“Ally” is rarely a word I use in trainings and consulting work anymore, although it is still widely heard with respect to equity and “diversity” work in schools, on college campuses, and in many workplaces. And while its intent is often good, its impact and implications for achieving the goals of equity and social justice need to be examined. For example, I stopped referring to myself as an “ally” to People of Color in anti-racism work the same time I truly began to understand that ending systems of racial oppression was as much about healing my own humanity and amending the legacy of White collusion with racial oppression as it was about ending the systemic and systematic oppression of communities of color in this country. And that transition was a critical one. Prior to that I would engage in anti-racism work out of fear (I didn’t want people to think I was racist), out of guilt (I felt “so bad” for People of Color), or out of what is termed “White liberalism” where I was enthusiastically heading out to “save People of Color”. All three of these motivations, as I can plainly see now, were antithetical to the true ideals of racial equity because of their condescension and their lack of real understanding of how the system of racial oppression works. In unpacking this latter point and the problems with the above three motivations I came face to face with the more insidious problem of my utter ignorance regarding Whiteness and its central role in racial oppression. And it was this ignorance, expressed through “ally” work motivated by fear, guilt or white liberalism, that served to keep the many dimensions of my White privilege safely out of view (from me) and thereby firmly in tact. Only when I was willing to intellectually understand and then more wholeheartedly acknowledge to myself that effective racial equity work would involve examining my Whiteness and its relationship to racism was I able to shed the label “ally” and work more authentically toward racial justice. And this is an important move for White folks in the U.S. to make: the realization that we are deeply harmed by racial oppression (of course, not at all in the same degree as People of Color) and cannot live freely and wholly in the world until it is dismantled. As I reflect on my own transition I can see that I have such an incredibly long way to go in my own understanding of the implications of my Whiteness, but I can say that as I continue to “lean in” to this work and to my White privilege the label “ally” is less and less fitting, and I simply choose to identify as one among many working toward racial equity.
To further emphasize the problematic nature of “ally”, I can say as someone who gender identifies and presents as a woman that I am always a little suspicious, and therefore cautious, around men who identify as an “ally” in the effort to end sexism. Similar to what I mentioned above, I can feel the “look at me, I’m one of the good guys” vibe from men who claim to be “allies” and it usually has me choose to not work in coalition with them around gender issues. In these moments as someone in the Target group regarding the form of oppression in question, I can see more clearly that “ally” creates a “safe distance” from which men can support women while never having to face the more complicated and painful elements of sexism; being an “ally” provides emotional insulation for Dominant members whilst appearing to be emotionally present. In its worst forms, however, “ally” language actually feeds privilege by lending itself to the “let’s take action” perspective that Dominant group members frequently jump to, often without enough knowledge to be effective, in order to not face their privilege and potential collusion. In contrast, I much prefer to work with men who can clearly see the price they pay at the hands of sexism and gender oppression and who therefore have an internal motivation for gender liberation work grounded in full humanity and liberation for us all.
So regardless of where one falls with respect to socially constructed identities and their relationship to power in this society, if one has Dominant identities and claims to be an “ally” to those who are targeted by forms of oppression associated with those identities, I would encourage them to look more deeply at their motivations, find the places inside where they have been damaged and compromised by that form of oppression, and approach their social justice and equity work not as an “ally” to those targeted by that oppression but instead as a co-agitator who knows that their life depends on ending oppression too…because it does.
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