How to Be a Better Ally

Rev. Douglas Taylor


So, here’s something I learned a little while back and have had the privilege to relearn several times over the years: Just because I am under the impression that I am a good and helpful person does not necessarily translate to me being a good and helpful person.

I was sitting in a circle of UU colleagues during a check-in. It was our monthly gathering in which we share trials and turmoil of our lives in ministry. And because we’re all preachers, we use a clock to discipline ourselves against the urge to talk in 20-minute chunks. I was minding the clock for a colleague and as the allotted span of time (I think it was 10 minutes) neared completion, this colleague was sharing some heavier things. I could tell my colleague needed more time, needed the gift of our attention as they processed their stuff with us. So, I let the time run out and didn’t say anything, just let them continue talking.

After about 4 or 5 additional minutes my colleague paused and said, “I feel like this has been a really long 10 minutes.” “Yeah,” I responded, “You seemed to need extra time.” To which another colleague chimed in, “If I were in their place, I’d have wanted to know I was using extra time.” The group moved on while I made a mental note that I’d done it again.

It was not a big deal, nothing egregious. Simply another example of a time I was under the mistaken impression that I was being a good and helpful person. What had actually happened is this: I had decided what would be helpful to someone else and acted without consulting them. My intention was good. But I think a better way would have been to let my colleague remain in control of their sharing and their time rather than me choosing for them.

It’s a little like the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you – except nuanced to actually listen to what they want and doing unto them what they would have you do unto them … It’s like the Gold-Plus Rule. I’m not going to hug everyone just because I want people to hug me. I’ll offer hugs to those people who want them. It’s the Gold-Plus Rule. It is about allowing the other person to control what is happening for themselves, to have a say in matters that concern them.

Giving people extra time for a difficult check-in is an awesome and kind thing to do. The point is to check with the person to see if that’s what they want. It’s like consent. Does it shade your perspective to know that the colleague in this anecdote is female and I am male? A man presuming to know better than a woman is a classic example of casual sexism.

Now, real talk: this example I am offering is so minor, so insignificant of an example it is hardly worth mentioning. I mention it for two reasons. First, by offering an example without much bite to it, I am hoping to get your attention without getting your pushback and reactivity. Right? “This is such a small thing. It is not hard to hear about it.” The second reason I offer it is that this example is part of a common enough pattern, and we can use it as a launching point to go deeper together.

So, let’s dig in. I want to be an ally. Good allies are important in the work of building a better world. We can’t build the beloved community without strong allies. And, it is one of those difficult things because a lot of good people end up doing nothing with their privilege. As Dr. King said in the Letter for the Birmingham Jail:

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
-MLK, Letter from the Birmingham Jail

Pick a side, don’t be neutral. Being neutral always benefits the oppressor, never the oppressed. Step up and engage with the injustice you see. It is a goal of mine to become a trustworthy ally for people with marginalized identities. I know that the title of ‘ally’ is not something I can claim, it needs to be bestowed. It is bestowed based on relationship and a pattern of behavior. My intentions and principles are not enough. I need to step up. That’s how any of us will do this.

So how does one go about becoming an ally, or becoming a better ally? I feel like the starting point is sometimes glibly stated as “Show up and shut up.” Of course, that statement is a provocative way of saying it and as such does not really say it. (“Show up and shut up” is almost like Aaron Burr’s line in Hamilton, “Talk less, smile more;” which for Burr is really about playing the field and not making a commitment so you have room to respond depending which way the wind blows. That’s not what being an ally is about. That is so very much not what being an ally is all about.) “Show up and shut up” may be more politely phrased – get into relationship with the people on the margins and listen to their struggles, their solutions, their leadership.

A few years back, at the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, I participated in some gatherings locally. At one point, I was able to step forward and offer the use of our building for BLM community gatherings. I was proud to be able to host the gatherings. One thing I worked hard to not do was take over. I actively tried to not speak up as often, I didn’t insert myself in the leadership circle. I remained a supporter on the side.

Now, I don’t know with certainty that what I did was the best way, or the only good way, to be an ally in that situation. I didn’t talk with the main organizers and tell them explicitly that I was taking this particular supportive stance as ‘the stance of an ally.’ They were left to interpret my intentions based on my actions. It would have been better if I could have been clear. It would have been a step closer to being in relationship enough to have that conversation with the leaders.

One of the other big pieces of advice I’ve found for becoming a better ally is self-education. Look stuff up on Google. Most of the time, someone has already asked and answered the questions you might have – and Google doesn’t get offended by too-personal questions. You want to know what’s wrong with touching a black person’s hair? Google it. You wonder what happens with a transgender person’s body when they are going through hormone treatment? Google it. You curious if this phrase or that word is offensive, or why it is offensive? Google it. Look stuff up. You don’t have to wait until someone of a marginalized identity is standing near you to ask your question. In fact, please don’t.

