Being an Ally: What it Means and How to Do it

Resources on bringing allyship into your life and library

We all hold different identities simultaneously—an intersection of race, class, sex, gender, religion, ability, etc. that impacts how we experience the world around us. As we go through life, interacting with the world, our identities play a crucial role in placing us within societal structures that dictate how we’re able to behave and interact with others. In some situations, part of your identity might place you in a position of privilege, while in other situations part of your identity might place you at a disadvantage.

Intersecting Identities

For instance, if you’re a person who does not have a disability, you might be in a position of privilege when navigating mass transit because it may have been built with you in mind, and not disabled persons (this is especially true of systems that were designed prior to ADA legislation). As a result, it is an easily accessible option for you to travel to and from work, giving you more employment options as well as freedom of movement. You might also identify as Muslim or have Arab ancestry and face discrimination simply trying to find a job. For example, having an Arab-sounding name lowers your chances of a call-back, a fact that has been well-documented.

The key takeaway is remembering that our positions of privilege and marginalization are fluid—they are heavily situational (and intersectional), and some people overall may experience more marginalization than privilege, or vice versa.

The Power of Privilege

It’s also critical to admit when we do hold a position of privilege or power. Power often has a negative connotation, but in this context means: 1) access to and through the various social institutions (government, work, education, family, law, media, and medicine, among others), and 2) processes of privileging, normalizing, and valuing certain identities over others. Having power is not synonymous with being an oppressor, but is an inevitable part of operating within inherent power structures.

These power structures are created when those in positions of power favor certain identities over others within society. The goal may be to consciously exclude another identity or it may happen subconsciously, as a result of inequitable policies or norms. Societal institutions are then created around those power structures and the marginalization becomes normalized in the culture as “how society works.”

Being an Ally

We, as members of our society who value equity, diversity, and inclusion, have a responsibility to counteract these power structures. One way to start doing that today is by being an ally.

As defined by The Anti-Oppression Network, allyship is:

“an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person in a position of privilege and power seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group.”

Allyship can be complicated and multi-layered. Sometimes it might feel scary to take an active role in fear of making a mistake, but it’s important to remember that allyship is a learning process as well. To get started, here are some basic do’s and don’ts of allyship.

The Don’ts

If you want to be an ally:

  • DON’T make allyship your identity—it is instead a continual process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people.
  • DON’T let allyship come from a place of guilt. It should come from a place of responsibility. Feelings of guilt about inequities are normal, but must be dealt with in an intentional manner if you are to be an effective ally.
  • DON’T self-define your allyship. Your work and efforts must be recognized by the people you seek to ally yourselves with.
  • DON’T try to be a savior. Hold back your ideas, opinions, and ideologies while listening to others.
  • However, DON’T expect to be educated by others—you do your own research.

The Do’s

As an ally, you:

  • DO actively acknowledge your privilege and openly discuss it;
  • DO support and make use of your privilege and power for those who are marginalized;
  • DO turn the spotlight your power provides away from yourself and toward marginalized voices;
  • And, DO use opportunities to engage people with whom you share identity and privilege in conversations about oppression experienced by those you seek to work with.

A lot of great resources on allyship already exist, outlining specific ways we can act as allies for different identities and in different places—including libraries! Below are links I encourage you to take a look at. I’ve briefly summarized each below.

How to be an ally in Libraries:

How to Be an Ally in the Library: Recommend More Black Authors: From a school librarian taking a deeper dive into the representation of Blackness within the school’s collection. She discovers it’s not just about having Black characters, but about the stories those characters are placed within.

10 Things Librarian Allies Can Do: This post takes “10 Things Allies Can Do” and walks through these ideas with libraries in mind, providing tangible actions that can be implemented today.

How to Be an Ally in the Workplace: Library work isn’t just about interacting with patrons. It’s about how we interact with our colleagues as well. Take a look at the four types of workplace allies and how you can be one.

How to be an ally for specific groups/identities:

This is not an exhaustive list, but highlights how allyship might look different for different people.

How to Be an Ally: A Guide to the Currently Not-Disabled: An allyship guide for the currently not-disabled.

6 Initial Ways You Can Be a Better Ally to Undocumented Immigrants: Undocumented immigrants face many obstacles, and to overcome them they need strong allies.

Opportunities for White People in the Fight for Racial Justice: Provides tangible ways to act as an ally within different dimensions of your life, from work to home, with your time, art, money, or vote.

Being an LGBTQ Ally: Human Rights Campaign works specifically on LGBTQ human rights issues and their report on allyship is an in-depth resource for those looking to support the community.


Guide to Allyship – Apologies: This is a link to a longer post on allyship, some of which might be repetitive to what’s already in this post. However, the section on apologies is worth reviewing, including what makes a good and bad apology.