A Critique of Ally Politics

M.

This piece emerged from reflections on recent struggles in Durham, North Carolina, and was originally published as a zine in 2013 under the title Ain’t No PC Gonna Fix It, Baby. Its author, M., can be reached at sweet_things*at*riseup.net.

Dear Beloved Ones in Struggle,

This essay is a love letter to you because I believe in our tremendous power together. I have felt the powers over us, the authorities who would be, tremble, when we can find each other in real and lasting ways. I want to talk survival/liberation with you because those two ideas are inextricably intertwined, as is my future to yours.

We have a lot of work to do checking our egos, while bringing up our fighting spirit and balancing it with wisdom. Immersed in endless disappointing and hurtful experiences with friends, comrades, and activists, my need is unrelenting for us to practically rethink how we engage with the question of otherness and the organization of our lives. How do we integrate a genuine approach to anti-oppression? It’s painfully clear that spitefully throwing out all frameworks of understanding oppression as a response to critiquing ally politics only works to destroy us. This writing takes apart the concept of “ally” in political work with a focus on race, though clearly there are parallels through and across other experiences of identity.

I want to recognize that the stories told here are missing much of their complexity and nuance because of limited time and space, but I’m using them to highlight a few dynamics that I’ve seen consistently replicated in a wide variety of situations. Please talk about it with each other, share your thoughts and stories together, and give me constructive criticism if you want. I hope you feel it.

Allyship as Identity

The liberal concept of allyship is embedded in a rights-based discourse of identity politics. It works with the ideas that there are fixed groups of people (black people, women, gay people, and so on) that have been wronged by the structural oppressions of our society, that we must work across these differences to achieve equality for all, and that this responsibility falls especially on those who most benefit from structural oppressions. It centers on the idea that everyone has different life experiences that are shaped by our perceived identities, and so if you have an identity that is privileged in our society, you cannot understand the experiences of someone with an identity that is oppressed.

According to ally politics, in order to undermine whatever social privileges you benefit from, you must give up your role as a primary actor and become an ally to the oppressed. A good ally learns that if you can never understand the implications of walking through this world as an oppressed [fill in the blank with a person on the receiving end of a specific oppression], the only way to act with integrity is to follow the leadership of those who are oppressed in that way, support their projects and goals, and always seek out their suggestions and listen to their ideas when you are not sure what to do next.

It starts to get real complicated, real fast, however, as you discover that there is no singular mass of people of color—or any other identity-based group—to take guidance from, and that people within a single identity will not only disagree about important things but also will often have directly conflicting desires.

I lived for a short while in a historically black neighborhood that was increasingly becoming comprised of Latino families, college kids, and other (mostly working-class) renters.1 I made friends swiftly with my neighbors—black elders who remembered when the road was gravel and gifted me with endless hours sitting on the porch telling their stories, Latino families that moved in to rent at the same time I did, and young black families with raucous teenagers who I’d run into on the street at all hours of the day and night. The neighborhood was alive with music and gardens, cookouts and camaraderie—and it was also engaged in a fierce battle against gentrification.

A condo development at the top of my street threatened the neighborhood’s existence—and the development actually acknowledged that fact by promising to include a history of the soon-to-be wrecked neighborhood in its expensive courtyard. Wanting to better understand the political terrain of this project, I went to a neighborhood association meeting advertising an important discussion about it. With maybe a dozen people in attendance, I was the only renter, three-quarters of the people were white, and there were three cops. Before the meeting, I had wondered why none of the advertisements were bilingual and there was no option for Spanish-to-English translation, when so many of my adult neighbors weren’t fluent in English. At the meeting, it was clear that assembling a body that was representative of the people who actually lived in my neighborhood was not the priority. There were two college activists observing, and they expressed interest in organizing around this issue. They seemed to be vaguely connected to the one outspoken middle-aged black woman at the meeting; she was the only other person there who lived on my street. She spoke positively about the condo development and was the only person in the neighborhood I ever met who thought safety could come from more police on our block. I found out later that she supported the proposed condo because her work was in housing development, and she had a lot to gain if the neighborhood increased its economic and social status. Interestingly, all the other (white) homeowners at that meeting were dramatically opposed to the condo development because they lived in mostly fixed-income households that couldn’t afford the inevitable increase in their property taxes.