There is a video that I found by searching the internet in exactly this way entitled “How to Be a Good Ally – Identity, Privilege, Resistance.” It is a Youtube video by Ahsante the Artist Ahsante shares five things a person such as myself can do to be a better ally.

The first of the five tips she gives in this video is to listen and educate yourself. Which is what I’ve been saying here for the past 10 minutes, right? I need to listen, but I am listening with a specific goal: to learn more, to educate myself about what’s going on and about the experiences of people different from me – experiences of people with marginalized identities in our society. For real, though, this is a great tip for life in general. Listen to children, listen to your neighbor, listen to the cashier, listen to anyone out there … with the goal of learning more about the experiences of people who are different.

And then, here is a justice twist: give a little extra credence to people who are marginalized in our society. At first, I was just saying: listen. Now, I am saying: listen with a little preference for people who are different from me. I’m not saying people who share my identity are always wrong and people different from me are always right. Instead I’m suggesting I can start with an assumption that the experiences of marginalized people are credible. I’m not suggesting that’s the only step, but that’s a starting place.

There are liars and con artists among all types of people. But when people say things like: ‘amplify the voices of people of color’ and ‘believe women’ and ‘walk a mile in another person’s moccasins;’ the suggestion is to counter the near-universal bias people have to give greater credence to the experiences of people from the dominant culture.

All that leads to the second tip: Uplift marginalized voices. If I go online and search for some information about how to be a better ally … and I find a cool video or website by a person of color or by a handful of queer youth, I can quote that in a sermon, for example.

For the past few years I have been trying to include a worship element from a person of color. (Our benediction was written by Joseph Cherry, in today’s example. Rev. Cherry is of Latino descent and a UU colleague I met at Meadville Lombard during my first sabbatical.) It doesn’t pan out perfectly, but many Sundays I am able to make that work.

For all of my time as a minister creating worship each week, I have been paying attention to the gender of the authors I use for opening words, benedictions, and such. So, my new resolve is an expansion of a mindset I have been practicing already. This is a form of lifting up marginalized voices.

I’m not going to spend all my time on these five tips by Ahsante the Artist, you can watch the video yourself. I’ll put the link in the text of the sermon or you can do you own internet search for “How to Be a Good Ally.” It’s worth watching it for yourself.

A piece I think needs a little extra attention that I really want to share with you is about covenant and forgiveness. It’s about what I do when I say something stupid or a little racist, when I make a mistake and say or do something homophobic, sexist, transphobic, ableist, or so on.  Because I will. I have. It happens.

There is a thing that happens publicly for people who make mistakes like this. The “Call out” culture calls people out when they’ve said or done something publicly that is out of line. This may be effective against the bigots and trolls, but it has mixed results when used on people trying to be allies.

I remember a story of a white colleague from the 60’s who was invited by a black colleague to participate in a civil rights meeting. The white colleague said something like, “But what if I say something stupid?” To which the black colleague responded. “Don’t worry, you will.”

What I take from that little anecdote is a call to get more comfortable with making mistakes, with being wrong, with showing up even though I feel uncomfortable. My being right or comfortable is not the point. So, I push myself, it is a spiritual practice for me, to factor in the reality that I will make mistakes on this path I have chosen.

What I gain by having this mindset is the capacity to stay in relationship. If someone calls you out for something you’ve said or done. Slow down. Listen. What if it is an opportunity to build the relationship? I know too often the conversation is a punishment, or feels like one. That’s not a way forward. The conversation should be a repair, an opening for growth, a time to step closer to each other.

Remember, I’m talking about people of goodwill who want to engage in being a better ally. There are other situations involving bigots and white supremacists. That’s not what I’m talking about. There is a way forward with them, but that’s a different conversation than I am aiming at today. I’m talking about the situations you and I will fall into. If you experience someone calling you out, work from the premise that they are actually calling you back in – they are willing to mention the problem to you because they have decided their relationship with you is worth it.

There is a lot of implicit stuff that I’ve picked up from my family, from my religion, my school, my music, my friends and loved ones. Some of it is good. Some of it is neutral. Some of it is not so good. There are things all of us need to unlearn, relearn, or simply discover for the first time.

Being an ally is about being willing to continue to learn and grow, to be in relationship through the messy parts of life. To show up and play a supporting role. To use the privilege you have for the good of others. Dr King, in the last Sunday sermon he preached said:

I submit that nothing will be done until people of goodwill put their bodies and their souls in motion. And it will be the kind of soul force brought into being as a result of this confrontation that I believe will make the difference.

It is my work to be an ally. I submit that it is your work as well. It is our work as Unitarian Universalists to use the strengths and gifts we have for the work of justice; to be a people of goodwill willing to put our bodies and souls in motion.

In a world without end, May it be so