A Critique of Allyship

[Image description: bright yellow flowers on a blue background with text reading: A Critique of Allyship]

Introduction

Content Warning: antiblackness, racism, brief mentions of violence

I don’t think allyship exists, or if what I have seen of allyship in my life is exemplary of what it entails, I don’t think allyship means much of anything.

I’m writing this from a place of anger that’s been sitting with me for the past year. While my life has been full of racism in its varying forms, I have never felt it more present, tangible, and visceral in my life than now. This year I have encountered so many emboldened racists both in the classroom and outside of it. This year I have been called a “monkey” and a “gorilla” on two separate occasions by White men, I have seen a White man pantomime spraying a group of people of color with a hose (a la the Civil Rights Movement), been told my mother is ignorant for certain aspects of my raising, and experienced the crushing silence from other people of color and White men and women who sat idle while people have spewed vitriolic, racist beliefs.

Their silence is what has sat with me. I used to think that I could count on other people to speak up, but I have learned that no matter the instance the only person that I can count on to speak up is myself. This silence has shown me that “ally” is a term devoid of actionable meaning. It’s a word written on your Facebook timeline when an injustice happens, it’s a thing you can say to yourself to differentiate yourself from more visible oppressors, it’s an identity you can claim when you’re called out by marginalized people, but the term ally doesn’t require you to be willing to be active against systems of oppression, it just means that you are aware of them and think that they’re bad.

In this post, I seek to explain my stance that allyship is an empty term, but rather allies should seek to reconstitute their beliefs and actions to that of accomplices. I focus primarily on allyship in anti-racist work due to my proximity to the subject, but acknowledge the gaps in my research and existence of allyship politics within and amongst other marginalized groups.

My Experience with “Allies”

I feel it is necessary to describe my position and background for how I have come to these beliefs and to this thesis. As I’ve quoted before, as an anthropologist and a Black woman, I see how my personal life is connected to the political. Without this background, this thesis would be incomplete.

I first became familiar with the term “ally” within the context of Gay Straight Alliances (GSA) in middle school. In my experience, these alliances were spaces for non-LGBTQ+ people who supported LGBTQ+ people in their fight against homophobia (that was the main focus). Since this was before the repeal of (parts of) the Defense of Marriage Act, a primary component of gay-straight alliance work focused on advocating for access to marriage for non-heterosexual people and countering homophobia primarily through school centered campaigns to stop the use of homophobic slurs.

Within the GSAs I’ve been a part of or adjacent to, there were people who were both the sort to speak up when they witnessed an injustice or passively held associated beliefs to the LGBTQ+ rights movement, but didn’t leverage their privilege as heterosexual and cisgender people to call out homophobic or transphobic beliefs. As I’ve gotten older, I realize that a lot of the allyship I witnessed at this stage in my life was hypocritical. In the same breath, these primarily White allies (both students and teachers) said things that were racist and classist. I remember an experience at this majority White school, where a teacher who called herself a racial justice ally implied that I didn’t like White people because my closest friends at the school were other people of color. She made me write my thoughts in a notebook for her to read to build trust between us. Guess what: it didn’t work and I look back on that situation with shock that any ally especially an adult would say something like that to a child, but didn’t say it to the White kids who were friends with one another.

As I continued into high school, I was treated to the macroagressions of jokes about slavery, people touching my hair, and saying I wasn’t like other Black people. I’m most certain most of these people would have considered themselves allies because they had non-White friends and weren’t visible racists. At the same time, I acted out a lot of internalized anti-blackness during middle and high school that I’m not proud of, but that’s a story from another time.

In college, I have found that allyship is something I cannot count on or even an identity I feel comfortable with people ascribing to themselves. Like I mentioned in the introduction, I have been on the other end of racist, sexist, and ableist remarks from professors, my classmates, coworkers, and strangers on the street. The people around me, who I imagine would consider themselves “good people” who would stand up for injustice continuously did nothing.

I now know that I am the only person I can count on to speak out when my humanity and existence is being disrespected (besides some of the wonderful POC I am blessed to call friends).

Accomplices, Allies, and Actors

I am beholden to “Opportunities for White People in the Fight for Racial Justice” for providing me the background information necessary to explore my thesis that we need people to act as accomplices in the quest against injustice, rather than allies or actors. 

