Today, for the last meeting of my class on racism and white privilege, we had a panel of guest speakers who do anti-racist work from within the university. One was a white man, one a white woman, and one an African American man, so the issue was raised about allies. Allies, in the context of anti-oppression work, are members of a privileged group who work against that privilege: white people in anti-racism, men in feminism, etc.
Allies have a very different place in anti-oppression work than members of the non-privileged group. They don’t have the firsthand experience of oppression, and so their knowledge of it is incomplete. They constantly risk perpetuating the oppression themselves – which, of course, all of us do, privileged or not – but with the added risk that, when they slip up, they hurt others rather than hurting themselves. However, allies are also powerful and helpful because of their very privilege, because they can use the social power that they have been arbitrarily and unfairly granted in order to work against the power structure.
Being an ally (and staying one) is also difficult and complicated. The panelists’ discussions on what it means to be allies and to have allies (each of them was in a position to address both questions, due to their respective places in various social hierarchies) brought up several helpful points, which can help us as we think about creating and maintaining alliances in our work.
Earn the label, don’t take it
Being an ally means joining the struggle. It does not mean taking it over, or centering one’s own desires, because those things simply reinforce the patterns of privilege already in place. Being an ally involves something more radical than simply saying, I will work against my own privilege (and yes, that’s radical in itself). It also involves saying, The first step in combating my privilege will be stepping out of the position of power.
As a participant, but not leader, of the struggle, you are under someone else’s authority – the non-privileged group who is fighting for their own survival. It is those people who judge whether you’re an ally or not, whether you are successfully working against the oppression or not. While you should, of course, be learning how to judge your own behavior, you must be willing to cede to the authority of others’ judgment. The members of the non-privileged group are the ones who have the knowledge and experience that allow them to navigate power hierarchies better.
This is not to say, by the way, that people of color are inherently more intelligent or perceptive than white people, or that something like that is true of any other combination of oppressor/oppressed. As Zeus Leonardo writes in his essay “The Color of Supremacy,” this acknowledgment of people of color’s epistemological authority “is not to go down the road of essentialized racial subjects, be they black or otherwise, or an equally essentialized white subject.” Rather,
[C]ritical analysis begins from the objective experiences of the oppressed in order to understand the dynamics of structural power relations. It also makes sense to say that it is not in the interest of racially dominated groups to mystify the process of their own dehumanization. Yet the case is ostensibly the opposite for whites [...]
My professor for the class, a self-proclaimed “straight white boy,” takes this respect for oppressed groups’ epistemological authority to a high level. He refuses to take the label of “feminist,” “anti-racist,” etc., upon himself. As he puts it, he is not in the place to make the determination of whether he is any of those things. If the people he works with, the women and people of color, judge his work and say that it is feminist or anti-racist, that is the evaluation that matters, not his own.
I don’t altogether agree with that; I don’t think it’s inherently arrogant or overweening to adopt any of these labels if one is a member of the privileged group. Indeed, it can be beneficial to use the label to announce that white people do care about, and have a stake in, anti-racist work. What’s most important, I think, is to be aware that you must earn the label, and never take it without respecting the judgments of the people you want to be an ally for. They are ultimately the ones you must be held accountable to.
Being an ally is a process, not a goal
Accountability is an ongoing process, not a single instance of evaluation. The dynamics of oppression are constantly in motion, and it’s not like we can win a single victory of enlightenment and never fall into an *ism again. But the problem with being on the privileged side of the power divide is that you can easily overlook these slips.
One of the most important aspects of being an ally is being willing to accept criticism. No matter how much you’ve learned, no matter how long you’ve been getting it ‘right,’ no matter how much of a ‘good guy’ you are. We’re all fallible, and thus must be aware that we’ll end up disappointing the people we’re trying to be allies for.
It’s hard for those people, too. Obviously, when allies mess up, the other people are the ones who get burned. But also, the prospect of criticizing an ally can be daunting. As one of the panelists put it, we want to keep the allies we’ve got – especially if we’re in an environment where there aren’t many members of our group (such as a professional workplace, which tend to be white-washed and primarily male), and allies are our only support. We fear hurting their feelings or angering them, and driving them off. After all, few people respond well to criticism, and there’s always the risk that an ally will think, I don’t have to be doing this work. I can just ignore it, and my own life will be fine.
