Practicing allyship goes beyond using hashtags on social media.

By Claire Gillespie
May 07, 2021
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If you feel angry at and frustrated by the way marginalized groups are treated, you might be wondering what you can do to make a difference. You might also have heard the words "ally" and "allyship" being used—but aren't quite sure exactly what they mean.

What is allyship?

The definition of allyship is fairly simple—it's when a person from a non-marginalized group, like a white person, uses their privilege to advocate for a marginalized group, like the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) community or LGBTQ+ folks.

"Being an ally means supporting and actively working to protect and advance the rights and well-being of marginalized people," Jo Eckler, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist and author of You Can't Fix Them—Because They're Not Broken: A Sustainability Guide for Tired Helpers and Healers, tells Health.

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Credit: Getty Images

Often, allyship means finding ways to transfer your power or privilege to those who lack it, says coach and activist Holiday Phillips. "In the context of anti-racism in white majority countries, this looks like white-identified people advocating for the needs of people of color," Phillips tells Health.

Eckler emphasizes that allyship is an active—not a passive—identity. In other words, it's not enough to use #BlackLivesMatter or #TransRightsAreHumanRights. This type of passive allyship, designed to boost your own social standing, has also been called "optical allyship," a term widely attributed to Latham Thomas, founder of Mama Glow and author of Own Your Glow: A Soulful Guide to Luminous Living and Crowning the Queen Within. According to Thomas, optical allyship "only serves at the surface level to platform the 'ally.'" As she writes in her 2020 book, "It makes a statement but doesn't go beneath the surface and is not aimed at breaking away from the systems of power that oppress."

A closer look at allyship

Showing public support of a cause is a positive action, of course. But to be a true ally, you need to go much further in the real world, not just on your social media channels.

While Nicole Sanchez tries to stay agnostic about terms around social change work, she tells Health that "ally" is one that deserves to be re-examined with more scrutiny.

"It has been stripped of meaning in social change spaces," says Sanchez, the founder and CEO of Vaya, a consultancy firm that works with a wide range of business clients to improve the diversity and inclusivity of their workplaces.

For many marginalized communities, the terms come of as, "I'm not like you, but I care," Sanchez explains.

"This seems fine on the surface," she says. "The problem is that 'allyship' requires nothing more than claiming it. It does not require significant risk in any meaningful way. So while activists, organizers, and people living with the realities of a social ill—say police violence—are putting themselves on the line to make change, 'ally' connotes a passive bystander. It says 'l care about this, but it's optional.'

According to Sanchez, changemakers are looking for people to put skin in the game, and "co-conspirators" is a phrase that is often used in place of "ally." "It means an acceptance of risk, a recognition of the moral imperative to make change, and that it is necessary for everyone's liberation to, for example, end police violence against communities of color," Sanchez explains.

In 2016, writer, professor, and social commentator Roxanne Gay wrote in a Marie Claire article titled On Making Black Lives Matter: "Black people do not need allies. We need people to stand up and take on the problems borne of oppression as their own, without remove or distance."

Gay continues, "We need people to do this even if they cannot fully understand what it's like to be oppressed for their race or ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, class, religion, or other marker of identity. We need people to use common sense to figure out how to participate in social justice."

How to practice allyship

If someone feels that they lack allies in their life, the consequences can be serious. "It can lead to depression, anxiety, and avoiding social situations," Eckler says. In extreme cases, someone might be scared to do everyday things that people in non-marginalized groups take for granted on a daily basis—like leave the house or apply for jobs. "They don't expect to find allies anywhere," she explains.

If you're a white individual, be an ally by starting with your own life. "Look at the ways in your life where white people are granted privilege over people of color," Phillips says. "This can be something as clear as speaking up when you see or hear racism in the moment. Or it could be more subtle, like noticing the ways that 'white' is the norm and finding and seeking to change that."

If you're a parent, Phillips suggests making an active choice to ensure that the books, toys, and media you expose your child to represent a wide range of ethnicities. If you're a business leader, notice who you do and don't see in leadership positions in your company—and make a conscious effort to question this and seek to change it.

"If you can't specify a specific place in which you have power, you can seek out areas you feel passionate about changing," Phillips says. For instance, if you feel a strong pull toward justice issues, you might turn your attention to the disproportionate number of Black men who are stopped and searched by police, and then find a campaign group to lend your support to.

Or maybe you feel passionate about health care—a sphere filled with health disparities. For starters, African Americans make up 45% of HIV diagnoses but are roughly 13% of the US population; reported rates of suicide attempts are up to seven times higher in LGBTQ+ youth than those who identify as heterosexual; and Native Americans have a greater chance of having diabetes than any other US population. If this is something you're interested in, you can investigate groups seeking to improve access to health care for marginalized groups.

"The important thing is to know that no one person can do it all, and so we each individually need to locate where we have power and where we have passion and then commit to taking action there," Phillips says. And it's important to be specific, she adds—do the research to understand what exactly it is you're seeking to change about racial, sexual, gender, or cultural inequality. "A broad strokes approach doesn't help," she explains. "Not all marginalized groups are affected in the same way; you need to take the time and initiative to seek out information and understand where injustices persist."

The truth is, there isn't a clear-cut guide to allyship, or a checklist to work through. "Take the time to work out what you care about, and then start small," Phillips says. "Maybe it's donating to a charity. Maybe it's changing who you vote for. Maybe it's simply noticing that you clutch your bag a little tighter when you walk past a Black boy in a hood and consciously stopping it. Start where you are and the rest will follow."

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