a guest post by Drew Heles
I recently attended a Diversity training workshop at my job. It included a presentation slide that offered to teach me how I (as a white, cisgender, male-identifying person) might use my privilege for good. The image for the slide was of the Justice League looking, well, heroic. I will admit to you that it didn’t (super-heroically) land with me at the time, but in reviewing the presentation in order to provide feedback to the trainer, it really helped bring into focus some of my thoughts about the notion of allyship.
I must pause here to also admit that my critique of allyship is, like the Justice League image itself, best described as a “derivative work.” It is my effort to more fully internalize and express my own inflection on ideas that have been offered to me primarily by Black intellectuals in numerous keynotes, articles, books, and author talks over the past several years. Tim Wise, the white antiracist author and activist, observes that everything he knows about racism he learned from Black people and people of color. At this point, I can’t quite say the same, as he was the first speaker on the topic that I really paid proper heed to. This is unsurprising, as he also contextualizes his role by noting that white people are more likely to believe white people, particularly about racism. So in turn, what I understand about allyship and its limitations comes first from the experiences shared by Black people, people of color, and indigenous people who have seen it play out in their own lives and offered their own critiques. FWIW, I have also heard similar critiques echoed in queer spaces by people within my own LGBTQIA+ community who have similarly observed the efforts of straight allies. So, my offering to you is my observations from both sides of the dynamic but very much informed by things pointed out to me by others.
I saw Roxane Gay (author of Bad Feminist, and a sadly short-lived Black Panther comic series, among many other works) give a keynote to a room full of (mostly white) librarians and library workers at a conference a few years back. It was a kind of surreal experience. This was a well-funded conference that had clearly been planned and executed by professional event planners. Several hundred of us were seated in a big room in a convention center in front of a tall stage. The author took the stage in lights and to music one would more likely expect at an arena rock concert. The crowd was responsive and clearly excited to hear what she had to say. But to an audience question about how to be a good ally, Gay delivered a response that was probably unexpected. “Ally is a verb,” she told the well-meaning white questioner, and went on to express that she was a little tired of the concept altogether. This was 2017.
Picking up the mike from where she dropped it, I reflect that allyship (as it often manifests) is an identity that comfortably persists long after whatever act justified its use. And all too frequently, that justification is just in the esteem of this new ally themselves, and without genuine consideration of the perspective of the person meant to be supported by the act. Sometimes, the act is no more active than attending a diversity training and making up one’s mind to be an ally; it does not even require that one ally with any actual person at all. Confronted with the uncomfortable truth that white supremacy (or trans- or homophobia, or ableism, or [insert additional toxic oppressions here]) is in no small part responsible for our (suddenly less comfortable) identity as the blameless and deserving earner of whatever status our various privileges have conferred upon us, we are urgently in need of a new and better one. The identity of ally offers the perfect solution, and often in the very same presentation that sullied the one you were just wearing. It is a mantle you can assume; a responsibility that comes with the great power you just discovered you possess. Like Loki, you too can be Burdened with Glorious Purpose. And rather more quickly than you could change your clothes in a phonebooth, the discomfort you had been feeling can be gone, replaced by that mighty rightness that comes from knowing you’re one of the good guys.
Far too easily, (as first pointed out to me by Andrea Brown, Executive Director of The Black Mental Health Alliance) the identity of ally can morph into that of White Savior, a complex described by Nigerian-American author Teju Cole (and many others). For what is a hero without an innocent victim to save? What good is the power of flight (and this spiffy new cape I can so easily see upon my shoulders) if I can’t swoop in to save the day and then swoop back out to my secret headquarters back in my own neighborhood? Unlike the savior, the saved are rarely in the center of the frame. Drawn with only as much detail as is necessary to advance the storyline, the saved need not be recognized as fully realized people with their own backstories, much less the hero of their own titles (and with their own issues). Instead, they are reduced to a figure in a layout, a catalyst for the action, brought back into frame after it’s all over to offer gratitude for the intervention.
Even if we manage to truly see those with whom we wish to ally ourselves as people with their own agency. Even when we “do allyship right” by speaking up in support of, rather than talking over; centering others rather than ourselves; following, rather than assuming a leadership role; etc.; it’s still a conditional relationship. An ally can choose to show up for the fight or opt out. This is why some, like Shawna Murray-Browne (Executive Director of Kindred Community Healing) favor the term “accomplice.” Fighting injustice is indeed often criminalized, and I think it’s important to acknowledge this fact while resisting such framing. If we truly want to make a difference, we must be implicated in the situation, accountable in a way that can’t simply be dropped as soon as our uncomfortable feelings about our privilege are assuaged. Because this cannot be about our feelings. Feelings are fleeting things, arising in response to our own experiences and perceptions and subject to change with each new experience. While they can be an effective catalyst to action, they are simply not a substantial enough foundation for the kind of long-term commitment needed to really effect change. Furthermore, the change in perspective required to go from being a bystander (or worse) to being any ally (or better), is so against the flow of our everyday lives of privilege as to be in need of vigilant maintenance and renewal. Put another way, the problem with being woke is that the world is constantly conspiring to put you back to sleep. And the ally who sleeps through the battle is no help at all.
What is needed, whether we have a handily (super)power-point-able term for it or not, is for the would-be ally to recognize their genuine investment in the struggle. This takes real work. You first need a reasonable understanding of the injustice at hand. This need not be perfect, and will grow in depth, detail, and nuance as you engage. But no oppression comes from nowhere. While too often written out of History (or reduced to a comic book simplicity somewhere between Archie and Maus), every oppression has its history, present, and very likely its future as well. If you just awoke to it, you’re probably not its primary subject. But, and here’s the real thing, you yourself are harmed by the oppression before you, and every other oppression besides. If you really want to help, you must understand both it and your own true condition well enough to recognize the harm that it does to you. White people are harmed by white supremacy, even as it affords us privilege. (For a start, if gives us a false image of ourselves and the world around us.) Straight, cisgender men are emotionally impoverished by homophobia, transphobia, and sexism (and damaged in plenty of other ways as well). Every oppression does us all harm. Not equally, not in the same ways, but all of them harm all of us. A crucial part of the work is to figure out for yourself how.
The next step is to leave the costume at home and to show up as your own un-altered ego (un-super strengths and all-too-human weaknesses and all) to do the work. It’s appropriate to take direction from those already at the heart of the struggle, but it’s your work and your responsibility. It will be uncomfortable. You will make mistakes, fail to gain all that you strive to achieve, and no success will be complete. This doesn’t feel super and it isn’t actually heroic. But it’s the work required to achieve the real goal here: to change the oppressive systems from which you have benefited even as they were doing genuine harm to you and more harm to others. The only person you save will be yourself.
About the Author: Drew Heles works at the intersection of libraries and technology, which is an unusually welcoming environment for idealist-geek multiclassed characters.