So, allies: remember this fear. Don’t make it come true.
And, yes, on the part of the allies, it can also be scary to know that you can mess up. If we’re invested in our anti-oppression work, we really care about fighting our own privilege as a good, true mission. The thought of screwing up and perpetuating oppression, of committing a real wrong, is frightening.
However, consider this passage from Sharon Sullivan’s book, Revealing Whiteness:
One white feminist asks, “Does being white make it impossible … to be a good person?” The answer to this question, while understandable, is that it is the wrong one to ask. This is because it is a loaded question: it contains a psychological privilege that white people need to give up, which is the privilege of always feeling that they are in the right.
This “psychological privilege,” of course, is not limited to those who have white privilege. The gist of the quote is that worrying about being the good/right person is beside the point. Being a perfectly pure anti-oppression person is not the point; doing anti-oppression work is the point. The latter does not require the former, and the latter is what is what is most important in being an ally.
Make your support known
Another huge part of being an ally is being a visible, vocal supporter of anti-oppression work. That means more than just agreeing with non-privileged members while you remain silent. You’ve got to join the struggle yourself.
This is not easy, right? For male allies of feminists, speaking up against sexism can generate adverse reactions from other men, because it threatens the collective performance of masculinity. Allies risk accusations of being feminine or possibly even gay. As for white people, bringing up racism is taboo in ‘polite’ conversation. They can be chastised for bringing up problems, ‘making waves,’ being ‘divisive,’ getting ‘stuck on the past’ of racial inequities. Straight people who speak up in support of queer rights are accused of being gay themselves (as if it were a bad thing). In all instances of challenging privilege, you carry the risk of social disapproval, ostracization, and even hostility. Of course this stuff isn’t easy.
Now imagine what women and people of color and queer people, and everyone else who faces oppression, have to go through all the damn time.
It’s so important for allies to spread the messages of anti-oppression themselves, because they have a credibility in mainstream society that non-privileged groups, unfortunately, lack. Women complaining about sexism are seen as self-interested, and thus biased. Men who complain about sexism, while still faced with other criticisms (like being oversensitive), are more often seen as objective observers (as if sexism didn’t affect them, or they didn’t have a stake in gender inequality). Society still engages in the devious practice of portraying dominant groups as the neutral, default, objective position, and non-privileged groups as the subjective, self-interested ones. The least that allies can do is use that unearned credibility for an anti-oppression message.
One of the most frustrating denials of sexism or racism I hear is that it just doesn’t ‘mean anything.’ Like, sure, maybe a group of guys talking will use violent, demeaning sexual language about women they’ve slept with. Or some people will throw around racial slurs in a casual manner. But it doesn’t mean anything, see, people just talk like that.
First of all, that’s complete and utter bullshit, of course. We don’t ‘just’ say things that we don’t mean, to at least some extent. But secondly, there’s a reason that this happens, and it’s that the people who engage in these practices feel safe to do so. They don’t think anyone will call them on it. Guys are expected to let sexist language slip; white people are expected to ignore racist comments (especially the subtle euphemistic language about ‘those people’ or code words such as ‘affirmative action’ and ‘welfare’).
Don’t let those people claim that safety. Don’t let this sort of language pass by without calling it out and making it known that it’s not okay. In short, don’t be a bystander.
This can get more complicated in situations where you are with members of a non-privileged group, and both of you are capable of speaking up. Do you speak for the other person, and risk acting in a paternalistic (read: privileged) manner? Do you stay silent, and risk abandoning the person?
There is no easy answer for this. There may not even be any answer that is completely correct. Sometimes it is very empowering to be able to speak up on your own behalf, and challenge your own oppression head-on. At other times, the silence of your allies can be disheartening and disappointing.
My best advice is to take your cue from the people you are being an ally for. Respect their agency and let them convey their wishes to you, rather than trying to decide for them. Of course the context of the situation is also relevant, such as if one party has greater authority or power due to the environment you’re in. You might also be the only member of the privileged group present, in which case it’s probably okay for you to keep your mouth shut. On the other hand, if the non-privileged person is largely alone, it might be the time to step up and be a vocal supporter. Use your best judgment – and no, it won’t always provide you with a correct answer.
In the end, it all comes down to what I said previously: be willing to be imperfect, be willing to receive criticism, and, most of all, keep on doing the work.