Why I Don’t Like Calling Myself an “Activist” or “Ally”

This isn’t to say that there’s nowhere online where I am described as an activist or an ally to something or other, mind you. It’s that I very much hesitate to call myself by either of those terms.

I call myself a writer, blogger, soon-to-be-author, speaker, presenter, facilitator, workshop coordinator, quasi-professional ex-Muslim, disrupter of narratives. I claim the titles that relate to my identities: atheist, secular humanist, feminist, queer, woman of color, pansexual, non-monogamous, polyamorous. I might say I engage in activism of some specific type or in some specific context.

I won’t call myself an activist or an ally because I don’t want to fool myself into thinking I’m already there.

I’ve met a lot of people over the years who are well-meaning. Most people are, you know — well-meaning. They think they’re doing the right thing, and maybe they are. They think they’re nice people, and maybe they can be. They think that anyone who criticizes them is a hater with an agenda, and maybe some of them are.

The issue I have is not with labels. I’m a fan of labels. I don’t get how people who “don’t believe” in labels get through life. How do they easily and quickly identify aspects of themselves to people? I’ll never know.

The problem is not with labels that have to do directly with one’s identity, but labels that ride on others’ identities. “Ally” inherently relies on the marginalized identities of others in order to even exist. It’s a way for people not marginalized in that particular way to feel included. They have a word to put on a sticker, button, t-shirt, or pendant, too. In the case of gender and sexual minorities, they can join the LGBTQ alphabet soup with a tacked-on “A” at the end.

Calling oneself an ally means that you’re willing to say that you aren’t against a certain marginalized group. Congratulations. It doesn’t mean that you no longer have unchecked biases — especially when those biases are against groups whose marginalization has nothing to do with the group to which you consider yourself an ally.

The example of this with which I deal most is people who are for same-sex marriage but who express cis-centric, cissexist, and/or transphobic views.  “But I voted for gay marriage”, they whine, as if that’s to do at all with the slur or “joke” they just uttered. “But I’m an ally”, they defend.

Truly acting like an ally to a cause isn’t about pledging your allegiance then being absolved forevermore from doing the work. It’s about getting better, doing better, thinking better. It’s about being corrected when you’re wrong more than straight-up bigots because, ostensibly, you’re on this side of things and are interested in doing, getting, and thinking better. It’s about having patience and being forgiving with members of marginalized groups who might not cushion their call-outs and critiques as much as they would with someone who isn’t claiming to be on their side.

After all, you wanted to be part of this group, right? You wanted a special title, too, right? Intragroup dynamics are always harsher than intergroup ones because the assumption is camaraderie-in-arms.

“Activist” can be just like “ally” when referencing a cause that isn’t directly yours. Even if it’s for your own direct cause, however, that you do activism about it doesn’t mean you are perfect. In fact, you’re likely to be scrutinized more because you’re actively creating change. If the change you are creating is more harmful than helpful, you will need to be told that. And why wouldn’t you want to be told that? Isn’t your end-goal for better things in the world, for the  furthering of the cause for which you are an activist?

I try to live these ideals — and fall short of them — every day. Yet, almost daily, I deal with someone unwilling to engage with criticism of any kind at all because they think calling themself an “activist” or “ally” is a shield from criticism. They will often accuse me of thinking I’m perfect because I bring to attention some area of improvement for them. They will take the most civil thing ever said and twist it into me calling them awful terms I would never level against someone who I thought was on my side.

I always want to get better at having people’s backs.  I never want to stop improving.  I never want to call myself an “ally” or “activist” and happily rest on my laurels. If I do, I have a few people in my life who I’ve authorized to take my Movement career out behind the shed to be shot.

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Why I Don’t Like Calling Myself an “Activist” or “Ally”

11 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Like Calling Myself an “Activist” or “Ally”

  1. 2

    The problem is not with labels that have to do directly with one’s identity, but labels that ride on others’ identities. “Ally” inherently relies on the marginalized identities of others in order to even exist. It’s a way for people not marginalized in that particular way to feel included. They have a word to put on a sticker, button, t-shirt, or pendant, too. In the case of gender and sexual minorities, they can join the LGBTQ alphabet soup with a tacked-on “A” at the end.

