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 Feministing.com 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, Ebony.com, 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 Feministing.com and Salon.

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Join the Conversation

  • http://feministing.com/members/sooze/ Susi

    There’s been a lot of intense backlash against using the term “ally” lately, and against “allies” in general. I think the important point is that, yes, a lot of people are attempting to use the term as a “look at how amazing I am” card. However, I’m willing to bet you’ll find a lot more honest-to-goodness allies than con-artists out there. Let’s not get so abrasive or hateful that we scare genuine allies and budding-allies away.

    There ARE a LOT of exhausted allies out there. They just don’t talk the loudest or have the most access to media.

  • http://feministing.com/members/ritafantastic/ Rita Carlin

    As an “ally”, I’m actually grateful to Mia McKenzie. I don’t follow “Black Girl Dangerous” regularly, but was directed to it a few times by Feministing. Her critiques of white feminists are pretty harsh, but I appreciate her honesty and her willingness to speak unpopular truths. My knee-jerk reaction was to get mad, to feel assailed, but that’s not the point. The point is that people of color are constantly assailed, marginalized, or made invisible in real life and in media. For a good person trying to do good, that’s a painful thing to hear, and it is perhaps easier to feel attacked than to hear the cry for help.

    My sphere of influence isn’t large, but I am working on my first novel, a big fat epic fantasy. I was inspired by one of McKenzie’s blog posts to change the color of two of my main characters from white to brown in the second draft. It isn’t much, but visibility is so important to feeling valid. I don’t need a cookie, I just wanted to say thank you, McKenzie, for speaking truth.

  • http://feministing.com/members/sex-toy-james/ James

    The ideal ally sounds likely to disappoint. People expect something for what they do. Allies generally are allied because their self interests align. I kind of feel that if someone claims to be purely in it for the justice of it, they’re probably just hiding their motivations.

    • http://feministing.com/members/ritafantastic/ Rita Carlin

      If I understand correctly, the complaint is that white (and/or cisgendered) feminists sometimes act like they deserve a pat on the back for standing up for people of color (or gay, bi, trans, or other non-cis people), when the reverse is not true. Non-cisgenedered feminists and feminists of color don’t get any extra cookies when they speak out on more “mainstream” feminist issues.

      White, cisgendered feminists also don’t necessarily give up the spotlight to the people they are trying to help –I hear this complaint more about celebrities, including Eve Ensler, Macklemore, and Miley Cyrus. Imagine if Miley had let her black back-up dancers sing, show off the extent of their dancing/twerking skills, or otherwise take center stage, or even thanked them by name on stage or in her video. I think she’d be getting a lot less heat for racism if she gave them more credit, or let them take more of the spotlight. That’s not really the usual behavior of a celebrity, we’re very greedy with fame in our society, but that’s a societal problem that trickles down into and pollutes feminism.

      • http://feministing.com/members/sex-toy-james/ James

        After reading all of the associated articles I’m also glad that Tim Wise doesn’t speak for middle class white men, because I wouldn’t want him speaking for me. I totally understand the frustration.

        I also think that the expectations on allies are unpalatable enough to scare away anyone who’s genuinely looking to help and doesn’t have terrible self esteem. Look at the rules for allies listed by BGD:

        1. shutting up and listening
        2. educating yourself (you could start with the thousands of books and websites that already exist and are chock full of damn near everything anyone needs to know about most systems and practices of oppression)
        3. when it’s time to talk, not talking over the people you claim to be in solidarity with
        accepting feedback/criticism about how your “allyship” is causing more harm than good without whitesplaining/mansplaining/whateversplaining
        4. shutting up and listening some more
        5. supporting groups, projects, orgs, etc. run by and for marginalized people so our voices get to be the loudest on the issues that effect us
        6. not expecting marginalized people to provide emotional labor for you

        If you do all of that forever, you’ll never be more than a second class citizen because you’re still not a full member of the group. This is a terrible value proposition for your time and effort. Would you consider for a moment joining a group of straight white men who would expect this from you? I wouldn’t. Instead you get people who ignore these rules and use their activism for self aggrandizement. Maybe you sell books like Tim Wise or you bang students like Hugo Schwyzer. Either way, the prominent male feminists or allies. I’m just saying that I’m not surprised no one is living up to the expectations on allies.

  • http://feministing.com/members/wfoconno/ William

    I think the argument here is particularly indicative of young “allies,” such as the ones prevalent on college campuses. I don’t think we need to dismiss the term overall, and it’s important to understand the learning curve. I remember after first beginning to understand racism, sexism, homophobia and how internalized these things are, and in my mind I was really like, “Holy sh*t! This makes complete sense f*ck yeah I’m a feminist anti-racist totally down with LGBT culture!’ Being generally shy and a (sometimes painfully) self-aware psych major on a campus surrounded by men I didn’t scream it from the rooftops, but on some level I wanted to. It can feel overwhelming when you have finally developed some perspective but don’t know how to exercise it, and the meat of it lies in subtle actions that a young ally often isn’t adept at. There’s a huuuuuge difference between understanding something intellectually and practicing it. And it takes genuinely connecting with people and confronting your own inner workings to be any good at it, and that skill often seems in short supply and takes tons of time and energy.

    As far as allies being allies out of self-interest, well of course on some level yes. And that’s fine as long as the self doesn’t take precedence over the group you’re allied to. Striving for authentic empathy and interest in lessening the suffering of others (including yourself) are self-interest that benefit everyone.