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.