    This is a big part of why I have never been comfortable with the idea of self-describing as an “ally.” Because although I describe myself (for example) as a feminist, I wouldn’t call myself a “feminist ally” because as a guy* the power differential is already stacked in my favor. On the other hand, because the label of ally is inherently linked to the existence of a marginalized group, I think it can be useful for members of marginalized groups to describe members of dominant groups who are supportive of equality. Thus, ally is (IMO) merely a descriptive, and therefore only applicable as long as it’s accurate (i.e., stop acting like an ally, and you’ll stop being described as one).

  2. 3

    Even though I blog about bisexuality, being genderqueer, atheism, and social justice, I’m hesitant to call myself an activist. I don’t know if I’m actually getting anything accomplished, except maybe educating my cishet friends.

    Ally is a tricky one because the more you pride yourself in being an ally, the bigger the chance that you fail to recognize your own biases and problems.

  3. 4

    I think the best way to avoid the “ally” identity-trap is to think of the verb, not the noun. I can “ally” myself with some groups, at some times. So long as I act in a fashion that aids them, I can use the verb to describe my actions. If, at any point, I am not actively supporting them, then I cannot say I am allying with them. And they get to decide when my white, cis-male, straight, middle-class ass is fulfilling that role, and when I’m screwing it up. Checking my privilege is only the first part of doing this, so if I’m failing on that front, I’ve already screwed up.

    It makes my status transient, and dependent upon my conduct, at all times.

  4. 5

    Whatever one might call themselves, siding with a marginalised group must come with criticism, because you hold yourself to a higher standard and make it known. It also means, if you’re doing it right, that you will actually listen to criticisms,, think on them, and adjust accordingly. I would think that people will be more likely to point out your mistakes if they believe that you’ll actually listen and get better.

  5. 6

    On the issue of accepting criticism, I’ve come to the conclusion that progressives (and particularly those of us with a host of privileges) need to comprehend that, if we are truly successful, we will have been horrible people, and this is a good thing.

    By this, I mean that if the world keeps moving in the direction I’m hoping it will, in fifty to a hundred years even most of my good points will seem horribly compromised in some fashion. Bigotries and biases that I have no clue are incorporated into my worldview will seem downright absurd and monstrous to that future time, and even reactionaries will at most make mealy-mouthed excuses for how backward the present me will seem to them.

    Once you accept that the goal of being a progressive is that you want your current self to seem horrible to the future, it becomes much easier to deal with any individual accusation of privilege blindness or outright bigotry. I’ve already grokked that I probably still have such traits, even without being aware of them, so someone calling me out is simply doing me a favor I should be grateful for.

  6. 7

    Excellent post.
    September’s topic for the monthly carnival of aces is opinions on allies, so I’ve been thinking about what being an ally means a lot this month.
    Actually the thing about the A in the initialism you mentioned: “In the case of gender and sexual minorities, they can join the LGBTQ alphabet soup with a tacked-on “A” at the end.” – Will probably come up in many bloggers submissions for a carnival, as many asexuals are of the opinion that the A is for Asexual not Ally. (As a grey-a myself I’m of that opinion too.)

    I find myself wondering if allyship is any different for those of us with our own minority status to wave a flag over, or if we’re just as prone to the same awful, and hurtful, mistakes when clumsily tripping over identities not your own. Generally I’ve come to think the latter is true, mostly because of results. (A la Dan Savage on Bi people & Asexuals. Both categories I fall under as a biromantic grey-a.)

    But your post is excellent because it outlines exactly the problem I think I keep seeing, that people are taking on being “an ally” as a title as they would with political positions, which is something they don’t have to work at, rather than as something they put continual effort into. I don’t think I have anything against someone being an ally, so long as they’re not “An Ally”.
    I think it makes more sense for me to say I’m “in support of Y people for X reason” to people who aren’t familiar with the struggles and need for rights and accommodations of that group, rather than to ever express my “allyship” to “Y group” themselves. I shouldn’t have to tell them that I support them, unless I’ve screwed up it should be obvious from what I say.

  7. 8

    I do wish people would’t use that word with a capital letter. 😉

    In all truth, someone in an argument did once get cross with my ideological impurity and (entirely seriously) insisted that I should change my name.

    I did think that was a wee bit excessive.

  8. 9

    […] “Ally” is a call to action, not an enlightened state of being where everything you do is perfect and no one is allowed to say anything to you about anything you do.  If anything, it should mean you are, by definition, more open to changing your stances in light of call-ins and call-outs from the people whom you claim to support. […]

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