How to Be an Ally When You're Exhausted and Overwhelmed

Femme looking person holding a sign saying 'No justice, no peace' for a piece about being an ally
Photo by Nathan Dumlao

Being an ally is an open-ended responsibility. This means learning how to continue our allyship while taking care of ourselves and our loved ones throughout various life circumstances (such as global pandemics).  

Initially, this post was going to be solely about white allyship. But Pride Month just ended, and I believe strongly in intersectional feminism. We are not going to make the progress we really need to make if we speak up about one type of injustice while ignoring the rest. And many of us who take allyship seriously are also marginalized in one or more ways ourselves. So, this post is about allyship in general: being an ally for those facing racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, ageism, and more.

Until the world is truly just and equitable, we are all tasked with the responsibility to be allies to each other. So how do we pace ourselves? Here are my personal thoughts.

1. Focus On One Thing And Do It Well

In any service-oriented community or organization, there are a few people who try to do everything, and they are prone to burnout. We’ll all be more effective if we recognize the one or two things we do best and focus our energy there.

Focusing on one thing is not a pass to stay silent on other issues or to never show up in other ways, but it is OK to say no sometimes, especially if saying yes takes you away from the things you’re best at. This is a strategy to conserve your energy for the times when you’ll be most effective.

The Building Moving Project created a tool to help folks figure out what their role is in a social change ecosystem. Learn more about the different roles.

a chart of the different roles within a social justice ecosystem

2. Educate Yourself on the Systemic Racism and Other Biases Present in Your Profession

Right now there are a lot of book recommendations, workshops, and talks floating around about racism, allyship, as well as LGBTQ rights, etc. And I feel you if you look at different lists and just feel exhausted. Many of us are struggling financially, physically, and emotionally during the COVID-19 crisis, along with whatever normal life issues we are facing. Listen: the world was not made for the majority of us to thrive in; it’s a fucking struggle all the time. And the thought of adding a ton of heavy reading to this struggle may be too much. You don’t have to do this to be a good ally.

Remember this is a marathon, not a sprint. Especially if you’ve recently come to realize just how much inequity exists in our society, you don’t need to educate yourself overnight. You just need to stay sensitive and open to hearing about and acting on the suffering and injustices of others. 

I recommend starting with your fields of expertise. This is where being an ally will be most effective. Look for talks related to bias in your field, including unfair hiring practices, disparities in leadership and management, how to create diverse, inclusive and welcoming companies. Look for diversity organizations to get involved with. Ask colleagues whose identity is different than your own if there are ways that the profession needs to change and how you can help.

3. Focus on Personal Relationships

The best education and the best allyship relies on personal relationships. You can’t expect folks to be your teachers, but you can support them and learn from doing so. Ask your loved ones what they need from you and how to support them.

I recently had a discussion with two faith-based activists who agreed that relationships are the key to long-lasting change, but that these relationships are uncomfortable. White folks, in particular, are not used to having conversations about race and privilege with people of color. Queer and racial activist Darren Calhoun explained, “Discomfort is kind of like a muscle: the longer we’re in it, the more we use it, the more we’re able to do with it. But when it’s the first time, it’s exhausting and it’s just like, ‘Oh this is too much, I can’t do this.’ Just like most people when they go to the gym for the first time.”

He recommends practicing the muscle of discomfort, but he also recommends learning the difference between discomfort and harm:

Discomfort can feel like being harmed. It can feel like, ‘Oh you said something against me and now I’m oppressed.’ Or ‘The way this is going on, it’s just too much, it’s not safe.’ And that’s one of these nuances that also has to develop. There are some things that are harmful. There are some ways that people’s lives are being threatened, their mental health is being threatened. They may be in a situation where they’re being gaslit because they’re being told that, ‘Oh no this isn’t an issue.’ And it really is. But that’s different that just, ‘I don’t like the way this makes me feel, but there’s nothing that it can do to me in an ongoing way.’ And I think we have to develop that nuance because, yes, there’s some people who’ll say some things and do some things that are not OK. And, there’s no need to stay in that. But there’s a deep and important need to stay in places that are uncomfortable, that are just things that we just don’t like and are things that nothing negative will happen to our lives if we stay here.

How do you learn this difference? Time, practice, and building relationships with people you trust will care about your well-being. You can dig into issues in these relationships and work towards mutual healing.

4. Don’t Let Fear or Guilt Drive You

There is energy right now to the Black Lives Matter movement that’s creating real change. It’s beautiful and exciting. But one of the unhelpful outcomes of this movement is the shaming of folks who are not out there protesting or as public with their contributions.

Guilt and fear are tied at the hip in social justice movements. They can motivate some to act while being a source of paralysis to others. White allyship in particular is characterized by a fear of misstepping. Yes, part of this fear is rooted in white fragility: the defensiveness of while folks when being critiqued or challenged. But I believe another issue is the moral extremism that is developing in social justice movements and leaves little room for folks to disagree with each other or for allies to learn and grow without harsh criticism.

A partner recently pointed out that my natural sensitivity and carefulness (typically assets of mine when I write and speak) can turn into hesitancy and paralysis when I allow fear to control my actions. I become afraid of saying the wrong thing, so I don’t say anything at all, or I’m too vague or don’t say what I truly believe I should.

White allies like myself need to be willing to be wrong and to show up and speak out anyway. We have to learn not to take criticism personally even when it feels personal. And, most importantly, we need to be guided by our own sense of integrity. Join me in a pledge to be driven by compassion, justice, and a love for one’s friends, family, and community, instead of guilt and fear.

5. Not Doing Enough is NOT a Moral Failing, But Doing Nothing Is

I think this is an extremely important part of pacing ourselves: for those of us who truly care, we will never feel like we’re doing enough. We have to recognize and accept this.

Hopefully, some of these other strategies — focusing on one or two things, being knowledgeable about bias and privilege in your field, and being there for loved ones — are ways for you to feel more confident about doing your specific part. And even if it doesn’t feel like enough, it is.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

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Jera Brown writes about being a queer kinky polyamorous Christian on their blog scarletchurch.com. Their sex and relationship advice column, Just the Tip, is hosted by Rebellious Magazine. Follow them on Twitter or Instagram @thejerabrown.