogy. I find I have to check my privilege regularly as a white cis woman, and more power to me. I look forward to the day when that sort of thing can be as uncontroversial as any other effort at self improvement.

  3. I think the key is to state your support if you’re not part of the group in question, and then stand back and just listen – not to preach or talk over. And help in any way you can.

  4. //talk a bit less and listen a bit more.//

    Above is the key piece of advice

    1. And how many of us can’t benefit from that advice, really? There are plenty of ways I should really do that.

  5. As a queer atheist, I get this from Christians a lot; they try to apologize for everything they’re certain the church must have done to me. Only the goal isn’t to genuinely empathize with me (the apology is usually offered apropos of nothing, or with the vague insinuation that anti-gay Jesus-enthusiasts played a lead role in the origin story of my atheism). It’s not to hear my story. It’s not to comfort me for any actual painful experiences because I haven’t shared any.

    No. It’s just to try to salvage the damn brand. They’re more concerned that someone might have a negative impression of their favorite deity. It’s not about me; it’s about them. Like with your guy, it wasn’t about you; it was about his penis.

    One of the more explicit examples of this was the time I was on campus, minding my own business, when an acolyte of one of the screechier traditions in Christendom, praying, like the hypocrites do, out loud on the streetcorner where others could see him (verily he has his reward), came up and yelled at me that I needed to learn the bible. I told him I’d gone to Christian school (can you tell?) and he said, “Christian school? That must be where you became A LESBIAN!”

    Now. That didn’t bother me. How could it? That’s some funny shit. But it seriously bothered a girl behind me, who had never met me, who put her hand on my shoulder and, through tears and sobs, told me that this dude didn’t represent the Jesus she knew.

    She comes up to me in class these days, shares her persimmons with me, asks me about my life and follows the cadences of my voice to know when it’s socially appropriate to tittle nervously.

    After a few minutes, she’ll invite me to her next prayer group and wander off. I always get the impression she’s not interested in a friendship with me, but actually sees herself as Christ’s body, reaching a hand out to a lost sinner. I’ll never be her equal. She’ll never be my ally, not really.

    And you know what? I prefer being screamed at. At least with street preacher, there’s no pretense of friendship. At least I get a funny story out of it.

  6. I honestly think the hardest lesson I had to learn (and one I keep having to remind myself of) is that I can never not be privileged. I’m straight, white, male, cis and middle-class from birth. It’s insane how much privilege I’ve got over someone without one or more of these conditions. And I’ll never get rid of that, which means that ‘checking my privilege’ isn’t something I need to do when it’s pointed out to me; it’s something I need to do pretty much constantly. And if I don’t, if I lapse and fall back into lazy, superficial heuristics, I’m likely going to hurt someone without meaning to.

  7. It is too bad the person did not recognize their privilege and use it for good, especially as they were moderating! Good for Heina for saying something!

    Privilege, when used for good, can be a useful asset in the fight to end sexism and discrimination. I think of when my daughter was just a little younger and we did play date/library story time and the like. I was reading an article about how men felt intimidated by these groups as mostly the moms take their kids. I thought to myself, if the dad is the primary caregiver the implication is that the kids are then less likely to participate in community activities, which would be a bummer! Seeing my privilege in this situation, I now try to say hi to the new parent regardless of their gender and try to be useful. It does make a difference.

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