Although most of my neighbors—all the people who I spoke with directly—despised the development plan, and many were already feeling its early effects (increased police violence, landlords encouraged to evict black families in order to rent to white college students, and African business owners kicked out of their buildings), the distant college activists who also organized around gentrification did their work “in the community” at neighborhood meetings like the one I described and at a popular black church on the next block. The college kids and activists from other parts of town kept describing to me that there was no consensus from “the black community” about their position on the development—especially because the minister from that church was initially in favor of it—and so they couldn’t organize against the proposed condo; they could only do education about it.

In three years’ time, the ground was leveled, the condo was built, and my neighborhood was decimated.

All around me, young white professionals and college kids moved in. My closest friends in the neighborhood were evicted from their home with little warning; the head of their household was the heart of our block. With an open door and delicious food to share, she was a bit of refuge for many of the youths in the neighborhood and knew how to make sure they weren’t misbehaving. These friends moved to an apartment in the next city over, and her youngest son was forced to switch schools just after being accepted to join his high school’s football team. The landlords of their home did a month of shitty repairs on the house, tripled the rent, and told the college kids who moved in immediately after that the previous tenants had died.

Legitimacy, Justification, Authority

In an attempt to find brown folks to take direction from, white folks often end up tokenizing a specific group whose politics most match their own. “What does the NAACP, Critical Resistance, or the Dream Team think about X?” Or they search out the most visible “leaders” of a community because it is quicker and easier to meet the director of an organization, minister of a church, or politician representing a district than to build real relationships with the people who make up that body. This approach to dismantling racism structurally reinforces the hierarchical power that we’re fighting against by asking a small group to represent the views of many people with a variety of different lived experiences. When building an understanding of how to appropriately take leadership from those more affected by oppression, people frequently seek out such a community leader not simply because it’s the easiest approach but also because—whether they admit it or not—they are not just looking to fulfill the need for guidance; they are seeking out legitimacy, too.

In gaining an anti-oppression education, you learn how you benefit from the oppression of others because our society values certain identities. You must come to terms with the fact that you are granted privilege in our society simply because of what you look like or where your family comes from—and there is nothing you can do to fully refuse or redistribute your privilege. The knowledge of this often comes with a deep sense of white guilt. It can be paralyzing to know that you are given something that others will never have, though you have done nothing for it, and have no power to change this privilege.

This sense of guilt, coupled with the idea that the only ethical way to act is by taking direction from others, can make one feel powerless and debased. The model of ally politics puts the burden of racism exclusively onto white folks as an intentional flipping of the social hierarchies, while being clear that you can never escape this iniquity, but offering at least a partial absolution if you can follow the simple yet narrowly directed penance: Listen to people of color. Once you’ve learned enough from people of color to be a less racist white person, call out other white people on their racism. You will still be a racist white person, but you’ll be a less racist white person, a more accountable white person. And at least you can gain the ethical high ground over other white people so you can tell them what to do. Time and time again, we’ve seen that the salvation model doesn’t move us in a liberatory direction—only toward increased self-righteousness and plays for power.

To be an ally is to shirk responsibility for your own actions—legitimizing your position by taking the voice of someone else, always acting in someone else’s name. It’s a way of taking power while simultaneously diminishing your own accountability, because not only are you hiding behind others but you’re also obscuring the fact that you’re in control of making the choices about who you’re listening to—all the while pretending, or convincing yourself, that you’re following the leadership of a nonexistent community of people of color or that of the most appropriate black voices. And who are you to decide who the most appropriate anything is? Practically, then, it means finding a black voice who agrees with your position to justify your own desires against the desires of other white people—or mixed-race groups.

