One of the issues that has become clearer to me is that there is an inescapable asymmetry in the relationship between allies and those (like scientists of color or women scientists) they are trying to support. (I think the discussion at Samia’s blog helped me feel like I got it well enough to put into words.) An ally is someone who wouldn’t have to care about the difficulties faced by members of the group s/he is trying to support; not being part of that group, the ally doesn’t face those challenges first hand. This means the ally is choosing to care — making an effort to take the issues of others seriously.
This is great, but it means that the person who isn’t a member of the group facing the challenges first hand always has the option to stop caring — to decide that, today, it’s just too much work to take on those issues. And, this leaves folks looking at their “allies” wondering whose commitment is robust, which of yesterday’s allies will end up melting away.
Except, sometimes, an ally is paying enough attention to the experiences of members of the group with which s/he is aligning to have a crystalizing moment — a moment of getting it so strongly that s/he can no longer be blind to the injustices. Having had such a crystalizing moment, the ally can no longer opt out of caring. (There is, of course, a gap between caring and speaking up or mounting another effective response to an injustice, but caring is probably a necessary condition for doing ally work.)
You can’t tell just by looking which purported allies have had a crystalizing experience. When people who say they are allies let you down in the crunch (which happens a lot), it’s hard to trust that any ally can be relied upon. Thus, one lesson for allies (beyond the importance of being reliable at crunch-time) is not to be surprised or offended when you’re not immediately recognized as an ally. Saying you are doesn’t count for nearly as much as showing you are.
Also, while allies may have the luxury of treating those who say racist, sexist, ableist, and otherwise clueless things as potentially redeemable, people who have been burned by fair-weather allies during the inevitable foul weather (which, after all, is the reason you need allies in the first place) may have better things to do with their finite reserves of time and energy than attend to the needs of folks who just don’t get it.