• What it means to be an “ally” versus an “advocate”
  • 12 Do’s and Don’ts of working with marginalized people
  • Keeping up with the global conversation

It’s Not Enough To Be an Ally

Our world is full of people who are oppressed and marginalized for simply being who they are or where they are. Their lives are devalued and they are pushed to the margins of society, excluded from what is considered “normal,” “civil,” “welcome,” or “acceptable.”

Marginalized people often experience Earth as a cruel, unjust, and dangerous place.

An “ally” is someone who supports a marginalized group while actively recognizing the ally is not part of the marginalized community. Seeking to be an ally often comes from a place of good intentions. We should all want to be allied with marginalized people. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “No one is free until we are all free.”

For those of us who have been granted a high degree of privilege (I am a white American woman with an advanced degree), we need to understand some things. Allies, by definition, adopt a passive role that can be othering and exhausting to marginalized communities — as in, allies “cheer from the sidelines” while marginalized people are expected to do the hard work of freeing themselves. Allies also typically benefit from social power imbalances, so they are less likely to understand how and why their actions might cause damage.

Yikes.

Those of us with privilege who care about justice need to become conflict-transformers, actively working from within the “center” of society to end injustice. Injustice causes pain and unnecessary conflict that impacts the health of our world. We need to be looking for creative ways to do anti-oppression work, not just support oppressed groups when it’s convenient or because it makes us look like good people. We need to become advocates — people who step up, speak out, and get things done in big and small ways. Most importantly, we need to do this in partnership with the communities we are trying to support.

Here’s a handy list of guidelines to avoid being a flimsy ally and instead to be an anti-oppression advocate.

12 Do’s & Don’ts of Being an Advocate

#1)
Don’t: Speak for a marginalized person.
Do: Hand over the mic. Show up. Spend money.

Consider long and hard before you make the claim that you are being a “voice for the voiceless.” Are you claiming to speak for someone who is perfectly capable of speaking for themselves? If so: Listen. To. Them.

They don’t need you to act as a conduit for their ideas. They don’t need your permission to talk. Let their words be their words. Give credit where it’s due. Celebrate their voices. Read things they write, pay attention when they create things. Be an engaged audience, not a butting-in co-creator or emcee. Spend money to support the success of marginalized artists and poets and authors. Economic justice is part of social justice.

You want to be an advocate? Start by showing it with your dollars.

#2)
Do: Open doors.
Don’t: Expect thanks or control.

Sometimes people with privilege will “open doors” (create opportunities) for marginalized people — which is good in intention — but often the person who opened the door will pat themself on the back for doing so. “See how benevolent I am? You should be grateful!” This undercurrent of paternalism (acting like a parent to someone who is your peer) is far too common in ally approaches.

When you create an opportunity for a marginalized person, in your mind, are you riding in as a white knight singing, “Here I come to save the day!”? Are you picturing yourself as the hero of the story, or are you letting them be the hero of their own story? Are you being intentional about creating these opportunities? Are you willing to take up less space so they can take more space? Are you relinquishing control for the outcome and truly letting that person take charge? Or are you lording it over them? Are you acting like a savior? Are you expecting them to share the attention? Are you trying to decide how they walk through the door you open?

Are you asking yourself bigger questions about why that person wasn’t allowed to open the door themselves? Are you asking yourself how we might create different rules, policies, and institutions that can unlock more doors for more people?

Think about your motives and expectations here. It’s great to create opportunities and invitations for marginalized people. It’s not great to refuse to hand over power and control in the process. It’s not great to ignore systemic causes that create a lack of opportunity.

#3)
Don’t: Demand civility.
Do: Accept courageous expression.

Often when people say “let’s be civil” what they really mean is “let’s act more white, more male, more straight, more cisgender, more educated,” etc. Or they mean “let’s not express hard emotions that make (people in power) uncomfortable.”

Advocates need to understand that when power imbalances are hurting marginalized people, using “nicer” tones of voice might mean marginalized needs are more easily dismissed by dominating forces.

Ask yourself, who gets to decide what “civil” looks like, …and who does it benefit?

Moreover, why do we need to put the full range of human expression in such a tiny box called “civility?”

There is a time to be angry. There is a time for public grief. There is a time to shout. This can look a lot of different ways and have a lot of different cultural faces.

Make sure you are seeing the person beneath the words and beneath the tone they use. Being an advocate means having a generous interpretation of marginalized people and seeking to fully see them. It means not demanding to feel comfortable all the time, especially if our comfort comes at the cost of someone else’s ability to express themself in a way that feels right to them.

#4)
Do: Engage hard and awkward conversations.
Don’t: Let anxiety win.

