There’s a lot of impostors, who claim allyship without actually delivering. An ally is someone who uses their position, power, and privilege for equality – in other words, they’re working themselves out of a job. An impostor is someone who uses the impression that they do that in order to support their position, power, and privilege.
I have a very simple test of allyship, that seems to work in the autism community. If I’m at an event and want to know about someone, I’ll listen to how they refer to autistics. If they use “person with autism”, I’ll refer to myself as an autistic and see if they catch the hint and use that term when referring to me. And vise-versa, if they say autistic, I’ll say “person with autism” and see if they catch the hint.
If they are a true and useful ally, they probably will catch the hint. They’ll use the language I’ve used of myself when referring to me. Now, if they don’t change, that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t a good person (they might not have been aware of what I did), but it also indicates, “Okay, here’s someone that might not be taking their cues from me. It’s worth some investigation.” The worst outcome is when that person explains how their preferred terminology for autistic people is more important than the term a person with autism uses.
An ally empowers people. They use their power and position to give a voice to people who don’t typically get it everywhere. But they don’t seek to be the voice. They seek to give someone else the chance to speak for themself. To an ally, the best possible outcome is that they get to sit back and watch, not doing anything, not taking any time in the spotlight, and not even getting acknowledgement that they are an ally – because that means the other person has power and influence, and doesn’t need the ally.
That means an ally knows he isn’t always right, and doesn’t always understand (the same can be said of an effective self-advocate). If I see a woman being sexually harassed, I will speak up (assuming I need to – if she’s handling it fine on her own, I’m not going to diminish her power by stepping in). If she rebukes me for doing this, I don’t take it personally or as an insult – she’s the one I want to see empowered, and that includes being able to tell this guy “back off, I don’t need or want your help.” If I think there is some need to defend myself (“Most women would have been glad they got help”) or whatever else, even if I may be right about other women (or whoever I’m an ally of), now my focus isn’t on empowering this person, but rather on the opposite! Once I start defending myself, I’m showing I care about preserving my position, my reputation, the view of me as a defender or such. An ally won’t care if they are needed or not, they’ll just do work when they can to advocate, but will accept direction and correction when appropriate. Sure, does it suck to be wrong? Of course. But it’s life, and if the real goal is to empower someone, you do that – you don’t worry about whether or not people will see you as an ally.
What is important is being an ally, not being known as being an ally. An effective ally might never get acknowledgement or notice. They might not get awards or be thanked. It might even be difficult at times! But once I become concerned that I’m not being gratefully received enough, then I’m showing I’m more concerned with ME than actually being an ally.
An ally doesn’t try to barge in. An ally doesn’t say, “Oh, I have autistic traits too” to show that they know exactly what it is like to be autistic, when they aren’t autistic. They do see similarities and how they have much in common – but they also see differences, both real and social.
An ally doesn’t typically need to say or prove they are an ally. I’ve seen people, when corrected about how they were trying to advocate for someone, turn around and get very defensive and upset – they feel that their self image was attacked, that people aren’t going to see them as a wonderful, open-minded ally anymore. If you’re an ally, you’re glad to learn and are glad you did (you also won’t feel the need to make tons of statements about how sorry you are, how wonderful someone is for correcting you, or whatever else – you won’t feel that your identity depends upon showing how open-minded you are; you’ll do, not just tell).
An ally does the hard stuff, not just the easy and popular stuff. Anyone can turn on a blue lightbulb. But not everyone can help an autistic person and check on them when they haven’t been seen leaving their home in a few days. An ally isn’t just willing to talk, they’re willing to put themselves out a bit and do (not that talking isn’t something an ally should do – sometimes it is very powerful – but it’s not everything either). They don’t wait for a cause to get support and be popular. They are willing to go against what is popular. If your advocacy is popular, it probably isn’t doing much – people already agree with whatever you are saying or doing.
An ally listens carefully and is socially aware. Sure, there is different levels of social awareness, but it’s important to be in touch with the people you supposedly are empowering. You need to be able to take the hint when your help isn’t help or when your help isn’t even wanted. You need to be aware that what you’re doing yourself could be better done by someone else, when that’s true. You need to be aware of when you’re overstepping your role as an ally and not taking your cue from the people you’re empowering.
Some of the best allies will never get recognized for what they do. They’ll never be seen by others as part of the social justice movement that was helped by their wise use of privilege and position. They’ll never get the credit. What they get is knowledge that they did their best to make the world better. For an ally, that’s plenty. Even if they are the only person on earth who knows they did it.
What does an impostor do? They seek prestige and position. They want to get noticed and get accolades. They want people to tell them what a good job they are doing. Most of all, they need someone to help. That means they don’t really want to empower – they need the power imbalance so that the need for their “help” remains.
Don’t be an impostor.