Actors

In the past year, I have witnessed many forms of allyship that are merely performative forms of activism, like attending the Women’s march and taking selfies with police, sharing on Facebook another think piece about why racism/sexism is bad, telling your marginalized friends that you’re not like other members of the hegemonic group (because you’re different!!).

Performative activism is things that are showy and not substantive (as in they create no meaningful, actionable, or recognizable change to the status quo). It is activism to show difference, that you’re not like the very bad™ other people, so you make a comment about how awful an injustice is so your friendly neighborhood marginalized person knows that you’re “woke”.

Performative activism is fun and comfortable. It’s pink pussy hats and cute quirky protest signs. It helps create distance, a line in the sand from good people and the bad ones without doing any of the work of actively showing up to make a change. This is called being an “actor” which fits quite nicely with the performance nature of this. Actors “do not disrupt the status quo, much the same as a spectator at a game, both have only a nominal effect in shifting an overall outcome”1Opportunities for White People in the Fight for Racial Justice. Being an actor is safe. Now, in some places acts of performance could be a big deal in making yourself present and visible, however I live in the Pacific Northwest (a liberal, diverse paradise). In my city, saying you believe in equal rights does not disrupt our status quo.

[Image description: Video – Tina Fey’s face covered in cake with fists of cake, orange overlay of Weekend Update Summer Edition in black]

This dear readers is performative, useless, status-quo maintaining nonsense. Please do not waste your money on sheetcake, donate it to a group helping Black people or another marginalized people, Flint still doesn’t have clean water

Allies

Ally I think is what most people who utilize performative activism would call themselves. I think even people who just believe in equal rights would call themselves allies, but that’s not how allyship is supposed to work. Allyship is a process of listening and of being present. “Opportunities for White People in the Fight for Racial Justice” notes that being an ally is a verb, you cannot be a passive ally, but that’s what being an ally entails currently.

I am distrustful of people calling themselves allies because the work they do is always passive. Saying that you believe racism is wrong does not make you an ally, it makes you someone with common sense. Keeping silent in the face of injustice, not speaking out, and not acting out isn’t good enough anymore. It can’t be good enough anymore. We need people who are not comfortable with marginalized people doing the draining emotional labor of justifying their existence, we need people in power and of privilege to make themselves uncomfortable and use their voice/dollar/power to make change.

But, even still I don’t think active allyship is revolutionary enough to grapple with the hoard of bad things that exist in the world today.

Accomplices

The best way I can describe accomplices is people who are down with the struggle. I see White Freedom Riders, White people whose homes were stopped on the Underground Railroad (and similar hardcore, amazing people) as accomplices. These people were willing to use their privilege and be traitors to it in order to do some seriously important liberation work. Accomplices “actions…are meant to directly challenge institutionalized racism, colonization, and White supremacy by blocking or impeding racist people, policies, and structures. Realizing that our freedoms and liberations are bound together, retreat or withdrawal in the face of oppressive structures is not an option” 2Opportunities for White People in the Fight for Racial Justice. I think that in the current political climate in the U.S. and abroad, we need people who are active, ready, and willing to see how their privileges are tied in the oppression of others and do the work so that we can all be free.

Conclusion

I don’t think allyship exists. I don’t trust this self-assigned label unless I see the person doing the work. I think that we all need to be more willing to imagine a world where we do not have privilege and power that was assigned to us based on where we were born, the color of our skin, our gender identity, our class, or our sexuality, that functions as long as other people are deprived human rights and dignity because of theirs. We need to work courageously and fiercely to make our beliefs of social justice something more than what we chat about over coffee, but is something that we put into action.

Be an accomplice. Put power and effort and work behind your beliefs. We don’t need anymore allies.

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Resources & More

  1. “Be Accomplices, not Allies”
  2. “Cultures Clash at Standing Rock Protest Camp”
  3. Opportunities for White People in the Fight for Racial Justice
  4. The Bryn Mawr Allyship and Anti-Oppression Resource Guide
  5. “The Whiteness Question”
  6. “We need co-conspirators, not allies’: how white Americans can fight racism”

 

 

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