Perhaps you’ve watched or participated in organizing that seeks to develop the leadership of individuals who live in a specific neighborhood or work in a particular kind of labor force. This language seems to offer the benevolence of the skills of the organizing group to those who haven’t been exposed to such ideas. It is coded language describing a reductive and authoritarian approach to imposing an organizing model on a community of people from the outside. It also conveniently creates spokespeople who can then be used to represent the whole of that (often-heterogeneous) body of people. Over the last several decades, an entire elite class of politicians and spokespeople has been used to politically demobilize the communities they claim to represent. I frequently hear from antiauthoritarian “white allies” that they are working with authoritarian or nonpartisan community groups, sometimes on projects they don’t believe in, because the most important thing is that they follow the leadership of people of color. The unspoken assertion is that there are no antiauthoritarian people of color—or none who are worth working with. Choosing to follow authoritarian people of color in this way invisibilizes all the anarchist or unaligned people of color who would be your comrades in the fight against hierarchical power. Obviously, there is at least as broad a range of political ideologies in communities of color as there are in white communities.

On Sunday, July 14, 2013, in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer and the consequenceless murder of black and brown youths in our culture, our small city experienced an uncoordinated collision of a rowdy, angry demonstration and somber, sedentary speak-out. The speak-out was intended to be a space where people could give voice to their sorrow and pain, be held by friends and strangers, and find solace in one another. The marching crowd was lively, vocalizing rage with a bodily frenzy to release.

In the short stretch from the plaza to the courthouse, folks of a variety of ages, races, and genders found rhythm in the streets together, resolute in each others’ capacity to rebel on this day of ferocious mourning. The incongruent energies of the two different events met each other abruptly. As the march arrived, small groups tumbled into the speak-out, meeting and chatting with each other. This suddenly overflowing crowd began situating itself, joining the group on the sidewalk and settling into the street in front of it. The march was clearly an uninvited disruption, and the friend who was holding the space of the speak-out, a prison abolitionist and organizer from a radical African American cultural organization, was encouraging people to quiet down and move on to the sidewalk so the speak-out could continue. Among hesitant attempts to bring the clatter down, the noise of the new crowd slowly started to lower, but rather than giving a little space for a true silence to settle, self-described white allies came to the edge of the sidewalk, physically and verbally corralling people out of the streets and shouting things like, “Shut up! Have some respect! You’re all idiots!”

Their comments were pointedly directed to the white folks in the street although the body of people continued to be a mixed-race group. Did this cause uncertainty about how to proceed without clear guidance from a single, united community of color? What do you do according to the white ally handbook when groups of people of color are actively engaged in disagreement? In this case, white allies gave preference to the elder—not coincidentally, the one with the most legitimacy in their radical community.

If these white allies were only trying to diminish their privileged whiteness, I think the respectful thing would have been just to get out of the way.

Perhaps these white allies thought that’s what they were doing by addressing their directives solely to the white people in the street. An irritated brigade of bike cops had been tailing the march, however—also nudging folks on to the sidewalk. White allies guilted many demonstrators out of the street, physically attempting to move some people in close proximity to the police, who were trying to do the same thing—without yet putting their hands on anyone.2 The effect of this was to leave me and another woman of color isolated in the streets with only the police around us because all our comrades had been pushed away.

After listening to many, many speeches—including too many white people taking up too much teary-eyed space—the crowd began to get restless again, though folks didn’t want to disrespectfully leave before the speak-out ended. A few of the folks who had marched from the plaza to the speak-out, including several mothers of youths in the nearby jail, rallied the crowd to march to the jail, and the speak-out continued with smaller numbers because most people had either left to go home or had joined the marching crowd, taking the demonstration out into the night.

Did the black folks at the speak-out need a few young white people to speak for them? Certainly none of us needed white radicals to do the police’s job for them.

Charity Is to Solidarity, What Ally Is to Affinity

Anarchists and antiauthoritarians clearly differentiate between charity and solidarity—especially thanks to working with indigenous solidarity movements and other international solidarity movements—based on the principles of affinity and mutual aid. Affinity is just what it sounds like: that you can work most easily with people who share your goals, and that your work will be strongest when your relationships are based on trust, friendship, and love. Mutual aid is the idea that we all have a stake in one another’s liberation, and that when we can act from that interdependence, we can share with one another as equals.

