photo of Catherine BachyMy allyship journey
Catherine Bachy, Organizational Excellence Partner, Professional & Organizational Development

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” ~ Lilla Watson

When I worked for a large corporation in the early 2000s, my boss and I were reviewing resumes for a position for which he was the hiring manager. He noticed that one candidate had been a board member for a well-known LGBTQ+ social justice organization. “She must be gay,” he said, “why else would she join the board for a gay organization?” Having recently been hired, an “out” gay person myself, I just looked at him, puzzled by the assumption he was making. “Not necessarily,” I responded. “Maybe she has other reasons, like caring about social justice.” Our conversation ended.

Several years later, I was invited to join that same LGBTQ+ social justice organization as a board member. With an infant child at home and a demanding full-time job, I hesitated to pile more on my overflowing plate. In the end, the organization’s executive director persuaded me. She felt my voice as a parent would add to the diversity of the board members. That sealed it. Serving on that board alongside members of different races, genders and sexual identities for close to ten years, I experienced what I see as “allyship” in the work of that team.

I was moved by the shared commitment to programs and policies that would advance social justice and equity for the multitude of life experiences of our constituents across five states. I knew that my colleagues lived with the risk of being stigmatized or labeled as gay or queer because they were members of this organization and that could put their own personal and professional identity in jeopardy, whether they identified as queer or not. Allyship meant being willing to take that risk, to take a stand for and align with a marginalized and, at times, vilified group of people, even if it meant assuming some personal loss.

The trickiness of allyship

Allyship, being an ally, being a white ally — these are terms we are hearing a lot these days. While my lived experience of allyship from the point of view of a white, queer, cisgender female is generally positive, I recognize that for other groups of marginalized identities this may not be so. Like many of you, I have been trying to keep up with the riches of articles, books, and podcasts on antiracism. Some perspectives identify allyship as a positive role while others offer a valuable critique.

In an interview with Professor Ibram X. Kendi (author of “How to be an Anti-Racist”) for the "Kids, Race, and Unity" program, Alicia Keys asked Dr. Kendi to clarify his understanding of the term ally. He explained ally as:

Someone who is going to have your back. You, yourself may not be centrally involved but you need people who will have your back for everything. And to be an ally, if you are white is to really have the back of people of color as they fight against racism, as you fight against racism because you see it as your fight too.

In an article by Catherine Pugh, Esq., on Medium, “There Is No Such Thing as a White Ally,” she makes a compelling argument for the fall of the white ally pseudonym and role. How can whites be allies in the fight against racism as if racism were a problem invented by Black people? Racism was invented by whites. She writes:

When risk and harm converge in the actor, the actor owns her kerfuffle. As the owner and the one now at risk, she ditches the “let me know if this is a problem” passenger seat, and takes the “this is what I’m not doing wrong today” wheel. She owns her duty and she owns her risk and, thus, she drives the cure like she’s in an Indy. And that, not coincidentally, is the beginning of racism’s end; self-preservation changes everything.

Let these phrases sink in:

“Self-preservation changes everything.”
“You fight against racism because you see it as your fight too.”

As a white person, I have a choice that Black and brown people don’t have. Daily, I can choose to “not see” or experience the impacts of racism, while Black and brown people cannot.

Awareness, advocacy and action

Actions associated with allyship fall on a continuum from awareness of the impacts of racism to becoming accomplices in the fight against racism. Allies can educate themselves and stand on the side of morality and a more just world. Allies can also be advocates who work towards creating policies, structures and cultures that are actively antiracist. As accomplices, allies are willing “to stand in the fire” as Dr. Jen Self, founder of UW’s Q Center, says: willing to be uncomfortable and at some risk to advance the work of antiracism.

The infant I referred to earlier is now learning how to drive. This lovely biracial young woman, my daughter, holds my feet to the fire by her very being. I don’t know what it is like for her to leave the house in her hoodie and backpack to go to school. I am not in her brown body. I do know what it is like to worry about her safety and to know that she will experience bias and discrimination from people who look like me.

The allyship I feel for my daughter is not in the literature; I think of it as Momma Bear Allyship — fierce protector. When she goes to a Black Lives Matter march, I stand by her side, knowing that her experience is radically different from mine and wanting to be there to jump in front of the tear gas so she is less impacted. I also know that as she makes her way into adulthood, I will not be around to jump in and protect. I will be depending on structures and mindsets in society that we are creating in this very moment.

It makes me wonder if we could all — especially those of us who are white or otherwise privileged — model more of that Momma Bear Allyship; to instinctively, intuitively, fiercely protect; to be willing to stand in the fire. What if we could live in a world where our collective liberation is truly bound together? Personally, I’m still thinking and learning about what that might take, but I hope that, together, we can get there.


21 Day Racial Equity Challenge, facilitated by Erin Jones and Dr. Jen Self (July 2020).

“Nick News Presents: Kids, Race, and Unity” (hosted By Alicia Keys), Nickelodeon, Jun 29, 2020.

Pugh, Catherine, Esq., “There Is No Such Thing as a ‘White Ally’: Crowd-sourcing the Narrative,” Medium, June 30, 2020.

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