I’m part of a Facebook group called Conversations with White People: Talking About Racism where people from all walks of life discuss aspects of racism and how to overcome it. Is this a place where white people get called out a lot for not being “woke” enough? Yes. Is this a place where I often feel uncomfortable? Yes, all the time.

So what if I feel uncomfortable? Honestly, …so what? I love this group. I love that I get to learn. I love that it’s not a safe space, but it is a brave space. I love the passionate things members share that help me see things I wasn’t able to see before. I love that this space stretches me. It’s awesome.

It’s hard work, but it’s awesome.

If I paid attention to my anxiety and let myself be preoccupied with how this group made me feel, I wouldn’t learn anything. Feeling comfortable is overrated. Discomfort is tolerable. What’s not tolerable is oppression. Keeping this goal in mind helps me be an advocate.

#5)
Do: Everything you can to empathize.
Don’t: Ignore the limits of empathy.

Contrary to popular belief, we can’t actually “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” As a white cis-gender American, I can’t fully know what it’s like to have darker skin or have the historical context or social location of a person of color. I can’t know what it’s like to be a refugee or a transgender person. Pretending I can know what that experience is like is incredibly arrogant.

When you seek to empathize, use your imagination to try to understand what someone’s experience has been, but don’t claim to know “how they feel.” They might have had experiences that are unique to them and inaccessible to you.

Just because you can’t fully know how someone feels doesn’t make their experience any less valid.

In other words, especially when it comes to being an advocate, empathy can be limiting because it relies on the imaginative capacity of the people in power. In situations when we can’t personally relate to someone’s expression of pain, we need to say “I can’t know how that feels, but I believe you. Let’s do something about it.” When empathy fails us, what can we do? We can let ourselves be moved by someone’s story. We can find space in our hearts to imagine that pain without trying to “own” that pain.

The basis for being a social justice advocate should be a desire for justice, not our ability to feel the same feelings as someone else.

#6)
Don’t: Pit marginalized people against each other.
Do: Learn about intersectionality.

It’s common to think that if one marginalized group gets justice in some way, another group won’t.

This is nonsense for two reasons.

First of all, acting this way creates a “myth of scarcity,” as in, there’s only so much justice to go around so marginalized people should have to fight and claw to access it. For example, there was a recent boycott against Starbucks because people were upset that Starbucks wanted to hire 10,000 immigrants and refugees. “What about veterans?” protestors asked angrily as they poured Starbucks coffee out in public demonstrations. Protestors apparently didn’t stop to research the fact that just a couple years earlier, Starbucks had a similar campaign to hire vets and had hired nearly 20,000. The company had an annual goal each year to diversify their workforce, and this year just happened to be immigrants and refugees. The assumption that immigrants were getting opportunities instead of vets is the myth of scarcity. Don’t buy into it. That’s not how justice works. There is plenty of equality to go around. The “boycotters” were claiming to be concerned about marginalized vets, and it’s true, vets are commonly marginalized, but it sure seems like this group was using marginalized vets as a weapon to voice anti-immigrant sentiment.

The second reason pitting marginalized people against each other is nonsense is because systems of oppression often overlap. When that happens, it’s called “intersectionality.” That’s a big word to explain that injustice is often a complex gray area, and some people are marginalized multiple times over. For example, someone could be an immigrant and also a vet. They could also be a person of color, gay, transgender, and not have a home.

Marginalized categories are not mutually exclusive. When your rhetoric tries to pit groups against each other, people who experience intersectional identities — who are often the most at risk of being oppressed or violated — might be caught in the crossfire.

Instead of thinking about justice as a competition between who is the “most marginal” or who is the “most deserving,” we need to ask ourselves “are we creating a world where people of all identities feel safe and have the right to flourish as human beings?”

#7)
Don’t: Ask marginalized people to educate you.
Do: Educate yourself!

This one is straightforward but critical: Marginalized people don’t owe you their time, attention, labor, or teaching. Chances are, they’ve been teaching people like us their whole lives and are tired of having to justify their experiences and right not to be oppressed.

There are TONS of resources out there to help you learn more about this stuff. You know how to Google. Do the work yourself.

#8)
Do: Listen to unique stories and put a “human face” on issues.
Don’t: Claim to be “colorblind” or “whitewash” minority culture.

Some people say, “I just try to be colorblind” or “I don’t see race” when they are trying to express the idea that they don’t discriminate and want to treat everyone the same. It’s a wonderful goal to not discriminate, but a “colorblind” approach has some harmful consequences.