Charity, however, is something that is given not only because it feels like there is an excess to share but also because it is based in a framework that implies that others inherently need the help—that they are unable to take care of themselves and that they would suffer without it. Charity is patronizing and selfish. It establishes some people as those who assist and others as those who need assistance, stabilizing oppressive paradigms by solidifying people’s positions in them.

Autonomy and self-determination are essential to making this distinction as well. Recognizing the autonomy and self-determination of individuals and groups acknowledges their capability. It’s an understanding of that group as having something of worth to be gained through interactions with them, whether that thing is a material good or something less tangible, like perspective, joy, or inspiration. The solidarity model dispels the idea of one inside and one outside, foregrounding how individuals belong to multiple groups and how groups overlap with one another, while simultaneously demanding respect for the identity and self-sufficiency of each of those groups.

The charity and ally models, on the other hand, are so strongly rooted in the ideas of I and the other that they force people to fit into distinct groups with preordained relationships to one another. According to ally politics, the only way to undermine one’s own privilege is to give up one’s role as an individual political agent, and follow the lead of those more or differently oppressed. White allies, for instance, are taught explicitly to not seek praise for their ally work—especially from people of color—yet there is often a distinctly self-congratulatory air to the work of allyship, as if the act of their humility is exaggerated to receive the praise they can’t ask for. Many white allies do their support work in a way that recentralizes themselves as the only individuals willing to come in and do the hard work of fighting racism for people of color.

Where ally politics suggest that in shifting your role from actor to ally you can diminish your culpability, a liberatory or anarchist approach presumes that each person retains their own agency, insisting that the only way you can be accountable is by acting from your own desires while learning to understand and respond to the desires of other groups. Unraveling our socialized individualization until we can feel how our survival/liberation is infinitely linked to the survival/liberation of others fosters interdependence, as opposed to independence, and enables us to take responsibility for our choices, with no boss or guidance counselor to blame for our decisions. For a liberating understanding of privilege, each of us must learn our stake in toppling those systems of power to recognize how much we all have to gain in overturning every hierarchy of oppression. For many people, this requires a shift in values. A rights-based discourse around equality would lead us to believe that we could all become atomized middle-class families of any race who are either straight or gay married.3 But anyone who’s been on the bottom knows there’s never enough room for everyone on the top—or even in the middle.4 A collective struggle for liberation can offer all of us what we need, but it means seeking things that can be shared in abundance—not those things that are by definition limited resources.

A few years ago, at a May Day march in our town, an unnecessary conflict erupted out of attempts to negotiate within a large crowd about whether or not to march in the street without a permit. At least one group of organized undocumented folks asked others to stay out of the streets because they didn’t want to get arrested. In this minimally policed and low-tension situation, rather than beginning conversations about whether it was possible to create space where some people could be in the street and some could be on the sidewalk, several people shifted immediately into control and management mode, increasing the antagonism and artificially creating two opposing sides.

In retrospect, there were numerous ways we could have worked through this respectfully—with better communication both before and during the march. The conflict brought up important questions about how to navigate multiple risk levels within a single event, how to build trust that can translate into plans for safety in the streets, and organizing exit strategies that accommodate different groups of people. But the communication by some people on behalf of others dramatically escalated the situation.

While the march was still in progress, somehow I was tasked with talking to members of a different organization who do work in a nearby neighborhood with many undocumented folks. I approached a group of people who were visibly upset that others remained in the streets, and I had a brief but intense interaction with a man who I’d never met before. I don’t remember the exact words that we exchanged, but I remember calmly approaching him and asking him if we could speak about what was going on. He responded by screaming in my face.

After walking away from that interaction, I turned to a woman from the same organization to try again to see if we could strategize some working solutions. She, a graduate student at a nearby private university, launched into a tirade about how I must not understand the disproportionate police harassment that people of color—especially undocumented people—would face if the police chose to attack the march that day. With hard-to-veil irritation, I asked her if she had ever personally experienced police violence or ever spent time in jail. When she answered “no,” I told her how ridiculous it felt for her to be making such baseless assumptions about me when I had more stories than I cared to share of police violence in both social and political contexts relating to race and gender. Then I asked her what kind of conversation she expected we could have when she was speaking so stridently about experiences that weren’t even hers. She apologized and said that she would just rather talk after the march was over.

