Be a Better Ally: Top 10 Tips!

by Ariela Paulsen
Be a Better Ally: Top 10 Tips!

Being a Friend in the Fight means flexing your empathy and action muscles frequently. We are always supporting our fellow illness warriors, online and in our day to day lives. As a result, Friends in the Fight can make great allies for anyone with complex, intersecting identities!

Whether you want to be an ally to someone you love with a chronic illness or disability, or someone who is marginalized for an identity that isn’t health-related, or you simply believe in being an ally as a way to oppose oppression, here are some tips to get you going:

1. Remember you aren’t the expert

2. Educate yourself

3. Listen and believe

4. Learn about your own privileges and biases

5. Don’t assume one way or the other

6. Speak up… but not over!

7. Amplify voices without your privilege

8. Respect safe spaces

9. Find ways that work for you

10. You will make mistakes and that’s ok!

1. Remember you aren’t the expert — but that’s ok!

Many people shy away from being active allies because they don’t feel like “experts.” You don’t need to know 100% what it’s like to be part of a marginalized group in order to stand up for them! You just need to have empathy for their situation and the guts to stand for what’s needed. Try to remember, though, in advocating for others, that you aren’t part of that group, and that you don’t have all the answers. That being said…

2. Educate yourself

The more you know, the better you understand, and the greater your impact. The internet is FULL of resources for aspiring allies! Read as much as you can. Watch videos. Get to know people from different walks of life. In all of your research, include a range of voices and perspectives. And please remember, it is not the responsibility of the marginalized person to educate the world about their perspective. It is the responsibility of those with privilege to educate themselves in ways that don’t exhaust the time and energy of the very people you’re trying to support!

3. Listen and believe

While you should be careful to not barrage people with uncomfortable questions, when someone comes to you with an experience or a way in which you could help, listen. Hear them out, try to see from their perspective, and don’t let your own worldview act as blinders. Believe what they have to say. Nothing shuts down open dialogue quite like being told by someone that a barrier doesn’t exist for you, simply because they’ve been privileged to never experience it.

4. Learn about your own privileges and biases

In order to truly understand someone else’s barriers, you need to examine the ways in which you’ve received a pass. Privilege can feel tricky and uncomfortable, but it’s actually not that complicated! Videos like this one help explain: “Privilege does not mean that you’re rich, that you’ve had an easy life, that everything’s been handed to you, and you’ve never had to struggle or work hard. All it means is that there are some things in life that you will not experience or have to think about just because of who you are.”

Not only do we all have privileges, but we also all have bias! Before confronting others’ biases, it helps to think about your own, so that you can understand how people come to feel these negative associations in the first place.

5. Don’t assume one way or the other

Brains try to categorize things into boxes and binaries, as a way to simplify the world. This is natural, but also inaccurate! Reality is complex, and most things exist on a spectrum — sick or healthy, able-bodied or disabled, masculine or feminine… these labels lose so much of the beautiful nuance in life! Stopping ourselves from assuming one way or another allows all people to share the labor of self-disclosure, but also makes room for people who exist in the gray areas.

This can be used as an active practice for many types of identities. Imagine you are leading an activity for work or throwing a social event. When asking people to share their name, make it commonplace to share names and pronouns, or wear a name tag with your name and pronouns on it. That way, everyone gets used to asking for affirming pronouns without assuming one way or another, and the emotional work is shared rather than being solely on the shoulders of someone who is mis-gendered by someone they meet. Similarly, if planning an event, ask everyone if they have any needs or accommodations. This will help people with disabilities to feel less burdened by having to upset the norm, but also may support people with invisible disabilities, food allergies, or anyone who would benefit from a slight modification, who would not have been considered “disabled.” In general, don’t assume that you know someone’s identity or experience. Rather, provide opportunities for anyone to comfortably share!

6. Speak up… but not over!

You know that icky moment when someone says something a little racist, or sexist, or ableist, and you don’t know how to react so you just… do nothing? Unfortunately, staying neutral does not actually have a neutral effect. It reinforces the speaker’s bias, the silence saying that bigotry is acceptable here, and implies to anyone who was hurt by the statement that their well-being is valued less than the feelings of the person who hurt them. If you’ve ever been the target of such a comment, you know how emotionally triggering it can feel, and how heavy the weight of speaking up can be. That’s why it’s up to those of us with privilege in that moment to be allies, to actively raise our voices so that the people most hurt don’t have to carry that weight. It can feel very uncomfortable to speak out, but just remember how much harder it would feel if you were the one being hurt.

An important distinction, though — speaking up does not mean speaking over. If someone from that marginalized identity stands up for themselves, have their back! Show you support them with your body language, nodding agreement, or stepping in when you feel they are not being listened to. Try not to speak over them, or imply that you know better. Remember, you’re an ally, not the expert!

7. Amplify voices without your privilege

As stated above, it is important to allow people to speak up for themselves rather than speaking over them. Be aware, though, that people with a similar identity to you may hear you more than they’d hear the marginalized person. Use your identity and privilege to reach the ears that are not listening. Amplify the voices that aren’t heard!

One great way to amplify is reposting on social media (and giving credit, of course!), but it is also helpful in person. Say you are at a gathering and someone mentions that they can’t eat any of the food or climb the stairs to the bathroom. If you have the power to fix the problem, be an ally and do it! But if not, amplify their voice by telling those in charge about the problem and making sure it is resolved. Don’t let it all fall on them to advocate.

8. Respect safe spaces

Being marginalized, oppressed, or even misunderstood can be exhausting. Sometimes we need to kick back and relax with like-minded people who just get it. Respect that need without complaining that it’s excluding you.

9. Find ways that work for you

No one has limitless energy and willpower! You are more likely to be a good ally if you play to your strengths. Choose the methods that you know will be more sustainable. You could: volunteer, donate (or choose where to spend your money), protest, call public officials, write letters, create dialogue with friends and family, host a training, advocate for a friend, help someone get access to the supports the need… There are so many ways to be an ally!

10. You will make mistakes, and that’s ok!

Know that no one expects you to be perfect 100% of the time! Don’t hold back from helping just because you’re unsure of the best way to do it. If someone calls you out or offers feedback, try to see it as a way to grow rather than a criticism. Check out the Guide to Allyship’s Boots and Sandals analogy and suggestions for handling mistakes.

Take on the struggle as your own.
Stand up, even when you feel scared.
Transfer the benefits of your privilege to those who lack it.
Acknowledge that while you, too, feel pain, the conversation is not about you.

Guide to allyship

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