For example, “colorblind” white people often expect everyone to act “normal” but what they really mean is they want people to act and talk and dress in ways that are white, or familiar to them. They see the world this way: “There are (white) people. And there are people of color. But that doesn’t matter. Really we are all just one human race.”

Ask yourself, who gets to be anonymous or “normal” in this thinking? Who gets erased?

A “colorblind” approach often creates two buckets in our minds: white and not-white. Ignoring all the complexity of both buckets is dehumanizing. It keeps whiteness at the center of what is “normal,” and puts people of color as “other.” White stays in the middle, everyone else is on the outskirts.

Claiming to be colorblind literally creates marginalization.

Marginalized communities want to be seen and heard in the full spectrum of the particularities of their context and experiences. For many, when white people claim to be colorblind, it’s hurtful. It makes them feel invisible.

Why would we want to be colorblind when we have the ability to see color? If humanity is like a master painting, with a huge range of paints and shapes and sizes on the canvas, trying to be “colorblind” is like taking your hand and smearing all those beautiful colors together into one grey mass so it’s easier to comprehend. That’s not fair to anyone; it covers up the wide variety of the human experience. Take the time to study the full expanse of the painting. Learn how all the paints and colors and shapes are different before you see the image come together as one united whole.

If you are going to be an anti-oppression advocate, you MUST get to know the people you want to support and hear their real human stories. You MUST familiarize yourself with the nuance of their experiences and not pretend those nuances don’t exist.

Another way we can act colorblind is to “whitewash” or steal cultural contributions from marginalized people, pretending those contributions belong to white people and ignoring their history. For example, I’m a white person who sings jazz, and it’s important that I keep Black artists at the center of my work. I don’t pretend to be participating in a color-less genre. Instead, (and especially because jazz has a steep learning curve and it’s considered a “dying” genre as music education is more and more defunded), I find ways to actively celebrate Black artists. I work to be a “musical historian” — someone who keeps jazz music alive for the next generation. When I perform, I make a point to talk about the artists in my shows and play with a diverse range of musicians. A Black person once told me they didn’t want to go to my show because I was a “white girl singing jazz.” They are fully entitled to feel that way, especially because so much of Black culture is continuously whitewashed and reappropriated. Statements like that are not something I feel I have a right to get offended over. I need to remember that my job as a jazz musician is not to sing pretty songs while divorcing this music from its history of social justice. My job is to carry the work of justice forward in the ways I make music because that is how I honor both the genre and the many Black artists who created it.

#9)
Don’t: Assume a leadership position.
Do: Figure out how you can make the biggest impact.

Sometimes, the biggest impact we can make is to find an existing organization to be involved with, and plug into that community. Look for organizations that are being led by marginalized people, because they are the best sources of information on how to transform society.

When you start to get involved, don’t assume you should be handed a leadership role because you are in the majority, or because you have a fancy title or education, or because you have led in the past, or for any other reason. By assuming such a role, you might be further entrenching power imbalances. Share your skills and gifts with the leaders and ask where you can be most effective, not what position will get you the most clout. Look for ways to share power and cultivate the leadership skills of marginalized people. If you have knowledge and resources to share, share! But do it with humility and make space for those around you.

#10)
Do: Build meaningful relationships with marginalized people.
Don’t: Treat them like objects or barge into safe spaces.

Marginalized people are not objects. We don’t “fix” marginalization simply by befriending the marginalized and collecting them like trading cards. That’s objectifying.

If you are passionate about being an advocate for gay rights, then go get to know gay people. But don’t get to know them under the auspices of “making gay friends.” Get to know gay people because they are good and interesting and you want to be their friend as a human. Their gay identity brings color and meaning to your world; but they are not objects for your happiness. Instead, seek to build long-term, meaningful relationships. Real friendships, not surface ones.

But it’s important to wait for an invitation. I’m also not doing marginalized communities any favors when I barge in. Showing up at a gay bar with my bachelorette girlfriends yelling “I love gay people! They have the best dance music!” treats gay people like they are animals at a zoo who exist for me to gawk at and be entertained by. When I act like this, I ignore the fact that gay bars exist as a safe haven for gay people who have to worry in their day-to-day lives if they will be harassed, punished, or even brutalized for being who they are. Gay bars are incredibly important to this community. Though a gay bar is technically a public space, it’s also a safe space that doesn’t belong to me.

However, if gay friends invite me to come hang out with them at a gay bar, that’s entirely different. In that case, I am being welcomed into community; I’m building meaningful and multi-faceted connections.

If you are going to be an advocate, know the difference between real relationships and relationships that are treating marginalized people like objects or tokens of your “progressiveness.”

