The Problem with Being an Ally

Being an ally is important and hard work—it requires dedication, mindfulness, and courage. Allies are absolutely crucial to Keshet and our work would not be possible without them. But what does it truly mean to be an ally? Today’s piece asks: Is it as simple as checking the box that reads “ally”? With Martin Luther King, Jr. Day around the corner, we are pushing our allies to think about how one defines allyship—and how that definition translates to action. How does being an ally allow us to be better advocates? What do you think?

The term “ally” was a very important part of my politics for a long time. Then, last March, in an epically important tweet last March, @FeministGriote wrote, “Being an ally is a process not an identity.” Say what you will about Twitter, but the truth is that it has the potential to change who and what we see and hear. (If you’re on Twitter and only following white, straight folks, please amend this.)

The term “ally” acknowledges social power, or privilege. It implies that the person who is applying the term to themselves also acknowledges privilege and the knowledge that claiming the ally label doesn’t actually mean anything if there isn’t action behind it. Allyship means realizing not only that language is imperfect, but that intention is nothing if it isn’t actualized, and actualizing it is tricky. (Read this piece by Jessie-Lane Metz at The Toast about, among many things, allyship when it goes very wrong.)

I’m realizing lately, more and more, that allyship is a minefield. We will fail sometimes. It’s easy to fail, because calling yourself an ally in a situation where you don’t have to do any work is one thing, but knowing when to step up and when to step back are other things entirely. The way racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are structured is to ensure that we will fail sometimes. Allyship is one way that we can impact the status quo, but only if we accept that falling down is part of the process. And since failure is inevitable, because this is hard and imprecise work, we have to figure out to bounce back when we make a mistake. We live in this world where the dichotomy of perfection v. failure dominates. (Another reading assignment:
The Queer Art of Failure
by Judith Halberstam.) The truth, we know, is that there is a lot of room in between the two.

Here are some ways to ally like you mean it:

1. Repeat the following sentence to yourself over and over again: This is not about you. Calling yourself an ally is not a way, or should not be a way, to make yourself feel better. It’s not cute, it doesn’t (or rather, it shouldn’t) get you extra bonus points at life. It’s the way we should all be behaving. Do everything you have to do to remember that this is about people’s real lives.

2. Take up less space. A lot less.
Earlier this year, I wrote a piece about street harassment and racism, in which I talked about my own narrative of race, and the beliefs that I (and all white people) possess on some level about people of color. The thing is, that piece was like therapy for me, which is not the point. It’s not that processing my own racism isn’t important —it is —but allyship is the work of creating space, which means stepping aside to make room for other voices that are not yours. When someone with less privilege than you tells that you made a mistake, do your very best to listen and hear.

It should go without saying that all of these things apply to being an ally in Jewish spaces to queer folks, to Jews of color, to women, etc. This work is scary, especially when we do it in our own communities, which means it’s the place where it’s most needed. It’s political. Depending on how you see it, it’s religious. It’s very, very personal. And even though it’s hard, don’t stop. Please don’t stop.

Moved by this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Discover More

From Looking Jewish to Being Jewish

Cultural anthropologists call it ‘going native’. You find yourself in the field as a participant observer of your host culture ...

Kohelet: Torah for the 21st Century

The Book of Ecclesiastes may be the section of the Hebrew Bible most relevant to the way we experience the world today.

Understanding Biblical Sacrifice (Korbanot)

What sacrifice is, where it comes from, and what it can mean for us today.

Converting to Judaism: How to Get Started

How to find an introductory Judaism class.

36 Questions for Jewish Lovers

Rabbi and marriage counselor Ari Sytner offers 36 questions for Jewish couples to achieve greater intimacy and harmony.

The Kabbalistic Secret of Kissing

What the Zohar teaches about love-making and the coming of the messiah.

How to Pray Through Infertility

Jewish tradition is no stranger to infertility, but it is only recently that liturgical responses to this struggle have emerged.

Birkat Hagomel, a Jewish Prayer of Gratitude

A prayer said after recovering from a serious illness or surviving a dangerous journey.