Harassment and oppression. They’re all around us. And lately, so too are movements meant to empower traditionally dis-empowered groups. I’m talking about groups like women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people.

As a highly sensitive person and an empath, I find all the stories of people being abused, threatened, harassed, objectified, harmed or murdered absolutely debilitating. The pain and terror that these people feel weighs on me. Yet I can’t look away. Because looking away makes me part of the problem, and that’s an outcome I cannot allow.

As more and more of these situations come into my awareness, I find myself asking how I can possibly make a difference in the face of what sometimes feels like an avalanche of hate. In other words, how can I, as a cis straight white woman, be a better participant in the movements that represent me and, more importantly, be a better ally to the movements that don’t?

I present these ideas, not as a comprehensive guide to being an ally, but as a starting point for discussion. For me, this is a dialogue that’s just beginning, and I would love to continue the conversation in the comments and on social media.

For the purposes of this discussion, I define an ally as a person who openly supports a movement intended to lift up oppressed people, despite not being a member of the oppressed group. This is not the same as being part of the movement itself. For example:

  • I am a woman and a sexual assault survivor. Therefore, #metoo is my movement. It represents me.
  • I am an ally of #blacklivesmatter. I cannot be part of that movement because, as a white person, I am not part of the group that is being oppressed.

Owning your experience by identifying with a particular movement is incredibly powerful. It creates space for other people to step forward and own that experience as well. This is why I constantly talk about my survivorship. I have seen how telling my story creates space for others to own their own experience. It’s this connection that gives rise to movements and the hashtags that invoke them.

Being an ally is also powerful, but for very different reasons. As an ally, you do not share the experience that binds members of the movement together. Rather, you are an outsider, and as such, you are in a unique position to make a real difference when you encounter oppression in the world.

So how can we all be better allies? I think the answer is two-fold. A ally must:

  1. Listen, understand and validate experience
  2. Stand up for those who are being harmed

Listen, understand and validate experience

It’s very important to remember that, as an ally, you are not part of the group that’s being oppressed.  For this reason, the most important thing you can do as an ally is to listen. Seek to understand the truth of those you are supporting. Attempt to see the world from their perspective. If you are part of the group who is doing the oppressing (e.g., you’re white and listening to a black person or you’re straight and listening to a trans person), recognize your privilege and acknowledge how it has affected your understanding of others’ experiences.

Keep in mind that, to truly listen, understand and validate another person’s experience, you have to shut your mouth. This is not a time for expressing how you too have been oppressed in some way.

This is the fundamental problem with #AllLivesMatter. If you’re an ally, and someone tells you they’ve been discriminated against or harmed, your response cannot be “I’ve been harmed too.” If it is, you are not listening with the intent to understand and validate the experience of the person you intend to support. In fact, you are engaged in the much more common human practice of listening with the intent to respond.

Stand up for those who are being harmed

The second thing an ally must do is stand up for those who are being harmed.

A recent news story involved two black men who were arrested without cause while waiting for a friend inside a Starbucks. In the video, there were white people (allies) standing up for these men, but it wasn’t enough to prevent their wrongful arrest.

Even though allies were unable to prevent an atrocious outcome, standing up for people is the best response that’s available to us. In listening to people of color (see step 1, above), what I’m hearing is that the world needs more of this, not less. That allies must stand up for people who are being threatened or harassed or discriminated against. This is especially true when, as an ally, your voice is heard where an oppressed person’s voice is not.

I think these two steps are a pretty good starting point for people who are tired of witnessing the oppression of our fellow humans and want to do something about it.

What do you think? Do you agree with my definition of an ally? What else should allies do to turn the tide of hate that threatens to overwhelm us? See you in the comments.