#11)
Don’t: Assume it’s marginalized people’s “job” to fight oppression.
Do: Understand that the stakes are high for all of us. We all need to fight for what is right.

If my car window was smashed in by a brick, who should be responsible for this? The person who threw it should be responsible. But the person with the smashed window bears the burden of the impact.

Historically, marginalized people are marginalized because society marginalized them. But it’s not their job to fix the system that’s hurting them.

Marginalized people might talk about oppression a lot because it impacts their day-to-day lives, but it’s not their ultimate responsibility. For example, it’s not people of colors’ “thing” to fight racism. Anti-racist work has become a cultural value in many cases out of sheer necessity and survival, but it’s not right that that job should “belong” to one group of people. If anything, it should be white people’s job to take ultimate responsibility for racism and fight it to the best of our ability. Except, we often do it horribly. Having never been on the receiving end of racism, we can’t understand the full extent of the damage or the brokenness of the system. If you’ve never had a brick thrown through your car window, you can’t know how it feels. You’ve never had to live with the damage it’s done to your sense of safety. You can try to imagine, but you can’t know. It’s important that the people who experience the brokenness of our society firsthand are the expert witnesses, the sources of knowledge the majority relies on. But they should not also be tasked with fixing the brokenness. It’s all of our responsibility, working together.

Maybe a little more for the people in the majority.

When we all take responsibility for the brokenness of the world, we are saying we all have a stake in living here. We want this place to be more loving and just. It’s not just an issue for one of us, but for all of us.

#12)
Don’t: believe marginalized people want or need you.
Do: Believe they (sometimes) want you.

Marginalized people don’t owe you time or attention. They certainly don’t owe you acceptance or even kindness. They don’t owe you at all. They don’t need you, personally, to be their champion. They might not even want you around. Even if you think you are a “good” advocate, they might not want you around. Your very presence might be something that evokes too much pain and anger for them.

Don’t stop doing the work of social justice just because someone doesn’t want you or directs anger or grief at you. Don’t waste time getting up in arms if you experience this.

Why? Either one of two things just happened:

  1. You said something wrong, or you used a posture or tone, that hit a raw nerve. Make sure you are continually studying your own words and the way you are coming across. This includes your motives and internal assumptions and beliefs you have inherited; these things are deeply ingrained for all of us and are not as hidden as you think. The smallest dismissive word can feel like a landslide for someone who has been dismissed their whole life.
  2. Cultural legacies of oppression are simply traumatizing. Trauma lingers in many communities. Injustice hurts deeply and for generations. That hurt has to be expressed, has to flow out sometimes. Sometimes in the direction of the majority. Hear that pain. Hold it. Respect it. Be present with it. It’s bigger than you. This isn’t a “you” story. It’s an “us” story.

If marginalized people do invite you in, be in community with them as full people. Respond to that invitation and hospitality if it is offered, and be a true friend.

Summary: There’s no such thing as a “good” advocate

In all of this remember there’s no such thing as a “perfect” advocate, someone who always gets it right, someone who can completely grow past all trappings of an unjust society and become 100% past marginalizing or oppressing others.

This is hard work; you will probably mess up and say the wrong thing from time to time. Stay teachable.

I will even offer that there’s no such thing as a “good” advocate. We don’t get to pat ourselves on the back for basic human decency. We don’t get a trophy for fighting injustice. That doesn’t make us special. It makes us human.

Just be an advocate. Try to be the best one you can be. Full stop.

As we do this work, it’s important keep the pace. Our global conversation about social justice keeps evolving. As a global community, we are constantly inventing new and better tools of language to fight injustice. Sometimes we realize that the way we used to talk about these things five years ago is no longer considered the best way. So instead of getting mad about the fact that you just used outdated language and someone called you on it, work harder to keep up. For those who are further along on the learning curve, treat the people who are beginners with gentleness, remembering that we are all learning, all the time.

I am aware that there’s a pretty high chance someone will point out things in this article that could be better. So what? So that’s good. I welcome the feedback. It doesn’t make me want to give up, it makes me try harder. It’s part of the bigger process. Making the world more just place is a massive ongoing project. When people correct your language, they aren’t trying to tell you you’re a bad person. They are saying “we’ve moved on, here’s a better way to do it that is more dignifying.” Honor that struggle. You are not at the center of it.

This is not about you. It’s about justice and the health of our humanity.

Melody Stanford Martin - 14 posts

Melody Stanford Martin is a social ethicist and communications expert helping people of all ages develop skills of courageous dialogue and conflict transformation. She is the author of Brave Talk: Building Resilient Relationships in the Face of Conflict (Broadleaf Books, 2020) and the Founder of Brave Talk Project.

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