In my work as an intersectional feminist educator and scholar-activist, it’s incredibly galvanizing to meet people who want to become better allies. If you’re asking “how do I become an intersectional feminist ally?” I have put together this guide to help you join the struggle.
Intersectional feminist allyship is an ongoing responsibility to operate in solidarity with the oppressed to collectively dismantle interlocking systems of imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, cisnormativity, heteronormativity, and patriarchy.
In traditional single-issue politics, privilege and oppression were more easily understood as a binary. Feminism has male allies, anti-racism has white allies, and the LGBTQ+ movement has straight allies.
Within intersectional feminism, privileges and oppressions are believed to be interconnected in more complex ways. They collide and multiply in the lives of people, and change with their circumstances and contexts.
I believe, therefore, all of us have the responsibility to think and act in solidarity with one another.
What Is Intersectional Feminism?
Intersectional feminism is an intellectual and political movement that identifies and challenges the ways interlocking systems of oppression impact social life. The need for intersectionality is reflected most vividly in the lived experiences of people who are multiply marginalized, such as women of color.
The theory of intersectionality was proposed by legal scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw, who showed how the law was inadequate to recognize and redress the intersection of gender and racial discrimination that disadvantage Black women in the United States. Crenshaw’s work aims to challenge anti-discrimination legislation and its limitations in accounting for the specific and particular concerns of Black women.
Listen to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s powerful explainer on the urgent need for intersectionality (especially as it pertains to the police brutality against Black women) in her TED talk below.
The core idea within intersectionality theory — that social life is bound within interlocking systems of oppression — has been a long-standing observation among Black feminists and women of color activists.
Yet despite the clear and compelling interventions from women of color, the feminist movement became commandeered by largely middle-class, cisgender, straight, able-bodied white women who focused on gender as the only social injustice. Many of them fought only in their own interests and sought to gain social and economic power on par with their fathers, brothers, and husbands.
Many women have appropriated feminism to serve their own ends, especially those white women who have been at the forefront of the movement; but rather than resigning myself to this appropriation I choose to re-appropriate the term “feminism,” to focus on the fact that to be “feminist” in any authentic sense of the term is to want for all people, female and male, liberation from sexist role patterns, domination, and oppression.bell hooks, Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism
If you’d like to learn more about intersectional feminism, please read my detailed explainer about intersectionality that goes into more depth about the movement’s rich history, modern-day practice, as well as its popular criticisms.
6 Practices For Intersectional Feminist Allyship
1. Understand Your Purpose
Before diving headlong into a how-to guide, take a moment to reflect on your deeper purpose.
Knowing why you want to be an intersectional feminist ally can help reorient you whenever you feel lost or confused, defeated or derailed.
Some of the reasons why people want to engage in allyship include:
- They want to create a more just, kind, and hospitable world
- Their values are aligned with social justice
- They empathize with the suffering of the oppressed
- They long for a deeper connection with their marginalized family members or friends
- They want to relieve feelings of guilt and shame (i.e., they want to feel better)
- They want to be perceived by others as being a good person
Aspiring allies may hold a number of these reasons and their reasons may also change over time.
I’m not going to say that the first four reasons are the only reasons you should want to be an ally. When you engage in allyship, more often than not, you will start to feel better and people around you will perceive you to be a good person. These effects are often part and parcel of social justice activism.
However, if they were the only reasons for your allyship, your efforts will be harder to sustain.
The truth is that when we put ourselves out there — struggling in solidarity with marginalized people from outside our race, gender, sexuality, class, dis/ability identifications — we’ll inevitably be challenged. We’ll discover our ignorance. We’ll make mistakes and be called out for them.
In that moment, when you feel more ashamed than ever, when you think everybody hates you for your mistake, then there may no longer be any incentive for you to commit to the hard work of allyship.
This shame then creates a vicious cycle when the fear of being called out for ignorance makes some people too afraid to engage with marginalized people altogether, which then leads to more ignorant ideas and harmful behaviors.
So dig a little deeper and find a ‘why’ for allyship that will keep you in the long haul.
2. Check Your Privilege
Take the time to identify and understand your privileges.
One of the things that make them a privilege is that we usually never need to think about them. For example, I don’t think twice about walking in public holding my partner’s hand because I’m straight and I’ve never experienced hostility and violence for my sexual identity.
