Do you consider yourself an ally? If yes, to whom? The LGBTQ+ community? The Black community? Asians? The LatinX community? What about women, parents, or the elderly? Do you consider yourself an ally to immigrants and refugees or the unhoused?
If you said, “yes,” to any or all of the above, what makes you believe you’re an ally?
Is it the way you directly support the underserved/underprivileged, either by sheltering, feeding, protecting, or otherwise helping them? Is it because you consistently advocate for certain people’s rights via signature on petitions, participation at protests or proactive call outs when someone is being biased? Is it because you personally enact new policies, or at least propose them, to protect human rights?
If you said, “no” or “I’m not sure,” why don’t you consider yourself an ally?
Is it because you don’t believe you’re doing enough to fight for others’ rights? That you believe an ally is someone who proactively champions equality in a more politically charged manner. Or is it because you don’t fully understand what it takes to be an ally and the ways you can show up?
No matter your current stance, there’s always room – and reason – for improvement.
It’s also possible that allyship feels difficult for one reason or another, perhaps because of your personal beliefs, cultural expectations, fear of retaliation, or preference to avoid conflict. If that’s the case, just remember that we can all do things differently, better, to ensure we’re not letting inherent biases influence our actions or inaction. So, I spoke with some Zebra colleagues who consider themselves allies to understand what it really means – and takes – to be an ally in today’s society:
Laura: For many years, people associated the term “ally” with someone who supported the LGBTQ+ community, but it’s starting to become a more pervasive descriptor for those who support and stand up for others. Would you agree?
Donna Biscuiti: Yes. I believe people are generally more aware that there is a need for this type of change and inclusion.
Darren Sullivan: I agree allyship is starting to be seen more in that light – beyond just being an ally for the LGBTQ+ community.
James Morley-Smith: The LGBTQ+ community of allies has demonstrated that even if you don’t identify with the community, you can show your understanding and empathy for the challenges faced and stand up for change. This has proved not just effective, but simply the right thing to do. It’s great that this is now something that is now an essential part of building respect in communities.
Laura: Do you think it’s possible to be an ally to some groups of people and not others?
James: I believe it’s important for everyone to have respect for each other, whether it’s race, gender or beliefs – and with that comes allyship. Perhaps the question is more about whether you are an active ally versus passive, or maybe there is even a scale between them.
Donna: To James’ point, I do believe that it is possible for you to be an ally for some groups and not others if you are not doing it intentionally. For instance, you may be acting outside of your own consciousness without being aware that you’re actually favouring one group or another. However, I do believe if you are dedicating yourself as an ally, you should practice it throughout all groups of people.
Darren: It’s possible that you may be an ally of a women’s group but for religious reasons feel you can’t support or be an ally of an LGBTQ+ group. Clearly as an ally of an LGBTQ+ group, I would disagree with that, but I understand it can be challenging for some people to support a group or community due to their beliefs. This is where an ally can be really helpful. If they are part of religious group, they have a common connection with that person and could help to explain why they are able to be an ally of the LGBTQ+ community and still share those religious beliefs.
Laura: It’s been argued that allyship is not self-defined – that work and efforts as an “ally” must be recognised by those with whom you are seeking to ally. What do you think about that?
Darren: I self-define as an ally, and I don’t look to be recognised, so I wouldn’t be comfortable requiring that recognition or validation. Also, who would provide that recognition? There isn’t a membership group providing governance for a marginalised community. If there is, they probably aren’t a marginalised community. I think you can self-define, but for it to be real you need to do something, not just say you are an ally.
James: I think that identifying as an ally can be useful in that it gives you an opportunity to raise awareness to others of the value of allyship. It can also be useful for people to highlight when you or someone has been an ally so that their actions can be recognised as helpful. However, you don’t need to first sign up as an ally to take on positive actions.
Donna: I’m not sure how I feel about this question if I’m being honest. Being an ally is my personal choice. Someone who may need my voice or support may not take the initiative to ask for my help. I may choose to willingly give it whether they’re seeking that action or not.
Laura: Do you feel there’s a “right way” to be an ally?
James: I don’t believe there is a “right way.” All I would say is that none of us are perfect, and it’s important to recognise that being an ally does not mean you suddenly have all the answers or that you are the exemplary representative of a community. Listening, understanding, being a role model and being active for change is the best starting point for us all.
Donna: I agree. The only way to be a good ally is to actually practice it. You cannot just say you’re an ally without actions to follow up your words. I read once online that being an ally is a verb, not a noun. I think that’s a very powerful message to absorb.