After the march, my housemate told me a story from the day that I can only explain as a temporary loss of perspective. While she was walking in the street with her five-year-old nephew, a mutual friend of ours who was frustratedly trying to redirect everyone off the street and on to the sidewalk approached her. With a bullhorn to her mouth, this friend shouted at my housemate to get out of the street. At this point, my housemate said to me with some confusion and sadness, “I thought she was coming to talk to me, but she didn’t even say hello to me. She didn’t speak my name. She pretended like she didn’t know me. I know she knows who I am, but she acted like I was just a body, separated from our hearts.”

Community Policing, Power, Authority

Perhaps the least understandable aspect of ally politics to me is the overwhelming tendency for people, who otherwise seem to aspire to relationships free of domination, to try to exert control over others. Is it because when we feel like we occupy the most legitimate or objectively most justified position (often according to a strangely quantitative evaluation of those who are most wronged by social oppressions), it is easy to inflate our sense of righteousness? Or is it that when we feel like we have the most information—or most connections to other “important” groups—we can make decisions for others better than they can make for themselves?

Respecting individual and group autonomy means that we don’t need a bunch of fucking managers; it means that no matter how well positioned or knowledgeable you are, people can communicate and resolve conflicts best when speaking from their direct experiences and with genuine humility. Some of the first skills taught in conflict resolution, facilitation, and de-escalation trainings are how not to speak for others; you learn that you break trust when trying to represent others without their consent.

During the antiglobalization years at the turn of the twenty-first century, I frequently found myself in baffling arguments about the use of “violence” in demonstrations with pacifists or others who self-described as adhering to a strict code of nonviolence. Many of the same folks who argued that we shouldn’t do anything that could hurt someone else’s property consistently yelled at their companions until they felt threatened, and engaged in intensely damaging emotional manipulations and passive-aggressive maneuvers in meetings and during demonstrations. Countless times, I saw “nonviolent” demonstrators physically hurt other protesters by attempting to drag them out of the streets for spray painting a wall or breaking a window.

Why do people feel justified in trying to pacify others—often with little context for one another? Such vehement attempts to try to contain other’s rage and rebellion leads to an unnecessary escalation of conflict between those of us who should be able to struggle together instead of against one another.

We’re Not Trying to Get Comfortable; We’re Trying to Get Free

We are told that resistance lies in “speaking truth to power” rather than attacking power materially. We are told by an array of highly trained “white allies” that the very things we need to do in order to free ourselves from domination cannot be done by us because we’re simply too vulnerable to state repression. At mass rallies, we’re replayed endless empty calls for revolution and militancy from a bygone era while in practice being forced to fetishize our spiritual powerlessness. —Escalating Identity, “Who Is Oakland?”

Revolutionary struggle is indeed radically unsafe. It is a lifelong aspiration that can and does mean prison or death for some of us, and an awareness that these risks can intensify based on the different parts of our identities is necessary. Yet the concept and role of ally politics has mutated this awareness into a practice of collective policing by would-be managers who are shielded from criticism by the authority of a depersonalized, stereotyped other.

The ally framework individualizes structures of oppression, constantly shifting action away from attacking those structures to an emphasis instead on individual behaviors. The focus on individual privilege has become such a popular political discourse precisely because it often leaves unquestioned the very structures that create that privilege. Though it is necessary to understand how we are shaped by systematic forms of oppression, if we aim to collectively dismantle the structures of domination that enable these privileges to exist, the individual transformations must happen concurrently.

The ally framework also obscures the fact that there is no single community of color for white people to ally themselves to; rather, there is a heterogeneous mass of overlapping and conflicting individuals and groups. The crisis of representation this creates frequently results in well-intentioned allies stealing agency away from people of color who disagree with the established, institutionalized groups being exalted—only reinforcing hierarchies of legitimacy and policing the boundaries of political approach by throwing the weight of their privileges behind those who already have more power.

