An Open Letter To My Children On Being An Ally
My beautiful children, your world is a magnificent playground of all kinds of people – of cultures, and music, and food, and cities with lights. The world is shrinking too, as we share our cultures much more intimately, thanks to social media and travel being much easier than ever before. You have entered a generation that will see more, do more, and know more than any of us that came before you. You will be smarter, faster, and you will be exposed to people and places at a pace that will make your generation the most connected of all time.
You have also joined a generation that will enjoy significantly less barriers to equality. You will learn of things like Jim Crow, Title IX, and Stonewall from textbooks and stories told by older people. You will learn about leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Harvey Milk, Gandhi, Rosa Parks, and Nelson Mandela in school or from films. You will hear about things like the AIDS quilt, the Women’s March, and the Black Lives Matter movement, but they will be past tense to you, something your parents lived through. Not something that you need to worry about today. Your school is full of people of all kinds. You have friends of all colors. Racism, sexism, all of those ‘isms’ are horrible, but they don’t apply to your generation. You and your friends don’t see ‘color’. I know, I said the same thing when I was your age. And then I grew up.
What I realized, is that things are indeed better now than they were when my parent’s generation faced segregation and sexism in the workplace and at home. It was significantly worse when my grandparents were alive, as they had to flee genocide when racism pit nations against each other.
It is a different world today for you. Thank goodness for that. Yours is a world of intersectionality – a term that originated to celebrate all of the different pieces of a person, from race, to gender expression, to class, and other characteristics that make a person whole. Today, the idea of a person bringing their ‘whole self’ to work, for example, is lauded, instead of frowned upon, as it was in decades past. I can now bring my female, cisgender, Swedish, married, mommy self to the party, and not leave any facets of myself behind out of fear that one of them may be looked down upon.
However, that is not the case for many people today. This is why allies are so important. Allies use their privilege to help others. Allies, working generation after generation, build layer upon layer of foundations of equality. These layers continue to even out the road, so that the journey is more fair and equitable for everyone.
One of the reasons I am able to bring my entire self into every situation, is because women and men before me made it possible to do so. Allies helped me as a woman navigating my career. Let’s use being a working mom as an example: While many working moms hid their family life from the office in the past, the ones that didn’t hide it set the example for others that being a mom and a hard worker are not mutually exclusive. Men in positions of power helped lift women up through the typically male-dominated ranks of most companies, and also approved family-friendly policies for their workplaces. These women and men, who faced discrimination because of the fact that women with children were viewed as less committed, were allies to women who needed support to succeed. They are also allies to women today who benefit from the freedoms and flexibility available to working parents. Gender equity today is still an issue around the world, and much more work needs to be done, but significant progress has been made due to allies supporting, mentoring, and speaking out for women in the workplace.
Allies also used their collective power to help move the U.S. Civil Rights movement forward in the 1960’s, ushering in legislation that continues to help level the playing field for all races to be successful. Note that I said “continues to help”. Like sexism, racism and racial inequity still plagues our homes, schools, and workplaces today. It’s a lot better than it used to be, but we still have a long way to go.
Millions of allies are working together to help the LGBTQ community achieve equal rights around the world. One can argue that this community is among the most marginalized of our time, as simply being LGBTQ can equal death in certain countries. I see it as my obligation to help end this injustice and am using my privilege as a heterosexual/straight ally to help this community. It is also a gift to be able to help others, and I view it as some of the most important work I will ever do with my life.
I want you to know that although you may grow up feeling that all are equal, and that discrimination is not a problem in your circle of friends, it most certainly is an issue all around you – and you have work to do. You are lucky that you are growing up in a privileged, safe, and welcoming environment. But it’s not the same for everyone, and I know there are kids today, and later in your life, adults, who will need you to be their ally.
What does it mean to be an ally? The most important aspect is listening. Allies should listen more than they talk. Being an ally means that while you may have to stand behind or in front of your friend sometimes, they are always the center of your attention. Being an ally is not about you.
Being an ally means that you stand up and speak out for your friends, even when it is uncomfortable. As an ally, your voice is often heard more loudly, and more clearly, given your position of power and privilege. You must use your voice. You must act. Just knowing or feeling that you are an ally and knowing that you are not racist/sexist/homophobic/ageist/etc. is never enough.
Allies make mistakes. Being an ally means that you are willing to learn about those who are different from you, and you are not afraid to do what you can to support them, even if it means you make a mistake in doing so. The important thing is that you learn from your mistakes, and that you keep going.
You cannot just say you are an ally, you must earn it. True allies are those who are seen and accepted by the people they are trying to support. You must earn this trust, and that comes with time, and through your visible actions.
Lastly, being an ally is a marathon, not a sprint. Earlier, I mentioned equality leaders, and movements of the past for a reason. An ally’s work is done without hope for recognition, and without the expectation that their work will produce results in their lifetime. The work allies do makes a difference to the people around them, yes, but it makes an even greater impact to those that will come after them. The work has a compounding effect: if more allies stand up today, more allies will stand up in the future. The impact you can make will be far greater than your individual contribution. This is why YOU matter as an ally.
My darling one, I want you to grow up in a world where the only thing that matters about a person is who they are inside; “the content of one’s character”, as MLK put it. Countless allies have worked for hundreds of years to make today’s world for you. It is much improved from yesterday, but it is not enough. There is still tremendous work to be done, and you have the power to do it. Never sit back and rest thinking that things are good enough. We cannot rest until we realize that until freedom is enjoyed by everyone, none of us is truly free.
I love you more than you will ever know, and will always fight for your right to be who you are.
Your biggest ally,