White privilege, light-skinned privilege, male privilege, cisgender privilege, heterosexual privilege, and able-bodied privilege are many of the privileges that can be associated with our social identities.
Under capitalism, we can also hold class privilege. This one can be a bit more mutable. For example, I grew up in a poor immigrant household where my parents worked below minimum wage jobs, but as a full-time tenured academic, my job and income give me far greater power than my parents ever possessed.
Also under imperialism, to live in the Global North means we enjoy a far greater standard of living and economic, political, and environmental stability than people in the Global South whose countries were devastated by European colonialism. We might live where we were born or can easily return; our land never having been stolen or occupied by foreign invaders.
One of the reasons why ‘privilege’ can be so painful to admit is that it can be misunderstood as a personal accusation or attack.
When we’re accused of having privilege, it can sound as though others assumed we’re born into the lap of luxury and have never needed to face hardship or challenges, and thus do not deserve any of our accomplishments, possessions, or happiness.
Let’s be clear here: privilege is not something that you claimed nor is it something that you can reject or give away.
Privilege has little to do with whether or not we are ‘good’ people. The point is not to shame people who have privilege or praise the people who don’t. After all, virtually every human being can claim some kind of privilege, no matter how small or fleeting.
The point is what we choose to do with our privilege.
3. Do The Work: Listen and Learn
In an academic essay, feminist scholar Sara Ahmed outlines the reasons people ask her about what they ought to do to become allies. She is wary about the ways people demand step-by-step guides from her as a way to stop engaging with the difficult work of allyship. She reflects that many of these people seek a quick-fix from feeling ashamed or simply want to make a public show of wokeness (also known as performative allyship).
Good, meaningful allyship is built on a foundation of continual learning and critical reflection.
For critical whiteness scholar, Elaine Swan, one of the most powerful things we can do as allies is to shift ourselves to the margins and seek permission to listen to marginalized people.
Well-meaning people sometimes chase a fantasy of allyship as a glorious heroic act. They don’t realize that often the best thing they can do is to be radically open and receptive listeners.
Audrey Thompson describes the process of allyship as listening:
You need to learn to become unintrusive, unimportant, patient to the point of tears, while at the same time open to learning any possible lessons. You will also have to come to terms with the sense of alienation, of not belonging, of having your world thoroughly disrupted, having it criticized and scrutinized from the point of view of those who have been harmed by it.
Listening, however, isn’t a passive state of just waiting in the wings nor is it a way to disengage from difficult discussions. Listening is an important practice but it’s not the only practice for meaningful allyship. What follows listening is just as vital.
4. ‘Ask The Other Question’
When I see something that looks racist, I ask, “Where is the patriarchy in this?” When I see something that looks sexist, I ask, “Where is the heterosexism in this?” When I see something that looks homophobic, I ask, “Where are the class interests in this?” Working in coalition forces us to look for both the obvious and non-obvious relationships of domination, helping us to realize that no form of subordination ever stands alone.
In asking the other question, we begin to understand how forms of oppression are interlinked.
White supremacy may seem like the only problem when we see white men charge through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia bearing tiki torches, but Mari Matsuda would encourage us to consider how heteropatriarchy is also to blame. Patriarchy raises boys in a culture that teaches them dominance and aggression. Heteronormativity denigrates boys who want to be gentle and nurturing, calling them “sissy”. Boys learn as they grow up, that they have to be dominant and aggressive to gain both self-worth and social acceptance.
I also like to ‘ask the other question’ when things look empowering.
When you see something that looks feminist, ask “Where is the white supremacy, cisnormativity, heterosexism, classism, and ableism in this?”
In our neoliberal capitalist society, ‘feminism’ is frequently celebrated in the examples of high-profile female CEOs. However, the highly privileged women who rise through the ranks of corporations are usually all white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, and middle to upper class.
While we wave the banner for gender equality for these She-E-Os, it can be easy to ignore all the other oppressions that are perpetuated by the maintenance of capitalism.
5. Consciously Support the Marginalized
While you listen and learn, engage with marginalized people fighting for intersectional justice. Support them as well as their collectives, organizations, and movements.
