“Ally” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in activist circles. Sometimes, it’s used to denote those who are down for the struggle for justice, liberty, and equality. Other times, it’s used derisively to describe charlatans who simply pretend to care about issues facing marginalized communities.
Certainly, the outcome of this last presidential election brought even more attention to the term “ally” once some folks started wearing safety pins for “solidarity.” It goes without saying that wearing a safety pin, while well intentioned, is hardly sufficient for doing the actual work of solidarity. If one wants to survive and resist against the forces of tyranny, it requires work and sacrifice beyond what one would usually expect. When it comes to sexual assault survivors and allyship within the Black community, it’s no different — wearing buttons and t-shirts will never be good enough. After all, Black people, particularly Black women, face a greater risk of sexual assault than white people and don’t receive a fraction of the belief, assistance, and protection. This means that there are a lot of survivors within our community who are in desperate need of support.
So how does one become a proper ally for Black survivors of sexual assault, especially during Black History Month?
The first thing anyone striving to be an ally should do is listen to survivors. Not listening created problems for survivors in our community in the past, where law enforcement would ignore (or perpetrate) sexual violence against Black women. As such, the last thing anyone wants is for you to simply speak over those who have been doing the work and who are most impacted by sexual violence. Regardless of intentions, interrupting or speaking over survivors is a recipe for disaster. You devalue and invalidate other people’s experiences when you drown them out or ignore them. We constantly decry the lack of solidarity with our community when it concerns police brutality or racist vigilante violence; we can start leading by example by listening to Black survivors.
It would be wise not to attempt to take over spaces. This is a particularly pertinent suggestion because a lot of times, some “allies” will attempt to take over spaces of any group. Sometimes, this is a well-intentioned mistake, since allies think they have the solutions and courses of action. This is especially the case with men, since we are socialized (to a fault) to take on leadership positions — even if we’re completely unqualified to do so. Just as it is important for allies to listen, it is important to take a couple steps back to prevent yourself from needlessly dominating spaces. The last thing we should want is a repeat of sexist Civil Rights Movement politics, where heterosexual Black men would intentionally silence Black women while assuming leadership roles.
Other times, “allies” will take over a group for more selfish reasons, such as political gain, financial gain, and/or personal ego. If you’re someone who is attempting to take over a group for these reasons, it would be prudent of you to cease before you even get involved. You will not only damage your own reputation, you will be doing immeasurable harm to already vulnerable survivors who placed their faith in you. Don’t believe me? Look at the case of Hugo Schwyzer,a self-proclaimed male feminist who violated people’s trust and ruined valuable work through selfishness.
Finally, being a good ally means never giving up while you’re still able to take a stand. Fighting against sexual assault and rape culture can be draining and even feel hopeless at times. It can be akin to trying to burst through a brick wall with a bum shoulder. But never forget that survivors within our community face these barriers every single day. Their shoulders are burdened with a multi-headed dragon of white supremacist patriarchy. They have no choice but to resist. As such, it is necessary for allies to stand alongside them and accept the challenges ahead.
If any of the above seems too demanding or too difficult, then it is best not to get involved. Don’t waste survivors’ time by being a quarter of the way in. However, if you’re so disgusted with sexual violence and the unjust treatment of survivors within our community that you feel the urge to act, then remember to take the time to listen, not to dominate spaces, and to keep pushing forward.
As Frederick Douglass, a notable ally to women’s liberation, once said, “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!” Allies to Black survivors should do nothing less.