Wanna Be a Good Ally? It Has Nothing And Everything To Do With You

Photo by Cristi Tohatan on Unsplash

Allies have had some bad press. More than five years ago, Black Girl Dangerous Mia McKenzie wrote that she was over the term ally, ‘the constant cookie-seeking of people who just can’t do the right thing unless they are sure they’re gonna get some kind of credit for it.’

I saw glimpses of cookie-seeking among a few of my university leadership students, who were mostly white, during their multi-semester service-learning projects. But most were happy to invest two or three times the number of hours for the relative crumbs of credit hours they received.

The bigger cookie-seeking piece was more evident on social media. Something I’d consider optics, given the service-learning teams who stretched themselves the least tended to post the most. McKenzie and Mychal Denzel Smith (among others) describe this kind of behavior as making sure everyone knows they are an ally to a movement, whether they’re actually doing anything required of them or not.

More often than not, they’re just seeking credit for being a good person…It becomes self-congratulatory, centers their experience at the expense of the marginalized, and, as McKenzie points out, reinforces oppressive behaviors that their “ally” work is supposed to be ending. — Mychal Denzel Smith

Given the need for allies — those who help support a movement they believe in but aren’t directly impacted by — we need to think about what qualities make for an effective ally. Both ally and the social justice organization(s) they represent deserve more substantial sustenance.

The Case for “Fit”

Before diversity became a buzzword, I was learning the statistical and legal foundations of good recruitment and selection. Finding good matches between humans and jobs with a focus on fairness and equality is important work — important for individuals, coworkers and companies, alike.

The importance of person-job fit isn’t restricted to paid work. Everything we do with others includes a fit between needs — the daily dance of accommodation to get our needs met. With that in mind, I’ll make the case that being an effective ally requires all the preparation, practice, and introspection one needs when applying for a paid position. Perhaps more.

Not everyone who wants to be an ally should be one. While equal as humans, we are not equal in our abilities to do good social justice work. This is true for many allies who often work at the grass roots level as volunteers. And it is especially true for allies who thrive on optics.

The exclusivity I’m advocating dovetails with good job selection practices but runs somewhat counter to being inclusive — a bit ironical given the social justice context. Being selective about one’s allies is not the way we typically think about offers to help. If I want to volunteer at a soup kitchen or the humane society, I can probably stock shelves or scoop cat litter five days a week with no knowledge of human or feline homelessness rates, and with no specific skills.

Social justice work is vastly different. Social justice leaders who seek help or to fill unpaid positions — volunteers, allies, or advocates — should be choosy and select and on the basis of knowledge, skills and other personal attributes, as they do any paid position.

But the bigger responsibility is on the ally.

Example: You are white and want to get involved in local race relations and anti-discrimination work. You’ve a genuine desire to serve — a fine place to begin. After you attend the first informational meeting of a social justice organization (and you’re fired up about what you might do), you pause. In addition to class or work schedule considerations, you take some time to reflect on your knowledge, skills and the experience you can offer. You also consider your temperament and your motivations for allyship.

It’s not a question of being a good enough person; but rather a question of possessing the knowledge, skills and attributes that can effectively serve the community.


You don’t need a degree to understand America’s myriad issues that disproportionately affect people of color: mass incarceration, school-to-prison-pipeline, intergenerational poverty, lack of decent, affordable housing, and police shootings (to name a few).

The goal is not to be seen as smart but to be an informed citizen. Increasing your knowledge requires some time and effort. Understanding different forms of racism and how these are baked into our institutions and systems can be difficult and emotional work. Once you know them, you can’t unknow them. You start looking at things like cash bail and access to milk and vegetables differently.

Although building knowledge takes time, it’s relatively easy to acquire. For starters, read or listen to The Color of Money, The New Jim Crow, White Fragility, Women, Race, and Class, and Between the World and Me.

Understanding historic and current racial issues is a baseline. Just as important is knowing some history of local issues from the perspective of citizens you might serve. Few allies (and whites in general) take the time to learn about work that has been done for decades in Black and Latinx communities. Knowing community history honors the community’s work and instills some humility that allies need to be effective.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Deceptively “Soft” Skills are the Hardest to Hone

Whether learned behaviors (skills) or abilities we were born with, we come with tools in our toolbox. Whether your skills are mostly rudimentary or developed, they can always be honed. The most important ones are related to communication.

Most Black communities have had their share of white folks asking questions and offering to help. Whether partnering on a grant, gathering data for a study, or doing community service, the help ends. The partner leaves. To be re-told a community’s history, their needs and issues, allies need communication skills that earnestly engage (not try to dazzle).

Don’t ask people of color to educate you about racism (see Knowledge, above). Educate yourself and don’t imagine that any person of color can help you manage your discomfort or horror resulting from that knowledge. They know. They’ve been uncomfortable a lot longer than you.

Two vital engagement skills are active listening and not interrupting. If you don’t already possess it, you want to develop the ability to focus on the message and not get distracted by whether you are being liked or appreciated.

You should apply these same engagement skills in conversations with program directors and other members of the social justice organization. It’s simply hard to learn when you’re talking.

Allies need to meet others where they are, be up front about what they don’t know, why they are asking, share information about themselves, and begin to build relationships that won’t abruptly end after getting the story (or the data). As McKenzie says, [Being an ally] is an active thing that must be done over and over again, in the largest and smallest ways, every day.

Personal Attributes

Everybody has a personality. A personality, once thought fixed, can change over time and with intentional practice. For example, “over-reacting” to stressors can improve with meditation, mindfulness, yoga, better nutrition and proper sleep. Some personality traits can enhance an ally’s effectiveness while some can impede it. While an ideal ally “profile” doesn’t exist, extensive research on the Big Five can help you make reasonable inferences.

