Prior to entering into the social justice community, most of my understanding of what it meant to be an ally stemmed from a militarized context: if you bomb them, we’ll bomb you. This is done sometimes due to some kind of ethical imperative, but usually it is stemmed in some sort of strategic benefit. Not exactly high on the warm and fuzzy factor.
Allyship in social justice communities seemingly provides an answer to some identity politics-related Catch-22′s in activism. Usually, being an ally means supporting a marginalized group who you do not necessarily identify with (straight-identified people allied with queers, white people allied with people of color, black people allied with Chicanos, etc). In theory, allyship provides a great foundation for coalition-building without co-opting the agendas of other movements.
As nice as it sounds on paper (on screen?), I am regretful to say that I have witnessed far too many situations where allyship is exploited or neglected. Even stranger, I have noticed that the term has come to carry a lot of social capital; in other words, it has become really trendy in the social justice community.
You might ask, what’s the harm in that? Isn’t it a good thing that being an ally is popular? Well, yes and no. The “yes” portion of that answer is pretty clear: more people for more types of social justice is good. The downside is much stickier.
One negative effect of the trendiness of allyship is that it is perceived as something easy to do. Go to a workshop, learn some things about the Other, and 1-2-3 presto-change-o: YOU’RE AN ALLY!
With the ease of self-identifying as an ally, you may actually come into contact with a lot of people who claim to be allies, but whose actions do not reflect that. The label of ally can be used as carte-blanche access to any movement or project without accountability; many people feel uncomfortable critiquing their allies for fear of backlash or withdrawal of support. I know from personal experience that the fear of backlash is not an irrational one; I have been told to “calm down” or “play nice” when calling out racist behavior, I have been called a “bully,” and I have even had my racial identity questioned.
If members of marginalized communities are living in fear of backlash from their so-called allies, how effective can the status quo of the allyship system really be?
Allyship is not merely placing a sticker on your car or being passively supportive. Allyship is speaking up when your allies are being marginalized, not silencing their distress or anger; that act of silencing is another form of violent rhetoric in itself and can be even more painful than the original remark or action that sparked the hurt in the first place. Allyship means that you believe that there should be social consequences for problematic words and actions.
Am I always a good ally? No. I am guilty of “picking my battles” in the face of social discomfort. I sometimes let comments slide. My intention is not to make an indictment against well-intentioned people who identify as allies to various movements, but rather to put pressure on what it means to be an ally.
I have no way to place a value judgment on anyone’s intentions, but if anything can be measured, it is the effect of people’s words and actions. We cannot hold each other accountable to our varying levels of good or bad intentions, but we can provide positive and negative reinforcement for the things that we do and say.
If haters gonna hate, Sandra is a very well-intentioned hater, but mostly considers herself a reproductive justice activist and blogger. You can follow @sandraholla on Twitter and read her sporadically-updated personal blog, Sex & the Ivory Tower.
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