The Case Against “Allies”

Mia McKenzie, Editor-In-Chief of the Black Girl Dangerous blog, has an interesting and, I think, spot on assessment of “allies” to social justice movements. In a recent post she wrote:

I’m kinda over the term “ally.” Between Tim Wise’s recent (but not new) bullshit, a recent visit to a college where some so-called allies don’t even understand basic racism 101, and the constant cookie-seeking of people who just can’t do the right thing unless they are sure they’re gonna get some kind of credit for it, I’m done.

Allyship is not supposed to look like this, folks. It’s not supposed to be about you. It’s not supposed to be about your feelings. It’s not supposed to be a way of glorifying yourself at the expense of the folks you claim to be an ally to. It’s not supposed to be a performance. It’s supposed to be a way of living your life that doesn’t reinforce the same oppressive behaviors you’re claiming to be against.

The point of being an “ally” is to support a movement whose cause you believe in but aren’t necessarily directly impacted by. And movements need these people, because they thrive on organizing and mobilizing as many people as possible. That’s nothing controversial.

The problem lies in people who make it a point to let everyone know they are an “ally” to a movement, whether they’re actually doing the work required of them or not. More often than not, they’re just seeking credit for being a good person. Then some, like the aforementioned Tim Wise, turn being an “ally” into an identity and career, which brings on a whole new set of issues. It becomes self-congratulatory, centers their experience at the expense of the marginalized, and, as McKenzie points out, reinforces oppressive behaviors that their “ally” work is supposed to be ending.

And for some, they take the identity of “ally” to mean they are absolved from critique, becoming defensive at the mere thought that their work might not be as helpful as they think it is. You can look at what happened between Crunk Feminist Collective and Talib Kweli for an example of this. When your ego rests on your identity as an “ally,” you tend to not welcome any challenge. But that’s where the work lies.

This isn’t to say that the work that’s supposed to be done by “allies” isn’t meaningful, but the word itself has started to become meaningless. It’s thrown around by people looking for a get-out-of-jail-free card when they are careless with their words and actions, and also by those within movements to protect their friends when they’re being critiqued. That’s not healthy. As much as social justice movements need people, if those people aren’t committed to the tasks at hand and willing to push themselves out of their comfort zones, they serve little purpose beyond the superficial.

McKenzie says it better:

“Ally” cannot be a label that someone stamps onto you–or, god forbid, that you stamp on to yourself—so you can then go around claiming it as some kind of identity. It’s not an identity. It’s a practice. It’s an active thing that must be done over and over again, in the largest and smallest ways, every day.

Sounds like a lot of work, huh? Sounds exhausting. Well, yeah, it ought to. Because the people who experience racism, misogyny, ableism, queerphobia, transphobia, classism, etc.are exhausted. So, why shouldn’t their “allies” be?

Maybe how exhausted you are is a good measure of how well you’re doing the work

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for and Salon. As a freelance writer, social commentator, and mental health advocate his work has been seen online in outlets such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, Salon, Al Jazeera English, Gawker, The Guardian,, Huffington Post, The Root, and The Grio.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for and Salon.

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