Saturday, March 20, 2010

What It Means To Be An Ally

Socializing for Justice is hosting a facilitated small group discussion on this topic on Monday, 3/22 at 6pm at Elephant & Castle in Downtown Crossing. Details at

Beyond calling out racist, homophobic, and sexist jokes, being an ally is about inclusivity and being conscious of the spaces we create and whether they're welcoming. Being an ally means considering the world from someone else's point of view and adjusting our actions accordingly. It's about being mindful in practice and not just in theory. It's speaking up on behalf of those we're allied with so they don't have to, yet again. It's doing our part to make the spaces in the world we occupy safer and mutually supportive despite the overtly oppressive systems that keep us individually down and separate from each other. Being an ally means supporting each other's mental health by reducing the number of times "they" have to deal with other people's idea of "normal".

Below are some ideas for how to embody the ideal of being an ally. I wanted to create a list of ways we can proactively be allies instead of waiting for discrimination to happen before speaking up. Over the last few years I've been trying to incorporate them into my daily lived experience and I hope sharing them will help you do the same.

We often "other" people when we think we're complimenting them. But what we're remarking on is how they're different, exotic or strange. It may not be taken as a compliment when you say you like someone's skin color, kinky hair or accent. That's not something they chose. Just like they didn't choose to be tall. "Wow. You're tall! How tall are you?" Yeah, not very original and not a compliment. Reserve your "compliments" for things that a person chose, like a scarf, sunglasses, or boots and you're much more likely to get a "thanks!" in return.

People of Color
Relationships are what really matter. People attend events because they're interested in the activity or subject and/or because they know someone attending. Become conscious of what kinds of spaces you're creating - who's attending your events? It starts with you being aware of whether the room is mostly (or all) white people. If you don't even realize the room is all white then how can you begin to question why that is? Find ways to support and get connected with communities of color in your area. Education, healthcare and affordable housing are some of the issues on which to build a common ground. By working together you could form relationships with people who you might not otherwise have met. Recognize that the places you host your events and post your events will have an impact on who attends them. Stop asking "why don't 'they' come to my organization/event?" and start wondering "why don't I go to 'their' organization/event?". You don't know about them? Exactly. They don't appeal to you? Exactly. Organize and plan events with people of color instead of putting it all together first and then trying to woo them in at the end.

Bilingual/Non-English Speakers
Create materials in languages spoken by the community you're trying to reach. Don't advertise that you're bilingual if you would need more than a few hours to find someone who speaks that language.

Don't assume cultural norms nor that everyone wants to assimilate. A person may be undocumented or lack papers, but they are not "illegal" or "aliens". Not all immigrants lack documentation.

Ask how you can be helpful and don't just assume your actions are helpful. If you're hosting an event in a public space be sure it's wheelchair accessible. Either way always note in the event listing whether the space is accessible. Educate yourself on what "accessible" means. Having metal bars in restroom stalls are just the beginning. Is the hallway leading to the bathroom filled with boxes such that a wheelchair couldn't get by? Is the soap container so high on the wall that someone in a wheelchair couldn't reach it? Is the sink built so someone in a wheelchair could pull up to it and actually reach the faucet? There needs to be adequate clearance under the sink for that to be possible. You get the idea. These are the kinds of physical barriers that you could identify and speak up about so they're changed - or at the very least stop listing it as a W/A (wheelchair accessible) space.

If someone is blind introduce yourself as you approach them and mention who is standing with you. Offer to help them find a seat in a crowded room. Ask if guiding them by the elbow is best or if they prefer something else and mention possible tripping hazards. Once they're seated introduce who's sitting near them and offer to assist them with reading the menu, but don't order for them.

Become familiar with ASL interpreters in your area so if you do get a request for ASL you will know who to contact. On the event announcement invite attendees to contact you regarding accommodations 2 weeks prior to the event so you can plan accordingly.

Have chairs available for at least 20% of attendees if the event is "standing room only" as some disabilities are hidden and we're all only temporarily able-bodied.

Dr. George Tiller said "Listen to women". To do that we need to be sure we're creating spaces where women are visible and can be heard. Setting up a panel? Accepting workshop proposals for a conference? Be sure the presenters are not all white men. Ensure you have an adequate sound system for the size of the space so all presenters can literally be heard.

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Queer
When meeting someone don't assume the gender of their partner (or that they're partnered). Avoid pronouns when you don't know (ie. "Is there someone at home to help you while you recover?"). Knowing a partner's gender (or pronoun) doesn't tell the whole story about the person you're speaking to. Bisexuals may be in long-term straight, gay or lesbian relationships and still claim their bisexual identity proudly. Some people prefer queer to describe their sexuality.

Hosting an event? Teaching in a classroom? Presenting at a conference? When you do introductions ask attendees to say their name and preferred pronoun. Make this the norm instead of waiting to do it when you think someone in the group is transgender. Everyone can use the reminder that a person's gender isn't always "obvious". Renting a venue? Post a sign on the restrooms that make it clear their trans-friendly. "These are transgender friendly restrooms. Please use the facility that you are most comfortable using."

One size fits all? No. Plan ahead and don't ask for a booth in a restaurant if someone in your party might have trouble squeezing in. Choose tables with actual chairs instead. If the restroom stall isn't wheelchair accessible it's likely too small for some.

Food Restrictions
Create menus with vegetarian and vegan options - including a protein (cheese shouldn't be the only protein). Don't hide meat in dishes (bacon is not a seasoning, it's meat). Clearly mark buffet dishes and provide menu cards at sit-down dinners. Be sure some vegetable dips are vegan (hummus and salsa not ranch, blue cheese or honey mustard). Place vegetarian options at the end of the buffet line so non-vegetarians have food on their plate by the time they see it.

Eliminate common allergens from the menu whenever possible. Separate types of food so guests can create the meal that works best for them. Offer potatoes or rice instead of pasta so there's a gluten-free option. Don't cook with peanuts or tree nuts including in dressings and stuffing. Don't eat peanuts in public. People with severe allergies have reactions to the dust from the shells if they breath it. Those with allergies to peanuts or tree nuts may get hives if they touch a tainted surface and then touch their face.

Choose venues with a range of food prices. No food or drink minimums. No or low door fee. Near public transportation.

Do you have a tip you'd suggest for one of these categories? Are there other categories you'd suggest adding?
This list is far from complete. Since deciding to publish this tonight I've thought of several new categories that I plan to add in a future blog post: labels, tokenism, ageism, scent-free, houseless/homeless, parents/childcare. I'd love for this to become a living document - a dialogue - instead of a one-way post. Please share your best practices for inclusion with me in the comments section.

In solidarity,


  1. Thank you for the tips, Robbie! I never saw your blog before, but now I'll be a regular reader. As a vegetarian, I love your suggestion to put veg food at the end of the buffet so meat-eaters don't grab it all up! I also love the tip to include pronoun preference in all introductions so that it becomes normal for people to be in that mindset.

    A couple more tips for food restrictions from a mostly gluten-free eater: Gluten is hidden in many foods - even if a food doesn't seem likely to have wheat, barley or rye in it, it is still wise to check the labels, as almost all foods list their allergens clearly at the bottom of the ingredients list these days. Also, corn is another good gluten-free carb, and some people are actually restricted to corn instead of potatoes or rice.

  2. Great tips as always, from someone who knows about it for realz. I also think it's good to note, especially for people who WANT to be allies, that creating a welcoming space is the ENTRY point to doing good work; it's not the entirety of the work itself.


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