Support can come in many different forms. While we can all be more intentional about where we spend our money, support can also look like amplifying marginalized voices, promoting their causes through your own networks, and giving your time, energy, and care.
6. Use Your Privilege for Good
If you’ve ever been in a position of disadvantage, then you’ll know how challenging and risky it is to speak against your own subordination.
Our culture is well-trained in deflection, defensiveness, and denial.
When an Indigenous person critiques colonial ideology just to take an example, non-Indigenous people will usually roll their eyes. “Not this again”, they’ll say. “Stop playing the colonialism card”. “Not my ancestors”. “It happened hundreds of years ago”. “Get over it”.
As non-Indigenous allies, the cost of us speaking out against colonialism is much cheaper. When we see subordination, especially when it’s not one we experience, we need to call it out. We need to be ready to challenge our ‘own’ people, speak to them through the empathy and compassion that we have toward them, and help them understand why it’s urgent and important that they listen to Indigenous people.
I intentionally refer to these actions as “practices” for intersectional feminist allyship rather than “steps”. It’s not a recipe where you follow the steps and you’re done baking the allyship cake that you now get to eat.
These “practices” mean that they need to be continually practiced. When practicing intersectional feminism, you will fail. You will make mistakes. You’ll undoubtedly forget to check your privilege and say something hurtful, offensive, or wrong. But we must keep learning, trying, and struggling.
So know that you’ll stumble.
But we must learn to forgive ourselves and each other, and keep going.
This is the only way we can start figuring out the kind of person we want to be, the kind of relationships we want to build, and the kind of world in which we want to live.
Allyship is an Ongoing Process
The six practices of allyship is not a linear progress. We don’t tick the boxes and receive the Gold Medal of Allyship. We need to commit to doing the ongoing work, knowing that we’ll make mistakes and feel stupid from time to time, but it’s the right thing to do.
Cultivate a community of fellow allies and learners on a similar part of the journey to yourself. Agree on a ‘safe space’ where you can honestly and vulnerably share mistakes and misunderstandings.
It’s also important to keep in mind that in order to sustain our activism, we need to engage in regular self-care. Take time to celebrate your commitment and progress when you feel yourself falling into shame or giving in to despair.
Our revolution must be built on joy and love, not self-hatred.
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Criticisms of Allyship
After the Brexit vote in June 2016 and Trump’s election a few months later, white people in Britain and the United States started wearing safety pins in a public show of solidarity with those who had been made vulnerable under the new regimes.
Although much of the intentions behind this gesture were genuine and sincere, some people were seen to be sporting the safety pin as an identity statement with no action or strategy behind what then became an empty self-proclamation of goodness.
A safety pin, on its own, is insufficient to protect marginalized people.
It’s why some activists reject the label of ‘ally’ altogether.
Alicia Garza, one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, prefers the term “co-conspirator” to ally. She says that co-conspiracy implies action to take responsibility and use the power we have to transform our conditions.
True allyship or co-conspiracy demands ongoing engagement.
Performative allyship, also known as performative wokeness and optical allyship, is described in Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad as “allyship that only serves at the surface level to platform the ‘ally’, it makes a statement but doesn’t go beneath the surface and is not aimed at breaking away from the systems of power that oppress”.
Engaging in these superficial displays of allyship has become easier with social media. Expressing our support for Black Lives Matter or LGBTQ+ rights can be achieved with a click of our mouse to add a border around or blackout our profile pictures.
At the same time, we’re continually bombarded with information about how we should show support for social justice movements. Many of the messages we receive can be conflicting. Some people might thank you for changing your profile picture while others roll their eyes, and it can be very difficult cutting through the noise to form a deeper understanding of what meaningful allyship is and how to do it.
Go back to your ‘why?’ regularly and reflect on your deep motivations to be an ally. Keep listening to marginalized people, even (especially) when they voice constructive criticism about your behaviors and actions. Don’t stop trying to do and be better.
In the end, being an ally is not a status that those of us with the power and privilege can designate themselves. It can only be assigned by those marginalized who recognize the ally’s struggles towards solidarity.
Allyship is an ongoing process of self-reflection and critique. As such, allyship can be difficult and painful, but we persevere anyway because it’s how we can live in line with our values and help build a better world.
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Featured image by Anna Shvets