Photo by Analia Baggiano on Unsplash

Conscientiousness: You want to develop and demonstrate conscientiousness. Do you always do what you commit to do? Or does it depend on the cookie-credit? Take your job as an ally seriously. Work hard and deliver what you promise and on time. Not following through with good work tells others that you don’t value the work or their time.

Openness to new experiences: As an aspiring ally, you’re probably pretty open to new experiences, as those who score highly tend to be more socially liberal. That doesn’t mean you’ll be effective in your role. It does mean that you’re probably not put off by complex issues and that you like variety.

Whether it’s a fresh idea like restorative practices in schools or a different approach to an old PR problem like inviting the new police chief to every board meeting, being open to and supportive of different ideas and processes can enhance your effectiveness. Openness certainly won’t hinder your work unless you become distracted by too many ideas and possibilities at the expense of doing and delivering (conscientiousness).

Openness also has a collaborative aspect. When we are open to others’ ideas and ways of doing things, we are less likely perceived as the outsider know-it-all.

Extraversion: There’s no evidence that being extroverted versus introverted makes for a better ally. Given that an effective ally is not one who takes the spotlight but listens well and contributes when they have something of value, extroverts and introverts and ambiverts could be equally effective.

Neuroticism: This personality dimension includes tendencies to be anxious, hostile, depressed, self-conscious, and panicky. Obviously, these traits can compromise your effectiveness. Low scores (preferable) on this dimension are calmness and emotional stability — not overreacting when presented with stressors. As mentioned, people can change this aspect of their personality over time with practice.

In White Fragility, DiAngelo talks about how an ally’s emotional displays or “white tears” take the focus off victims of racism and onto them. Not only are white tears a symbol of displaced pain and suffering, but those who shed them (mostly women) force people of color to drink from the firehose of their feelings about it.

I shed many white tears during a social justice circle debrief after visiting the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (National Lynching Memorial) last summer. I mention this to show that with 20 years of social justice work, I became a textbook version of white tears. We’ll always make mistakes. When we do, it’s an opportunity to reflect and incorporate what we are learning.

Agreeableness: Like openness to experience, effective allies are apt to score moderately highly on agreeableness which includes tolerance, altruism, being straightforward (honest), and tender-minded or sympathetic. If you are low on these traits, you might consider asking to serve in a role that involves data or writing, instead of one with a relationship focus. At least initially.

Beyond Personality: Culture and Beliefs

Before I read White Fragility, I’d done research on racial and ethnic values in the workplace which supports the claim that American caucasians value individuality over any social group (including family). According to DiAngelo, two things impede white people’s beliefs and their accountability for racism.

First, they believe in the primacy of individuality over social groups. Whites are acculturated to believe that individual character is more influential than affiliation or identity with any social group. Therefore (unless you’re in the Ku Klux Klan, maybe) racism is caused by individuals and not groups. “It’s simply not my problem” is what the average white person might think.

The other obstacle is objectivity. If having a perspective or an opinion of racism is biased — just like every other individual opinion — then why examine it? What’s the point? Especially when you could be criticized, misinterpreted, and especially shamed. Why would anyone invite that?

Photo by 🐣 Luca Iaconelli 🦊 on Unsplash

If you’re a white ally with some experience, you’ve probably embraced race problems as your own, but may have more concerns sharing your views on racism with people of color. And that’s ok. Not everyone needs to know what you think. Plus, your perspective will continue to change as you do the work. On the other hand, don’t be afraid. Be thoughtful but be vulnerable.

The closer you get to being an effective, trusted ally, you will never be perfect. But that’s not the goal. People (of any race) may label something you do or say as “racist,” evoking an image of a hateful, immoral person. DiAngelo points out that when white people are told they’re being racist for saying, “you people” or using micro-aggressions, they disagree — some are shocked! — because they don’t see themselves as hateful or immoral.

I agree with DiAngelo: most of us are neither hateful nor immoral. Yet we unwittingly play a part in perpetuating racism by not understanding (or copping to) what racism means. To refuse to understand, to learn and grow is simply a lazy, fixed mindset. It’s looking at life through a dark lens of a fear-based, worst-case analysis. If I put myself “out there” to learn about racism, what will I get in return besides feeling shitty? Or being shamed?

The Real Returns of Putting Yourself Out There as an Effective Ally

Effective allies, white or otherwise, only gain in knowledge, wisdom, skills, personal and social transformation when we stop thinking about what we look like and focus on seeing and then serving our communities. Here are three mantras that may be helpful:

Get busy. Show up to social justice events and listen. Volunteer to help with mailings or to usher events. Don’t expect the red carpet. Forget your expectations (I’m going to be embraced, appreciated; I’m going to feel good about myself and help these people). Just show up and keep showing up. After a few events or meetings, others will get the sense that you’re reliable. You will then be worth investing in. People of color should be choosy before they consider someone an ally.

Get braver. Just like singing in public, getting your poetry rejected, or falling off a bicycle, the more you engage with other races and ethnicities, the more comfortable you become with yourself and the less you think they may be judging you. Don’t restrict your experiences to the annual International Fair or Black History Month. Initiate a new conversation, go out with people outside your circle every few weeks. Without vulnerability, without asking and offering and DOING and debriefing together, we can all post Dr. King quotes on January 15 and feel good about our non-racist selves.

Get humble.

Think about the circumstances we all share at birth. Completely dependent, unable to survive on our own. We chose nothing about the babies we were.

I didn’t choose to be Caucasian, nor did I choose where and how my ancestors migrated, the place of my birth, or my DNA. So how could I see my whiteness or culture or familial customs as good or bad? How could I expect any more or any less from others?

What we have not chosen we cannot consider either our merit or our failure. — Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s