"I'm a cisgender white girl, and have been struggling with best practices as an attempting-to-be, admittedly imperfect ally. Since I haven't experienced the same oppression that people of other races and gender identities have, I’ve encountered situations in which I said something that I had no idea would cause someone pain or alienation, but did. It breaks my heart that I did this. How can I protect others from my ignorance, if I can't anticipate it in myself?"
-Question submitted by Anonymous
Okay, first, let me say good for you for 1) Admitting that you are an imperfect ally and 2) Being willing and eager to become a better one. It’s not easy to accept that you have privileges you never knew about, and it’s even harder to begin the work of unlearning prejudices or misconceptions.
Let me also begin by saying: you are not alone. Sometimes we say the wrong things. Sometimes we mean to say one thing and it comes out completely wrong—Cady Heron put that best in Mean Girls when she called it “word vomit.” Of course, there’s a difference between saying something embarrassing to your crush and possibly saying something offensive to your friend. (So not grool.)
This may sound too simple, but you know what they say – the simplest solution is usually the right one. I would suggest asking questions. Approach your friends of color and your nonbinary friends and be honest! Tell them that you are scared of saying something hurtful, and ask them what they’re comfortable talking about with you. Ask about their experiences with oppression, or the right pronouns to use when someone is transitioning. This might sound easier said than done, but trust me: your friends want you to be a better ally, too. I definitely want my friends to be!
For example, there’s a kid who sits at my table at lunch—let’s call him Tim—and from time to time he says ignorant things. Once, he admitted he was afraid of and intimidated by muscular black men. I know what you’re thinking: OH MY GOD HOW DO YOU EVEN EAT NEAR SOMEBODY WHO SAYS THINGS LIKE THAT?
Believe it or not, like you, Tim genuinely didn’t know that he was being offensive. It was so ingrained that he thought that my friend and I—who are also black—would agree with him! My friend and I could have gotten angry, but instead we decided to use the situation as a learning opportunity. We talked Tim through it and asked him why he felt that way, and by the end of it, he realized that he was being influenced by the media and by prejudices in his family. He walked away with a heightened awareness about his misconceptions.
You seem like you are already pretty socially aware, so—and I know this sounds super simple again—just try to be mindful about what you’re saying and thinking. Ask yourself, If the roles were reversed, would I be comfortable if somebody said what I’m about to say? Usually, you have your answer right there. I have another friend who, like you, was frustrated about saying potentially racist things without meaning to. I told him he could text me with questions, and now from time to time we end up having really cool conversations about how he can be a better ally!
Of course, it’s not always easy to find friends who are open to talking about their experiences with you. Remember, it is not the responsibility of people of color or nonbinary people to educate you on how to be an ally – that’s something you have to navigate for yourself. One thing you can do is online research. Diversify your media consumption by reading Out, Essence, or Latina magazines; this will help you to familiarize yourself with the experiences of people of other races and gender identities. There are so many awesome online resources now, too: This Everyday Feminism article and this list of LGBTQ+ identities are great places to start. I wish you all the best, and remember—don’t feel so guilty! Don’t be afraid to ask for help or guidance, and realize that you will make mistakes, but that doesn’t make you a bad ally. It makes you human!