What Does it Mean to be an Ally?

Being an ally does not have one uniform definition.  

People can express their allyship in a number of ways. One form involves actively advocating for an individual or groups of people who experience marginalisation. Specifically, an ally acts to fight against the power structures that allow some to benefit while discriminating against others. An ally is aware of their own privileges and  biases and seeks to challenge them intrinsically (through their thoughts) and extrinsically (through their actions). Some believe allyship to be a way of being and an understanding of the world, rather than a characteristic or trait[1]. In other words, it guides their perspectives on social systems, the ways in which they interact with others, and what they spend their lives working towards. 

Allyship often involves applying an anti-oppressive lens to social issues, such as understanding how different identity factors, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, age, or class, interact and result in systemic inequalities, otherwise known as intersectionality. You can be an ally at individual, institutional, and systemic levels.

  • An ally can create individual change by targeting their own biases, whether intentional or not, as well as set goals for themselves to actively create change.
  • Moreover, they can invoke institutional or systemic change by advocating for human rights, volunteering with organizations, educating people, creating programs that discuss oppression, or getting involved in politics. 

In contrast to effective allyship, ineffective allyship (or pseudo-allies) involves people who disrespect those they claim to advocate for[2]. Performative allies are those who sign petitions, post things on social media, or try to appear a certain way but do not follow through with any of their proposed actions. These individuals find it “trendy” to appear like an ally, but they either do not actually want to put in the effort to help or they do not identify with the things they’ve said[3]. Ineffective allies also come in the form of people who engage in allyship behaviours simply to make themselves look good. According to Russell and Bohan, these people limit the potential for constructive change as they often participate in superficial allyship actions, rather than the actions that target institutions and systems[3]. 

To apply an anti-oppressive lens, we have to consider the historical significance of how power relations have been maintained in our systems. Specifically, we should think about how the “norms” of society have been created to reflect certain groups of people over others[4]. Using an anti-oppressive lens to address social issues allows us to consciously challenge and question what is considered “normal” by one group of people who fail to consider the lived experiences of people with marginalised identities. Applying this framework, we can create alternative strategies or systems that take into consideration the diversity of identities, creating a more inclusive environment for all.  

Some ways to be an effective ally: 

  • Listening to the feedback provided by people with lived experience: Effective allyship involves viewing situations from the perspective of those with lived experience, rather than relying on outside interpretations of a given situation.. This awareness of another’s reality helps people to understand their privilege and become more aware of  inequalities. 
  • Becoming more self-aware of your thoughts and actions: This involves incorporating more inclusive, person-centered language to respect the individuality of people and put emphasis on the characteristics they want to focus on. 
  • Talking openly to your peers about their discriminatory behaviour by uncovering their biases (intentional and unintentional) to promote positive change: Without having conversations about bias, people will never be aware that they are contributing to the oppressive systems put in place to marginalise certain groups of people. 
  • Using social privilege to support and advocate for marginalised groups by becoming more aware and knowledgeable about human rights issues. 
  • Amplifying the voices of marginalised people by giving them the space to discuss how various barriers, policies, and other systems create oppressive situations for them. 


1Forber-Pratt, A., Mueller, C., & Andrews, E. (2019). Disability Identity and Allyship in  Rehabilitation Psychology: Sit, Stand, Sign, and Show Up. Rehabilitation Psychology, 64(2), 119–129. 

2Hadley, B. (2020). Allyship in Disability Arts: Roles, Relationships, and Practices. Research in Drama Education, 25(2), 178–194. Russell, G., & Bohan, J. (2016). Institutional Allyship for LGBT Equality: Underlying Processes and Potentials for Change: Institutional Allyship. Journal of Social Issues, 72(2), 335–354.  

3Russell, G., & Bohan, J. (2016). Institutional Allyship for LGBT Equality: Underlying Processes and Potentials for Change: Institutional Allyship. Journal of Social Issues, 72(2), 335–354.  

4Stienstra, & Lee. (2019). Disabilities and Livelihoods: Rethinking a Conceptual Framework. Societies (Basel, Switzerland), 9(4), 67.  

Key Words

Allyship, Discrimination, Adovcate, Marginalisation