As the social currency of allyship has increased in value over recent years, particularly during the transition into “Trump's America” (that’s a whole article other of its own), discussions between minorities and their well-intentioned allies are occurring more frequently. This has allowed for more nuanced modes of communication to be forged and effectively used to better understand the needs and demands of disenfranchised communities. However, like any burgeoning relationship, these preliminary interactions bring problematic and harmful habits to the surface, ideally for the purposes of being addressed and resolved.
This is all well and good until the ally, due to their (often self-appointed) title, exempts themselves from being perpetrators of any oppressive action designed to keep minorities in their place. The notion that allyship absolves one of responsibility or guilt is dubious at best and narcissistically insulting at worst. The basis of this justification - that “I can’t be wrong because I’m an ally” - is about as valid as “I’m not racist, I have a black friend” or their equally irrelevant cousins when discussing homophobia, transphobia or Islamophobia. As these parallels highlight, an approach to allyship that aims to redeem the ally is only a further extension of that ally's power. The gay or black or Muslim friend becomes nothing more than an accessory, adorned only when it suits the wearer. When the ally uses the community they supposedly champion as a shield to deflect critique, that community, again, becomes nothing more than an object used for the purposes of the ally.
I experience a myriad of these defences, and even when I don’t point them out, they are noticed. I always notice them. So, here’s a quick beginners guide- The 3-Ds (and for me, three too many).
Critiquing your community in the third person as though you aren’t part of it:
White ally: White people really need to listen.
Believe it or not, this means a very different thing to..
White ally: We really need to listen.
Acknowledge the issue while emphasising that you’re not to blame:
Ally: It’s people from [insert any area with entrenched stereotypes regarding intelligence and ability to grasp social constructs e.g. rural towns, the Shire, Western Sydney, working-class whites] who don’t get it.
Redirect to a loosely related incident of when an ally did a “good” thing that we must therefore praise them for it i.e.. “ Not All___”
Ally: Whenever I see a queer couple, I smile at them to show them support.
These all conveniently absolve the ally from all sense of responsibility and fit comfortably within the liberal elitism which plagues progressive politics. Critiques of whiteness, hyper-masculinity, patriarchy, heteronormativity, colonialism or any other -isms I approach don’t stem from isolated incidents or abstract examples. They don’t come as a response to the KKK or the Westboro Baptist Church, but from observing the men, white folk, settlers, cis-hets and women in my life perpetuating and being complicit in the maintenance of these constructs. That’s right, I’m talking about you, my inner-city-super-progressive-coffee-loving-vegan friends who boldly hide behind your chosen causes and fail to examine your own shortcomings. You, who rely on minorities for affirmation with no intention of reparation. So to disqualify my, or any other minority’s critiques, as being aimed at the “real racists” (the ones that go around in black face 24/7 and spit at people), or the “real sexists” (the guys on Reddit with fedoras rating women) rails against the whole function of being an ally; because, the “real racists” ask you to “‘bulk up” so you have a “real black ass”, they ask to check your bag and only yours, they ask you to pay for your taxi before the trip, they pay you ten to fifteen percent less than your white counterparts, they withhold rights because you hired a black actor. The “real sexists” aren’t on Reddit feeds but are throwing shade on you when you’re at the sex store or in the bathroom, they’re looking for independent wom*n to need them, they support equal pay but not affirmative action, they want to speak to another manager - the list could go on forever.
The role of the Ally is to amplify - to source a megaphone so that the voices of the marginalised cannot be ignored. It is not to censor the content of a message in order to protect their ego and their burgeoning public presence career as a reputable Social Justice Warrior. If you find yourself becoming defensive over your "good-ally" integrity in the face of criticism, then you need to step back and reconsider why and to whom you are you being an ally.
This trajectory of thought leads us to collectively question the role of the (self-appointed) ally, which is highly contested. Without a ruling body or concrete criteria to meet, which I hypothesise wouldn’t fix the problem, does allyship exist on a spectrum like most things? Rather than the dichotomy of ally-or-not, does this phenomenon inhabit a place somewhere between effective and ineffective, or covert and overt? If so, what is the use of ineffective or covert allyship? Is spectrum allyship therefore redundant? Without measurable or actionable objectives, allyship again only serves to ease the guilt of allies themselves. Outside of actions performed in-kind to improve conditions for “the greater good”, which can be carried out by allies and non-allies alike, the title holds no weight, has no rights or responsibilities attached to it and thus its only available way of appraisal is through individuals and to individual critique. Therefore, if the only available streams of ally appraisal are members of relevant marginalised communities, our allies’ only light-handed responsibility is to shut up, listen and adjust accordingly. In order to effectively achieve this, a conscious shift in power dynamics is necessary to allow members of disenfranchised communities to declare their grievances and dictate how they want their allies to assist - a confronting but very welcome change.
Recently there has been growing resistance around allyship a state of being as opposed to an action. Moving the understanding of "ally" from noun to verb implies a responsibility to act out one's allyship in order to claim it. This shift, more akin to being an accomplice, has gained traction in many social justice circles. It inherently has costs and requirements attached to it which will discomfort many, but perhaps this is the incarnation of ally that we need. Conversely, it also sets parameters as to forms of action that help “the cause”, which may alienate, distance or may simply not be realistic options for many. Mahogany L. Browne, the founder of Black Poets Speak Out, a poetry initiative which runs in tandem with #blacklivesmatter, has highlighted how the front line is not necessarily the best use of the skills and abilities of allies, nor is it a practical reality for many people who champion the causes behind #blacklivesmatter, including ex-convicts, parents or individuals on parole. The question of what is the most effective means to bring about change has existed for longer than any of us, and I can guarantee it will outlive us all. So for however long we’re shipping it, could we work on our allyship? Not just pin it on your lapels but make it march and write and speak?
NB: This piece obviously relates to interactions within pre-existing power structures. This is not a licence for those awarded greater agency to make sweeping generalisations about groups of people because “Moreblessing said ‘down with not all ____’ ". Power is central to this discussion - the ally is identifiably someone who is external to a marginalised community and thus has systemic power and privilege over those within the community.
For further reading, please check out Indigenous Action Media's article Accomplices not Allies: Abolishing The Ally Industrial Complex.