(originally posted on For Harriet)
I have become increasingly bothered by the implications of the term ‘ally’. Particularly, I am disturbed by how some, from academics to entertainers, use this label to force themselves on marginalized groups and use them for their own platform. I accept that most people who identify with being an ally do so from a place of genuine concern for the issue. They are proud to be activists along with people who are more directly affected by a specific social injustice. For the most part, I do not question the sincerity of those who identify as allies, this is an important point I want to make from the start. However, I take issue with the implied sense of unaffectedness of the term, and how the behavior of some who identify as allies has been downright traitorous to the causes which they claim to be aligned. The entitlement expressed by some self-appointed allies to be the voice of their chosen cause and the accolades they get often times far surpass the group or movement with which they associate.
Some may ask, ‘why stigmatize the term because of misguided people?’ I understand we live in a society that teaches difference and separation from birth, and many cannot grasp how they are closely affected by inequalities that seem so far from their lived experiences. I understand that people who are affected by inequalities may want to hold on to their out-group identity and use it as a way to distinguish themselves from people with privilege. My opinion on the situation stabs directly at these points of view and pulls us closer together as oppressed people than many would like to think they are.
I have come to realize my activist experience could be considered unique due to its multiracial, gender/sexual identity inclusive, and intergenerational make-up. My personal support network shares these characteristics as well. When I’ve gone to protests or community action meetings for issues like neighborhood violence, immigration, public school closings, or police abuses, there is not group of affected people and allies. There is a gathering of people who have all been affected by oppression and who draw direct links between the injustices they’ve suffered and what someone else is going through. Our understanding of the shared roots of oppression, via our experiences, draws us closer than just friends of a movement, and our personal connections makes us more than allies.
Unity, Not Sympathy
For me, the term ally conveys a disconnected concern about an issue. An ally can be sympathetic, genuine, supportive, concerned, and passionate yet they are not directly affected by the condition oppressing a community. As we've seen with some responses to Mikki Kendall's #solidarityisforwhitewomen phenomenon, because of hurt feelings and refusal to understand the sentiment, some allies have felt that their support was betrayed. Others have said outright that they'll no longer do women of color the favor of trying to help. They situate themselves at the center of the issue and show how quickly one can separate themselves from a condition or movement which they were never solidly connected. Seeing oneself as a featured guest of others’ oppression gives you an out, so to speak. It gives you a space to let “others” handle speaking out about an issue.
The feminists who fell silent about The Onion’s viciously misogynistic comment about 9 year-old Quvenzhané Wallis is endemic of this opting out of unity. This is partially the result of an ally not substantially relating to an oppressed group. Many, usually vocal, feminists opted out of criticizing the publication in a direct and meaningful way, one which called out the racially problematic nature of the tweet and its writer. Instead, comments were prefaced with statements like “I know what they were trying to do, but…” or referred to the comment simply as “going too far.”
When someone can be seen as similar to one’s best friends, boyfriends, sweet southern grandmother or other close relation, the allegiance of an ally may not be with the marginalized group. This unity of convenience is an example of privilege. The privilege of stepping away from oppression, stepping away from criticizing one’s peers, or of self-criticism isn’t limited to white feminists or middle class men. It’s a symptom of false consciousness which allows oppression to continue.
Privilege At The Ready
When allies were criticized we have seen how quickly some retreated and reasserted their entitlement. Their privilege, the comfort of not being a member of a specific marginalized community regardless of their membership in another marginalized group, prevented them from having a lasting connection with said group. An ally can enact their privilege at any moment, including the privilege of forcing groups to accept their solidarity. Talib Kweli responded to criticism by saying he was an ally whether women liked it or not. This comment and mindset serves to position him at the head of the table and attempts to put women in a less powerful position; one of non-consent and at the mercy of his allied actions and words.
Hugo Schwyzer, the darling of mainstream feminism, believed that admitting to his abusive and predatory behavior towards women made him a stronger ally because he now felt the sting of persecution. His version of “shattering gender myths” included attempting to lessen his abuse of power with his students, calling his behavior ungentlemanly but saying that “at least the sex was age appropriate.” This stance is disturbingly reminiscent of Kyle Payne, who in 2008 held on to his radical feminist identity even after his conviction of sexually assaulting an incoherent college student under his care when he was an RA. Payne said that his radfem activism would be working to rehabilitate sex offenders…while he was in jail for a sex offense.
The silencing of transwomen’s voices in feminism is a hateful, daily occurrence. On social media and in public writing, self-proclaimed radical feminists have asserted that transwomen are not real women and should not be included in feminism at any level. This is the tip of the iceberg regarding the sexism inherent in beliefs that hinge on gender superiority and exclusion, no matter which gender is touted as superior or who is being excluded.
The idea and exhibition of privilege is very real, but the dividing power of it can be overcome by a realistic look at how most of us do not hold substantial power in society. We may have enough resources for smartphones, name brands, and microbrew beers, but we sell our labor as well. Some of us have a harder time selling our labor due to institutional prejudices, but all of us are, in essence, at the mercy of those who own the big stuff. Acknowledging this fact of oppression goes a long way in pulling people closer to being affected, as opposed to just seeing oneself as a passionate sympathizer.
The quote that started this piece embodies everything I feel is problematic about just being an ally. We don’t all have to feel the exact same oppression, but there must be an acknowledgement of universal oppression that we all feel that makes us fight together. None of us are above the specters of racism, sexism, classism, and any other –ism that exists. We can’t fight sexism without realizing that racism and heterosexism is alive and well in the feminist movement. We can’t fight racism and at the same time employ racial supremacy and exclusion as a defensive tactic.
Only movements that have been multiracial, and gender and age inclusive have achieved the most success, and those successes are slowly being rolled back due to lack of solidarity. I don’t need well meaning, sympathetic, sounding boards to readily proclaim their privilege in self-flagellation. I need sisters and brothers-in-arms who understand that one kind of suffering is dependent on other kinds of suffering, and our fight-back must be based on that unity.