Being an Ally is More Than Just Lip Service and Loving that One MLK Speech

Tess Martin
7 min readDec 6, 2017
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I wrote a piece a little while ago that laid out the first part of a road map about how best to proceed as a white person who wants to help people of color in their ongoing struggle for racial justice. This is the next part of that road map, and it deals with how to be an ally.

In my talks with the white folks around me, the question I get most often is: what does being an ally even mean? It’s a term that gets thrown around a lot, especially now that we’re talking more and more about race and societal inequity, but it’s also a term that rarely gets pinned down with an actual definition. Allyship is much more than just memorizing MLK’s I Have a Dream speech or spouting lots of lip service about believing in equality for all. It’s intentional action and it never ends as long as the goal is to dismantle systems of oppression.

Easy peasy, right?

In case you’re still confused, I put together a handy dandy list and, as always, there will be examples and comparisons…

Being an ally is less of a noun and more of a verb

In other words, it’s a series of actions and not a state of being that, once achieved, earns you a kind of irremovable brand of street cred. It’s not a get out of being called racially insensitive badge. I guarantee that you will still get called out by those around you. And, really, that’s to be expected, because this is a deeply racist society. Learning how to stop contributing to systemic racism takes constant work. And just like we learned in middle school that you can’t self ID as cool, you can’t call yourself an ally either. Like coolness, allyship is something that gets said about you, not a badge you get to pin on yourself.

Follow the lead of POCs

Just like women lead the feminist movement while men play a supporting role, POCs should lead the fight for racial justice with white folks there to support us, but not usurp the movement. We need y’all, but our voices should be the loudest and our experiences should dictate the direction of the fight. The struggle for gender equality needs to have male allies…but in the back, not out on center stage. Women’s voices and experiences need to take that leading role. This is no different. A…

Tess Martin

I’m a writer, runner, functional introvert, and herder of cats. Find me at or on Facebook @ theundercoverintrovert.