We all experience fear and doubt, or are unsure how to proceed at times, but we must hold those fears as our own, as we must hold our desires for freedom as our own. When we act on behalf of an imagined “other,” it makes genuine communication around tactics, strategy, and solidarity impossible, shattering our relationships and fueling mistrust where there could be affinity.

Our relationships are not what we need to be breaking.

The typical counter-rioter, who risked injury and arrest to walk the streets urging rioters to “cool it,” was an active supporter of existing social institutions. He was, for example, far more likely than either the rioter or the noninvolved to feel that this country is worth defending in a major war. His actions and his attitudes reflected his substantially greater stake in the social system; he was considerably better educated and more affluent than either the rioter or the noninvolved. —US Riot Commission Report, 1968

Just because You Feel Like You’re the One Who Broke It, Doesn’t Mean You Need to Fix It

Growing up in this culture, we’re taught so much hatred for the parts of ourselves as well as others who are different from the mainstream or dominant culture. We learn what it means to have good hair or a good nose; we’re told our lightest-skinned sibling is the most beautiful; we’re taught shame about the size and shape of our bodies, about who and what we desire. White supremacy, misogyny, and all the ideologies that create “the other” are at once superficial and incredibly rootedwithin us.

It is inevitable that as we develop a critical analysis of the various axes of identity—race, gender, class, ability, and more—we will experience deeply personal and political moments of self-realization—about ourselves and our relationships with others as well as about the way this culture functions. It is important and positive that we make those kinds of developments in identifying how oppression works, internally and externally. Yet we must not get so caught up in our own self-discoveries that we unthinkingly put the emotional weight of those breakthrough moments on others who live daily with the realities we are just beginning to understand.

Trayvon Martin became a symbol for this generation of the normalcy of violence perpetrated against criminalized, black bodies. The events around his death and his murderer’s acquittal were dramatically emotional for many of my younger white friends; it was clearly a moment of realization about something big. In conversations with other friends of color, however, the pain of the unexceptionality of this case was always at the forefront. We all know this is standard treatment for youths of color. A young friend of mine put it best when he said, “Of course I’m mad; I’m always mad at the police. But I don’t know why anyone is surprised. This is how we’re always treated. I just wish those white girls would stop crying and get up.”

Here are a few tips.

Slow down: Don’t try to fix it. Don’t rush to find an answer or act out of your guilt. Remember that many of your comrades have been doing this work for a long time and experience the kind of oppression you’re learning about more acutely than you. It didn’t start with you and isn’t going to end with you.

Keep it internal: Don’t take up too much space with your thoughts and emotions. Be sensitive to the fact that folks are in a variety of places in relation to what you’re working through; don’t force conversations on others, especially through the guise of public organizing.

Write about it: Give yourself the unedited space to feel all the things you need to, but know that it may hurt others if you share your feelings unthinkingly.

Read about it: Look for resources from people of a variety of political ideologies and experiences of identity to challenge yourself and get the widest range of input.

Listen to older people: Listening to stories from your eighty-year-old African American neighbor when you’re working through questions around racism will likely be thought provoking, regardless of their political ideology or your life experience. Don’t underestimate what a little perspective can do for you.

Don’t make your process the problem of your comrades: Be careful not to centralize yourself, your stake in fixing the problem, or your ego. Work it out on your own and with close friends and mentors.

Notes

  1. This extract and the following ones in this piece are experiential stories from the author.
  2. Never put your hands on anyone in front of the police—especially people you understand to be even vaguely on your side. This only increases the likelihood that the police will escalate to using physical force.
  3. This sounds like the dream of the mainstream civil rights movement: black and brown politicians equally in control of the military, police, and prisons; or the dream of the mainstream feminist movement: lipstick and respect in the boardroom. Goals like these have always kept anarchists on the fringes of mainstream rights-based movements pushing for a more holistic analysis that inevitably necessitates more radical action.
  4. For every Scandinavia, there must be an Africa—even if there are parts of Africa in Scandinavia and vice versa.

 

4 comments

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  2. Pingback: Taking Sides: Revolutionary Solidarity and the Poverty of Liberalism | Champaign-Urbana Radical Reading Group
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  4. Pingback: Allies and solidarity | Racial Justice Bibliography

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