Darren: I actually believe there is a “right way” in the sense you need to be visible and do something to truly be an ally. You can’t say you are an ally and that is it. How much you do will be a measure of how useful you are as an ally, but the fact you are doing something and being visible is the starting point for doing it right in my view. The LGBTQ+ community is also unique because not everyone wants to share their sexual orientation or gender with someone for a whole host of reasons. But being able to identify as an ally is an easier way to show support without feeling you have to share more personal information about yourself. You may well find someone identifies as an LGBTQ+ ally who also happens to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community but they don’t want to share that last part with everyone. So, being an ally is their “right way” and that is just fine. Showing support is the right way.
Laura: Is there a certain level of effort that is required to be recognised as an ally? Meaning, does quantity matter as much as quality?
James: No! There is no minimum or maximum. Just being respectful and having empathy is huge.
Donna: I don’t know how you would measure being an ally. It’s something you just do. Being an ally is not something you do for yourself, you do it for others who need the support you may be able to give to level the ground of opportunities.
Darren: I would ask people to give what they can. The more allies there are the better so that the quantity of activity moves from a few drips of activity/resistance to a wave of many allies. Ideally you want both quantity and quality, but don’t let ideal get in the way of making some change. Start small or use some homemade production of something and grow and improve. Don’t wait for perfection before you begin.
Laura: We often hear that, to be an effective ally, words and actions must be in sync – that words without actions are detrimental. What are your thoughts about that? Do you feel words can be considered action?
Darren: Words can be a powerful action, but only if others can hear or read them. Otherwise you are talking to yourself. Our laws and governments are based on words – they effectively control our lives – and we can change them if we take action and use our words to push for change. For me, I feel it is important to be consistent in what I say and do. People tend to remember what you do more than what you say, so where I can, I try to do something more than talk about it.
James: If words are the barrier that prevents someone from acting for positive change, then words are not necessary. However, words can be extremely powerful. Speaking up when you feel someone has acted in a negative way could make all the difference. Explaining to someone when you see positive allyship can cause an understanding that drives behaviour.
Donna: Personally, I think you can be an ally in a number of different ways. It can be as simple as a kind word or gesture, but it can also be to know when to not step in. As you grow in your role of being an effective ally, I think you naturally become aware of when to step in, when to speak up and when you may just need to let others take the lead. Words and actions go hand in hand – but sometimes they don’t necessarily have to be in sync, in my opinion.
Laura: I hear this one all the time in my role: “What happens if I try to be an ally and I get it wrong?” What are your thoughts on that?
Darren: That’s life isn’t it?! I’ve tried many things and have got some things wrong. The important part for me was the intent and being willing to say sorry. As I’ve said before I’m an LGBTQ+ ally and this can be a minefield with various terms and references which can at times be confusing. I’ve tried to approach this by asking questions to understand and being open and respectful with people. You are going to get things wrong, as that is what happens when you try something new. So, say sorry and ask for help navigating the path from other allies.
James: Darren's right. We all get things wrong. That’s how we learn! It’s far better to be an active participant and to get it wrong occasionally than to be passive and never get things right.
Donna: One thing I have learned listening to others in Zebras of African Descent (ZAD) employee resource group meetings is that you need to show up with your authentic self. You shouldn’t be afraid to voice your questions. As long as you are always being respectful and mindful of others’ feelings, there is no right way or wrong way to learn. You also may need to un-learn a few things that you may not have even realised were offensive or not quite helpful. Don’t be afraid to explore a better way for all – together.
Laura: What can people do to ensure their allyship actions are authentic versus performative (or viewed as such)?
Donna: You need to be honest with yourself that you’re being an ally for the right reasons – that you’re not showing up to be an ally just to “check a box.” You need to want to actually be an ally.
Darren: So, don’t turn up and say your boss told you that you had to be more involved in I&D activities. That wouldn’t be a good start. Do something that interests you or you want to learn more about as your authentic self, as your interest will show through when you get engaged. Do something more than once and actually get involved, even if that is just asking a question on a coffee chat. Attending an event or meeting is a good start but actually getting involved will help show you are authentic. Others will judge whether you are authentic, so you need to show up and be involved and do this consistently as yourself.
James: If you feel you are doing the right thing, you probably are. You can always ask someone if they feel what you are doing is helpful and you can listen and adapt to responses.
Laura: Do you feel allyship can take place in a community or organisation whose population is mostly homogenous? If so, how?
