On being an ally

By Ann Fontaine

Last year I updated my anti-racism training as required of lay and clergy leaders in the Diocese of Wyoming. As part of our training we pledged to work against racism in our churches and communities. Since I am white I wondered how I can fulfill that pledge as an ally with those who experience racism because of skin color and/or ethnic group. It is the same question I have when working with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (lgbt) brothers and sisters.

Reflecting on the struggle by women for equality in church and community, I know there is more to working as an ally than just being helpful and nice. An ally is one who works with others to attain their goals. An ally does not just stand beside one, but also “has one’s back,” offering to watch out for unseen dangers. I know from my own place of needing allies that it needs to be done with respect and consultation. Ask for information and guidance from those with whom one wishes to be an ally instead of assuming one knows best for the other.

Some questions to consider in ally work:

Are there ways that being a white person who is an ally to other racial communities, being a man who is an ally to women, being straight and an ally to lgbt persons, and being non-transgender and an ally to transgender people are similar? Different?

If we are members of marginalized groups what do we look for in non-members who want to be allies?

Are allies helpful or harmful to progress? Is it something in between?

The author, James Baldwin spoke about the danger of allies with savior complexes. Have any of us had experiences with allies who thought of their role in that way? Have we fallen into that mode of acting ourselves?

Working as an ally is often difficult. The story of the Good Samaritan shows how easy it is just to walk on by and not get involved. During Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s people who were allies suffered physical harm and death. In South Africa, white women who belonged to the Black Sash movement and who demonstrated against the white apartheid laws and assisted people negotiating the difficulties of the “pass” laws were shunned by their white friends. Those who ally with people who are transgender, gay, lesbian, and bisexual for civil rights are attacked with name-calling and worse. Those who work as allies are often marginalized along with those with whom they ally. Allies can find themselves on the outside of both the dominant group and the marginalized group. It can be a lonely place unless there are other allies with whom one can work and talk.

The reward of justice and space for all to live into the fullness of their creation is worth the difficulties but it is important not to underestimate what might happen as well as one’s own ability to fail at the task.

A possible Code for Allies might be:

We listen to those with whom we work without judging the perspectives, experiences, and feelings of the members of the marginalized group, even when the words feel accusatory towards us. These perspectives, experiences and feelings reveal what we do not know about those with whom we seek to become allies.

We seek to learn from those with whom we ally in order to educate ourselves and others about the culture and concerns of those with whom we are allied. We examine our fears of “the other. We recognize the interconnectedness of “isms” and other examples of individual and societal prejudice.

We understand the commonalities and the differences among the various expressions of prejudice and isolation of groups.

We identify and work to change our prejudicial beliefs and actions as well as to change the beliefs and actions of others, both individual and institutional.

We build relationships with other discredited, marginalized, oppressed, non-privileged groups.

We work for the equalizing and responsible use of power and authority.

We advocate for policies and activities that support those affected by injustice.

We use appropriate language.

We confront inappropriate language.

We ask questions rather than assume we know the answer.

We take risks.

We appreciate the efforts by members of our ally group to point out our mistakes.

We combat the harassment, discrimination, and physical assault that marginalized groups experience in our society by speaking out, by our presence and by working to change the systems that continue oppression and give one group privilege over another.

We appreciate the risks taken by our allies for their own freedom.

We recognize that groups need to work on their own and with others – even when that means we may be left out of the discussion and work.

We support other allies.

We act as allies with no conditions attached.

What should be done as an ally if one thinks a chosen course of action is unwise or will not work as planned? One option is to ask how the strategy was developed and what it seeks to accomplish. This helps to open up the conversation and perhaps give an opportunity to express questions. Giving support does not require blind obedience, but if the group decides this is the right way to proceed then an ally needs to choose whether to participate or not. An ally who undermines the group is worse than those who are not allies.

In the end it is worth asking why one might wish to be an ally? Why does one think it will be helpful? Is anyone asking for help? Examining motives helps to keep one from falling into savior roles or trying to get needs met at the expense of others.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. often quoted Theodore Parker saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” If we are to be part of this moral universe becoming an ally helps bend the arc.

In our baptismal covenant we promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves and to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being. These promises are a foundation for the work of becoming an ally.

We become allies as followers of Christ, who commands us to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The work is for us and our souls as well as for the healing of our communities and the world.

(My thanks to Lelanda Lee, Michael Music, James Toy, the blog Bilerico, Kay Flores, Kristin Fontaine, and Laurie Gudim for their help with this article.)

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, of the Diocese of Wyoming, keeps the blogs Green Lent and what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

Comment Policy
Our comment policy requires that you use your real name and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted

8 Comments
  1. Ann, I like your code. Your article is a reminder that when we wish to become an ally, the goal is to help rather than hinder and not simply to “do something” to make us feel good ourselves. It’s also a reminder of the importance of careful listening to those with whom we ally ourselves.

    June Butler

  2. And another sent to me ally story here. A Straight Geek Male’s Guide to Interacting with Females – especially lovely to see his reaction when confronted with feedback!

  3. This is a nice article.

    I would say if people in my church read this article, they would know one of the persons who they can practice with… which is me! I say that because I am a first generation Chinese immigrant (I spent 11 years in HK.) who happens to be in a non-Chinese, non-ethnic Episcopal Church. Moreover, I spent 22 years in Chinese churches (in HK and US) before officially relocating to my current church at the start of this year. So, my perspectives can be very different from the rest of the members.

    Based on what I observed and experienced so far, everyone in my new church is willing to accept me as their ally in some form, some way. After all, I am letting them experience some of the things I grew up with. Not only I am doing it for myself, but I am doing it for the Chinese ministry community. I wanted to show the Chinese ministry community that I am still supporting them in spirit, and hopefully make some of the Chinese youths and young adults (YAYA’s) to step up and serve Chinese ministry.

    – Bill Wong

  4. Cosimo Medici

    This is a very good article. Too often assumptions are made that lead people to do things to, or for, those persons they desire to assist rather with them. This approach eliminates that aspect of an “alliance”.

    Vincent Harris

  5. garydasein

    Excellent article, Ann! Your text helps me to think about my own experiences. For several years I was part of a family advocacy group for families of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. The group was started by mothers and had an extra element that the more formal group I was also part of lacked. The other ministry meeting consisted more of outsiders to the issue. People with family problems would tell me they felt more likely to be judged by the well-intentioned outsiders and much more at home with the mothers, friends of the mothers. This group started by mothers felt more like a family because people would go out of their way to help each other. We would do baby showers for couples who had no biological family to support. And we were there for each other for marriages and funerals. The women did a reception for me when I married Murdoch.

    Eventually, the mothers’ group specialized in helping people with issues while the other was at its best when it stuck to getting the paperwork out of the way. Then things got more complicated.

    I am part of another group which hosts talks by experts on reentry issues for the formerly incarcerated. One of the organizers, who experienced the prisons from the inside, told me that he invites all sorts of speakers, not just experts. He said his people don’t need to be told about prison by people who have never been in prison. Experts are welcome but are not the only voice.

    Again, thank you for this piece on the complexities of the position of the ally.

    For some reason, I have trouble thinking of “ally” as singular. I think of it always in the plural. Allies.

    Gary Paul Gilbert

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *