How to Be an Effective Ally

Laverne Cox sits at a table with a group of people.

Laverne Cox (center) participated in the University of Missouri's Pride Lecture Series. Image via Flickr

February 13, 2014

In order to create real impact, social justice movements need to involve people beyond the affected communities. In other words, we need allies, people who support our communities or advocate full equality. Allies help increase visibility and often bridge gaps to persuade society to be more equitable.

When high-profile people like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Madonna, and Macklemore support issues like LGBTQ equality, it brings important attention to the issue. But that attention can shift the focus from the marginalized community to that one person’s image as an ally. Instead of the cause, the media reports about how great that celebrity is.

But good allies are out there, and supporting other groups and causes in a non-offensive and non-oppressive way. Below I’ve listed what I think are the three most important keys to being a successful, conscientious ally.

  1. Know Your Privilege
  2. To be an ally, you have to acknowledge your privilege first. Privilege is the benefit a person or group enjoys by being a member of a traditionally advantaged group, and it comes in different forms: white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, and so on. One of the biggest mistakes potential allies make is refusing to acknowledge their privilege.When allies don’t acknowledge their privilege, people in oppressed communities take note. Twitter hashtags like #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, #BlackPowerIsForBlackMen, and #NotYourAsianSidekick came about when women of color wanted to express their frustrations with others who were failing to be good allies. As feminist poet Audre Lorde once wrote of racism, fury is “an appropriate reaction when the actions arising from these attitudes do not change.” These hashtags are a direct challenge to so-called allies who continue to perpetuate oppression.

  3. Listen First, Talk Second
  4. Being an ally means actively pointing out mistreatment of minority groups — and knowing the best way to help these groups speak for themselves. For example, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry hosted on her show Laverne Cox, from the hit TV show Orange Is the New Black, and journalist Janet Mock. Academic journalist Marc Lamont Hill wrote a piece about the lack of justice for CeCe McDonald, a transgender woman who was sentenced to jail for defending herself against a hate-motivated attack. In both instances, Harris-Perry and Hill lent their support to the transgender community by drawing attention to voices in a marginalized group.Not everyone behaves in such a manner. Recently Katie Couric invited Cox and Carmen Carrera, a famous transgender model, to be guests on her show. In the interview Couric asked inappropriate, transphobic questions about the women’s genitalia, phrasing her questions so that Cox and Carrera had to explain their transition from the gender they were assigned at birth to the gender they identify with now. She made her guests uncomfortable by reducing their experiences as transgender actors to their genitalia. When members of marginalized groups speak about their experience, people in a privileged group can be good allies simply by listening and respecting other opinions.

  5. Do Your Research
  6. The above exchange could have been avoided if Couric had done her research on the transgender community, which is what a good ally does, and what any potential ally should do. Read works by members of marginalized communities and learn what they think they need to achieve equality.

My vision for society is one in which we acknowledge the myriad ways injustices are inflicted upon groups and fight those injustices together. When I see offensive pieces published or when I witness the denial of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other isms from privileged groups, I know that we still have more work to do within social justice movements. I hope everybody, myself included, will unlearn oppression because, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

This post was written by AAUW college/university relationships intern Mabinty Quarshie.

By:   |   February 13, 2014


  1. Thanks Mabinty for this thought provoking post. Well done.

    It made me think of Spelman College, which began as the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary in 1881, the same year that AAUW was founded. The historically black liberal arts college was later renamed after Laura Spelman Rockefeller, a longtime activist in the antislavery movement.

    More Spelman history here:

  2. Ivonne Ramirez says:

    Great article! The Washington Post wrote an article providing some of the research on transgender:

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