James: I am the father of four boys, but I am an ally for women. I want to be an example to my children and ensure that they grow up understanding the importance of equality and equity, a I believe this is even more important based on the fact they are all male. This example is even more true when scaled up to a larger community or organisation.
Donna: If you are in a community or organisation that is mostly homogenous, allyship can take place by adopting a mentoring-type program. I feel any community or any organisation can benefit by having a more inclusive and diverse group of people to generate ideas you may not have thought of. Be an ally and take a chance on someone that isn’t exactly like you. The results could be quite rewarding!
Darren: Like both James and Donna said, if a community or organisation is mostly homogenous then you are a population of potential allies if you can encourage even a small part to become allies. I don’t accept the premise we are all the same, so there is always an opportunity to find an ally and then build more within a community as the first ally helps to encourage others.
Laura: In your experience, is allyship going to look different depending on who it is that you are trying to support? For example, would it take a different level of engagement or action to be an ally for parents as compared to being an ally for racial minority groups, or providing support or shelter for refugees, let’s say?
Darren: Allyship will be different as the challenges each minority group – or each individual – faces are unique. Similar approaches of allyship may work universally, but the basic role of allyship to support and advocate for a minority group and use your position as someone who probably isn’t experiencing those challenges is just as useful. In other words, the urgency and type of support required will surely be different, but the basic role of allyship remains.
James: How you engage as an ally is also going to differ because it’s something personal to you.
Donna: Good point. I’ve tackled tough conversations with some parents or folks who may not have had the same exposure to discrimination as I am aware of or even experienced myself. Not everyone has the same advantages or the same awareness. Being an ally could be a very simple task or a great big one.
Laura: The term “ally” can become a bit polarising in some countries and cultures. So, do you think putting any formality or structure around allyship is getting in the way of the ultimate goal, which is to identify and breakdown biases to achieve a state of complete equity and equality?
Donna: I believe we should absolutely be waking up every day doing our best to understand and accept others as human beings. Labeling it “allyship” has become trendy. I think as long as we keep our ultimate goal focused and take steps toward breaking down those bias behaviors, it’s not an injustice to hang our hat on the term “allyship.” We need to not only create this culture; we need to make it stick.
Darren: Personally, I would focus less on what the label used to describe advocacy might be today and more on what you are doing. What are you doing to understand what is happening outside of your local group? What are you doing about those injustices? What are you supporting that can help?
James: I just hope that by waking up every day and doing our part to represent all people, that in time the sort of view where respect is seen as negative is no longer a part of society.
Laura: At Zebra, we’ve talked about the intersection between the Black and LGBTQ+ civil rights movements and the role that allyship played. But do you feel that “allyship” in itself is a movement?
Donna: I don’t know if I would call it a movement. I would hope it is a role people play more like a continuous way of life.
Darren: I don’t see allyship as a movement either; it is more of a way for people who don’t identify themselves as being part of that group to still be involved and supportive. I’m not gay or black but I believe I am an ally for members of both ZAD and ZEAL within Zebra and those within the black and LGBTQ+ communities outside work. And identifying as an ally is a clear and simple way of expressing that.
James: Like the others, I’ve never considered allyship as a movement. However, if labelling it that way helps others want to join the need for change, then I suppose there is no harm.
Laura: What is the one thing you want people to think about as they go on with their day? What do you want them to ask themselves – or challenge themselves to do – with regards to allyship and their current stance/efforts?
James: I’d ask that everyone listens to and respects others. Just because you see the world, community or how you are treated in one way, that does not mean that others also have that experience or point of view. You might find it easy to get what you need, but biases, traditions or the status quo might prevent someone else from getting the same. In some cases, we may need to give others a “leg up” (equity) in order to create equality. Being “privileged” is not about money necessarily. It could just as equally be your gender or the colour of your skin, or that you can get into the office without having to ask security to open the fire exit because your wheelchair does not fit through the barrier. Our differences should be embraced and loved, as they make us who we are.
Donna: Remember that allyship is a dedicated responsibility that you choose to make. I would like you to think about how you can take that step to start your journey. Make the time, clear the calendar, begin small; listen in on a meeting or webinar, volunteer, read about history or current events – but do take that first step. It can be personal growth that you never knew you needed as well as a way to strengthen your relationships with others.
Darren: You may not have experienced prejudice or discrimination, in which case you are very fortunate. But you have friends and colleagues who are experiencing that today, so go and educate yourself on their experiences so you can help. Do something.