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What Really Is An Ally?

There’s a good chance that you’ve heard the word ally somewhere before. Oftentimes people will think of common images like people protesting beside one another or various organizing efforts made by those who want to enact change. While these pictures of allies aren’t necessarily inaccurate, it makes you wonder; what exactly is an ally if you had to define it?

Surprisingly, upon searching the term, there isn’t a clear definition. A variety of definitions remain spread throughout different sources, but none of them are quite the same. identifies the definition of the noun as “a person, group, or nation that is associated with another or others for some common cause or purpose.” This notion of a common interest or cause came up a few times in definitions I searched. So are individuals who simply fight for the same cause considered an ally?

Well, not quite. states that an ally is “anything associated with another as a helper; an auxiliary.” Okay, so this helps us narrow down the definition of an ally to: someone who fights for a common cause or purpose as a helper with another. This seems to be the most comprehensive way to define an ally-a helper who fights alongside another-yet there’s something about this common definition that feels off.

The desire to help other people is arguably a good thing. Ultimately, those who identify as an ally or helper have good intentions at heart by wanting to make the world a better place and space for all. Yet, underneath the notion of helping is the assumption that someone must be helped and thus, is incapable of helping themselves. This then puts people into two categories; the helper (the one able to help) and the helpless (the one in need of being helped).

In this way, the term ally--as defined as a helper--can feel condescending to specific communities that have been historically treated unjustly such as the LGBTQ+ community, people of color, working class folks, people with disabilities, etc. Through making the assumption that these communities are helpless (or in need of allies to help them), individuals do not recognize the power for change that already exists within these groups.

So, perhaps we need to rid ourselves of a definition of allies as helpers. Instead of defining allies as those who help others or communities that are not their own, how about instead we stand in solidarity with different communities? Let’s be an advocate for and with others. Let’s move beyond the helper and the helpless. Let’s stand with one another to enact change and fight for a more just society.

Learn more about how to be an ally and stand in solidarity with us by checking out resources and training provided by MCS Chicago.

Contributing Writer: Brittany A. Hamilton

Photo Credit: Will H McMahan @whmii

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