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Understanding Allyship

Let’s explore allyship as a concept. Before sharing this definition, we ask that you reflect on your personal understanding of allyship by reflecting on your experience with this term:

  1. What does it mean to be an ally?
  2. When would you have liked to have been a better ally for a person or group and what kept you from being that?

An ally seeks to understand what it feels like for another person or group to be oppressed, and despite knowing you will never fully understand how it feels, is committed to valuing and supporting people who are marginalized.

Source: 21-Day Equity Challenge

In order to work on our ability to be an ally, we need to understand the distinction between oppression and privilege.

3.     What privileges do I have that others do not?

Individuals of a non-dominant group can experience oppression in the form of limits, disadvantages, or judgment. They may even endure mistreatment from individuals, institutions, or social practices. "Oppression" refers to a combination of prejudice and institutional power that creates a system that regularly and severely discriminates against some groups and benefits other groups.

Source: National Museum of African American History & Culture

Examples of Systems of Oppression:

  • Sexism
  • Heterosexism
  • Ableism
  • Classism
  • Ageism
  • Anti-Semitism

Institutions in society, such as government, education, and culture, all add to or reinforce the oppression of marginalized groups while benefiting dominant social groups.


Acting as an ally for those that are experiencing a form of oppression is using the power of our unearned privilege to advocate and dismantle the systems that are ingrained into the foundation of American.

Privilege, as defined by the UCA College of Education is the “Access to, or enjoying rights or advantages, simply by the membership of a particular group or identity. These rights/advantages are often unearned and/or underserved.”


It is important to know that everyone can be an ally, and everyone can need an ally. This reality is built on the concept of intersectionality.

Intersectionality is the acknowledgment that everyone has their own unique experiences of discrimination and oppression and we must consider everything and anything that can marginalize people – gender, race, class, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc.

Source: Womenkind Worldwide

was coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1980s to highlight overlapping identities. Meaning we can face a variety of experiences of oppression and privilege simultaneously, and it is important to distinguish our experience of unearned privilege and oppression to better assist an ally for others.

4.     How does intersectionality show up for me?

Here are some important factors to keep in mind as you work on your ability to be an ally.

Allyship is not an identity 
— it is a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people.

Allyship is not an award — our work is not self-seeking or self-gratifying. We don't get a cookie or a gold star for trying.

Allyship is not for the faint of heart — Did we mention allyship is hard? For many of us, it might be one of the hardest things we do. Allyship is also not for those who aren't ready. Being "ready" means you've done the work of not only educating yourself, but healing (more on that here). You don't want to show up sick or unprepared for an important day on the job if you can avoid it. Same applies here for the struggle for social justice. Better to take the day, learn more, ask allies you know for help, and take care of your own wounds beforehand.

Allyship works from a place of solidarity NOT identity — when you're new to allyship and all the concepts around racial justice, white allies may want to speak and operate based on their personal identity, experiences, and day to day interactions. This is a good place to start from. The ultimate goal is for white allies to have a much broader and critical understanding of structures of power and the systems of oppression and how they can be dismantled alongside people of color.

Allyship is not a performance — our very public online and social media lives make it really tempting to "show" just how down we are by calling out the actions of others, trolling, or engaging in conversations on behalf of the marginalized group. Allies don't represent or speak for the marginalized group. But we can always speak to others in our own group about ways they can challenge their privilege and work toward solidarity.

–Source: What is Allyship? Rochester Racial Justice Toolkit

This is not a list of resources but a guide for how to approach and use those resources to further your own education, understanding, and action.

Build your knowledge on this term. - become more educated/informed about a social issue, a community of people, the historical roots of systemic inequality, how systems and institutions reflect and maintain racial and socio-economic hierarchies, theory, data, and storytelling about an issue


Take a few minutes to review the Examples of Different Types of Privilege found in the key terms.

Explore your own social identities in this worksheet.



In this open-source starter guide from Amélie Lamont, consider the Do’s and Don'ts of Allyship that is important to know as you practice and evolve your role in supporting equity and inclusion.

Read about how to be a better ally in the workplace in the article Allyship - The Key To Unlocking The Power Of Diversity from Sheree Atcheson, a global change maker in pushing for equality in the industry. Looking for a place to start? She recommends taking time to really listen to the experiences of those around you.


Watch a short video on black women and the concept of intersectionality. From the NMAAHC, #APeoplesJourney “African American Women and the Struggle for Equality.”

Watch this video with Franchesca Ramsey on the 5 Tips For Being An Ally. It’s short and energizing. (3:31)

See what happens when people take time to converse with one another despite their differences. Watch the 2020 Governor’s Emmy® Award-winning documentary Breaking Bread, Building Bridges, a project conceived and directed by Des Moines Civil and Human Rights Commission Director Joshua V. Barr. (37:16)


Listen to entrepreneur and business consultant Jennifer Brown discuss the Allyship Continuum and how you can go from apathetic to an advocate. Develop a muscle that gets stronger over time. (38:55)


Increase proximity or engagement - have more personal experiences with the social issue or community you are learning about which, for those of us this may mean going outside of our own segregated communities where these issues have not been visible.

Reach out to the Office of Equity and Inclusion and follow our Instagram page for more information on allyship.

Engage in critical and continuous reflection - creating meaning from the knowledge and proximity through critical thinking that explores one's personal experience of and role in systemic inequality as well as one's understanding of what change could look like and how to do it as an individual and in community with others

On-going learning (especially in groups) can be a form of on-going action. How can you learn more about the thing you are interested in? For instance, if you learned about police brutality, can you find some history of that issue in the United States or wherever you are?

  • Can you take a free online class or attend a public event about that issue?
  • Can you find another book, movie, podcast, etc. to consume to increase your understanding?
  • Can you find people working on this and join their movement? Can you volunteer?

 Want to lead a discussion on this topic? Find the Facilitator's Guide here!

Key Terms

Examples of Different Types of Privilege

Race (the ‘norm’ is whiteness and the society is structured as such) Gender (male dominant organizations, minimal career opportunities, internalized oppression – body type, appearance, sexual violence)

Socio-economic (financial stability, access to resources & opportunities)

Christian (member of the dominant religion in the U.S.) Heterosexual (able to marry and adopt, not viewed by others as a deviant)

Nationality (access due to the country in which one derives from)

Education (access to Higher Education, ability to understand language and identify communication channels to access education opportunities)

Right-handed (resources oriented to their particular perspective – scissors, computer, can opener)

Geographic location (Western privilege, access to information/resources, world perceptions)

English –speaking (access afforded to those who communicate in this language)

Birth order (access/rights given to the firstborn over the middle child, etc.)

Age (access afforded to people considered an ‘adult’ vs. one labeled as ‘youth.’ Limited access also given to those considered as ‘elderly.’) Body size (to be born with a body type that is celebrated and considered beautiful by the dominant group as reflected in media, social norms, etc.)

Gender –Identity (having a gender presentation that correlates with the expected gender norms)

Modern Utilities (access to water, electricity, other utilities, and resources)

Family Structure (benefits - mostly invisible - that come from membership in a stable family...two parents in residence, family support, and guidance, encouragement, etc.)

Source: UCA College of Education

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