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.

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

Why Are You an Ally, Anyway?

No, really. What’s your motivation to call yourself one, and maybe even to act like one?

This is the part where I talk about myself in an attempt to make it less about me (and you, if you’re also an ally rather than part of a marginalized group when it comes to one or more forms of oppression).

I have class privilege and was utterly blind to it for a long time. Oppression of every kind’s favorite mask (especially in America), the myth of the meritocracy, fit my class privilege pretty well. After all, had my father not come to the United States as refugee and worked his way up? Well after being granted entry into affluent North American countries, had my parents (and, later, my siblings and I) not lived frugally? I grew up watching families with much lower income than mine participating in activities my father dubbed “too expensive” and concluded that we must not be as well-off as others.


Much later, as a young adult, I discovered that such was not the case at all. My family was and is actually quite comfortable. We always lived in nice houses and my parents drove brand-new cars. My father earned enough to make such large purchases; his assessment of priciness with regards to smaller things like karate lessons or sodas at fast-food joints was a reflection of his personal preferences rather than our financial situation. My mother had both the desire and the financial freedom, thanks to my father, to be a homemaker.

I suddenly knew that I’d grown up in pretty cushy surroundings — and, privileged asshole that I was, I felt bad for myself. I couldn’t complain about my childhood anymore! Hell, who knew if the classism police would ever let me complain about anything anymore? Though that initially deep discomfort soon faded, it left behind a sticky residue of defensiveness, one that saw “you have class privilege” as an “I’m going to assume that your childhood was awesome and you got to have and do lots of stuff, you spoiled brat.” I didn’t even realize it until I had a relatively benign and silly Twitter exchange with someone whose upbringing couldn’t be more different from mine. She joked that we were “the princess and the pauper.”


Princess?! How dare she assume that my life had been charmed and that I’d gotten all that I’d wanted?! I started firing off Tweets about how much my childhood sucked. The more I typed, the more I realized that I was whining — acting like the spoiled brat that I was trying to prove that I was not. I was derailing by being the worst kind of so-called “ally:” self-centered and self-absorbed instead of open to listening to the people I was allegedly trying to back up.


I deleted some things and ended the exchange with a simple acknowledgment: “I have all the class privilege.”

I’m still working on it. This is a process, not an instant, magical transformation. If someone ribs — or even derides, is dismissive towards, or is mean to — me for my relatively cushy upbringing, I consciously work to quell the urge to go “but but but–“. I shut up and feel grateful that I only have to feel such a little bit of discomfort. On top of that, that tiny smidgen of discomfort, unlike the actual suffering of class oppression, is helpful to me: it reminds me of my position and keeps me on my classism toes.

It’s really easy to forget that “ally” is not a title that earns you free brownie points; it is, in theory, a state of being. The real me me me problem isn’t characteristic of a particular generation, it’s among those allies who really don’t help much and care more for their status as allies than about actually acting like allies. To appropriate an internet-famous quote, allyship doesn’t mean putting coins into oppressed groups in the hopes that friendship, forgiveness, or status falls out.


To quote a writer who will problematize the word “ally” for you in the most brilliant way:

Falling back on words and phrases that are intended to convey some sort of ideological purity won’t ever trump the transformation you’ll experience within yourself (and others) if you truly put yourself out there, be vulnerable, admit wrongs, take responsibility for your blind spots, hold your damn self accountable, not for show, but for real.

— Spectra on Straight Allies, White Anti-Racists, Male Feminists (and Other Politically Correct Labels That Mean Nothing to Me)

Why Are You an Ally, Anyway?