Written by Dr. Jon Paul Higgins
When you look up the word ally in the dictionary, there are multiple definitions and suggestions on how to practice it in the right way. For some, the word allyship is something that is proactive, ongoing and rooted in the process of unlearning toxic systems that are harmful to those who are marginalized and oppressed. For others, it’s about re-evaluating one’s privilege and the ways in which we abuse the power that comes with it. But for some, one of the most essential thoughts connected to being an ally focuses on actions and the ways in which an individual shows solidarity and partnership for a specific group of people.
For some time, many associated the term “ally” with the name of Terry Crews because of how vocal he was about the moments he experienced oppression and spoke up for others who too were marginalized in entertainment. As someone who was not only once victimized by a powerful agent in Hollywood, Crews was also known for calling other entertainers to the table about their problematic takes on the LGBTQ+ community. Many lauded Crews for being “an incredible ally” for the ways he not only spoke up for marginalized people, but for the ways he spoke about accountability.
But all of that quickly fell apart in one click of a tweet when Crews took to Twitter to question whether women in same-sex relationships could properly raise children. A few weeks later he would be criticized again for the ways in which he spoke about Gabrielle Union and the ways he invalidated her thoughts and experiences while working on America’s Got Talent. Though Crews has since apologized for his statements, many have been left to question how someone who was once deemed a great example of an ally quickly became public enemy number one.
In Crews’ case, the issue went from him being an imperfect ally to one who is considered imperceptive.
The problem is that often, people like Crews fall into the trap door of allyship. Said trap door is one where many aren’t often in full solidarity with the groups they are advocating for. Even more, the allyship becomes performative – often self-gratified and only done as a way to reap an award. This can often lead allies to forget the power and privilege that lives in their voice, causing them to often speak out of turn or forgetting the impact behind their intent.
And that is what makes a great ally. Knowing and understanding the responsibility you have to say and do the right thing for those who often need it and more-comprehending the work that you have to do to learn about the things a marginalized community needs.
A really good example of this can be found when examining the ways in which both Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade worked to understand the needs of their trans daughter Zaya. Both individuals knew and understood their privilege and wanted to make sure that it did not get in the way of the needs of their child.
“It’s our job as parents to get the information so that our child can be ‘her best self,’” Wade shared when talking to Ellen, noting that being a good ally was more about listening, learning and doing.
In thinking about the miscue of Crews and learning from Wade and his family, we can gather that being a great ally is more about actions than words. It’s about understanding how when you have a huge platform and the privilege that comes with your identity, you have the responsibility to uplift people.
It’s not about questioning or challenging another marginalized group, but about the ways that you commit yourself to using language that not only elevates one’s self worth, but adds value to their journey. What’s extremely important in all of this is also holding yourself accountable for the things that you don’t know, while taking the time to ask the people who do know the right questions.
In the case of Wade and his family, this is exactly what they did. “Now it’s our job to, one, go out and get the information,” Wade went on to say, “and to reach out to every relationship we have. We’re just trying to figure out as much information as we can to make sure we give (Zaya) the best opportunity to be her best self.”
So what can we learn from Crews and Wade? While there is no surefire way to be a perfect ally, being a good one starts with self-reflection. It starts with being mindful of your words and actions.
It also begins with being more concerned with others well being and not centering your own. While there is no one way to be a good ally, remembering who you are doing it for and why is the perfect way to begin.