You hear the term ally thrown around a lot, especially in progressive cities like Seattle. But what does being an ally actually mean?
It’s easy to assume you’re an ally already. Maybe you cheer on the Pride Parade each year, support local minority-owned businesses and vote on initiatives to renovate beat-up old crosswalks so they’re safer for people with disabilities.
But being an ally is more than just being a kind person. It means showing up and speaking up and doing things outside of your comfort zone.
“There are real obstacles to speaking up and being a good ally that allies need to get better at appreciating and working on,” says Jonathan Kanter, a clinical psychologist and director of the Center for the Science of Social Connection at the University of Washington.
All of us can benefit from learning how to build ally skills to truly support our neighbors, coworkers, friends and family who are from underrepresented groups.
Understand that true allyship is a process
First, an important thing to note: Even though this article is presented as a list of steps to take to build your ally skills, the work doesn’t end here. Being an ally isn’t something you suddenly achieve after reaching a certain level of awareness.
“In my view, the title of ally can’t be self-proclaimed; it has to be earned and bestowed. It’s a process rather than a one-time achievement. It’s not a feeling, it is action,” says Danielle Ishem, director of workforce development at UW Medicine’s Center for Health Equity, Diversity & Inclusion.
She distinguishes truly allyship from what she calls “performative allyship,” which is when someone declares themselves an ally just because of their beliefs but doesn’t take the time or make the effort to do anything meaningful or risk any of their own privilege.
“I work on this every single day,” Ishem says.
And if you want to show up for people from underrepresented groups, you need to recognize that being an ally is a lifelong commitment.
“I don’t know if I’m an ally,” Kanter says. “I just wake up each morning and try to act consistent with my values. Then I wake up the next morning and try again.”
Know that not all ally skills look the same
Another key point to realize when building ally skills it that some skills or things you learn about one community might not apply to others.