On Allyship, Abuse, Identity, and Solidarity – and How to Make a Damn Difference (1)

*all names have been changed in the post below to protect people’s privacy!*

I have been overwhelmed recently with thinking about what allyship means in my own life – or rather, what it has meant in the past, what it has come to mean now, and the journey that took place as this word evolved over time in the way I thought about it and felt about it.  I first heard the term “ally” about 3 years ago, when I first started really becoming invested in learning about anti-oppression work. This marked the moment when the learning curve of anti-oppression really occurred. Don’t get me wrong – I am still learning today, and hope to continue to do so throughout the course of my life, but about 3 years ago was when I really started building a vocabulary that taught me how to address sexism, racism, and heterosexism in my life. Due to my own experiences of bullying in high school and the feelings of helplessness, anger, and resentment that accompanied those years, I already had a mostly intuitive notion of how oppression could work. I understand that a lot of straight white cisgendered men don’t really have these intuitive feelings of oppression because they don’t often experience it.  But this wasn’t the case for me – I, like every child of colour in this country, had a history of negotiating awkward racial tensions from a young age. Everything from negotiating bringing non-North American cuisine to school for lunch (to eventually not bringing lunch at all), to changing my accent, to being afraid of forgetting English when I spoke to grandparents, despite that never being a concern when I was growing up in India (and completely trilingual). I will never lie about this: living in Canada visibilised my brownness, othered my brownness in ways I’m sure growing up in India would not have. Any self-consciousness I had was literally that: consciousness of my othered self, developed over years of struggling with points of alienation from normatively accepted whiteness.

Once I had the vocabulary – words like normative, positive, centering, marginalization, minority, oppression, privilege, became incredibly powerful tools. I now had powerful answers to things like “it was just a joke”, “you’re too sensitive,” “but women objectify themselves!” and “why do black/brown/asians always segregate themselves?”  Sometimes, these tools were weapons. Sometimes, these tools were aids in explanation. Always, they were helpful in me staking a claim. They gave power to my voice, and articulated my cries of frustration and pain into something effective, powerful, and able to reach audiences. That is the power of words – and this is also why, on a tangential note,  educating oneself to the best of your ability is crucial  – because such education gives you a better grip on yourself. It makes you see yourself better, your world better, and understand the interactions in it better. So this is, at its heart, a post about words. It is a post about the difference between semantics and the messiness of lived experiences, which often contain contradictions that cannot be resolved.

When I first heard the term ally, I was utterly floored. It hadn’t occurred to me that such a term could exist. Here were people, who on some level, though they couldn’t understand what I went through, could still empathise and chose to make an effort to do so. Wow. Was this even real? I was grateful – and of course that itself is a socially prescribed phenomenon: the relief  WOC feel when non WOCs affirm that they’re on “our side” because so few people are. I didn’t have to bring out my toolkit, I didn’t have to exhaust myself repeating how oppression functioned, I didn’t have to talk myself hoarse hoping, praying, for a flash of understanding lighting their eyes: that they didn’t occupy the same world I did – they already got it…right? In her post on afrofeminism, Spectra writes, “In retrospect, I realize that many of my initial responses to white allies were pre-programmed — a socialised reaction to ensuring that white women never lingered too long in their vulnerability without affirming their “goodness.” I resisted any responses that would risk making white people feel wrong–or exposed–in their self-righteousness. In fact, making them feel like they needed to *do* anything at all to earn my trust and respect as a woman of color always felt more like a risk than an opportunity. So I’d find myself dishing out exaggerated, empty, endorsements, couching my emotions in the elation I felt at even just the idea that a segment of white people had taken it upon themselves to give a damn about me.” Needless to say, I became disillusioned very quickly with what I saw happening – people were self-proclaiming themselves as allies as an excuse for doing anti-oppression work. As Spectra writes, “I learned very quickly that being a “white ally” had nothing to do with how I, as a woman of color, needed them to show support when it mattered.”  I decided, within months of learning this new term, and trying to be a good ally myself to trans and gender queer communities, that allyship was contextual and could not be a blanket statement. I am brown, pretty much all the time, but I am not an ally all the time. (Later, I would also learn brownness is contextualized and fluid because of course race is fluid as any social construct is fluid. I became more comfortable with ambiguity as my understanding of privilege and oppression became more complex.)

But this was my first critical encounter with the notion of allyship: it was not self-proclaimed, it was instead, a title or badge of honour granted to me by someone who experienced an oppression I did not. And similarly, I could afford to grant such a title – call someone an ally – if I felt they were able to battle alongside with me.  But not everyone was an ally – it was personal, contextual, and in a kind of power exchange, it was a title granted by someone as a sign of trust, responsibility, and accountability.  What did allyship look like to me, then? It meant knowing when to speak up, not letting me hang out by myself in an uncomfortable space. It meant leaving with me. It meant speaking up when I was overwhelmed, or trying to ensure that the space was safe for me to speak up in.

“Uh,  there’s no such thing as reverse racism.” I remember when my white friend spoke up once. There I was, in a crowd of white Francophones at an “art” exposition, which was a thinly veiled islamophobic, white-saviour-industrial complex pornfest. The party was very queer friendly, possibly Quebec nationalist-friendly, and filled with only white people. Many were queer, but no one was brown or black with the exception of me and a friend. They were raising money for this ‘artiste’ to go to “Africa” to “save” little black babies. (I learned later that this same woman had once made fun of (black) people with AIDS.) I remember my friend’s face still, hands trembling slightly, voice not quite able to speak up at what she saw: a video projected onto a wall of a woman covered in a niqab/abaya holding a vanilla ice cream cone melting in her hand. I remembered asking her if she wanted it addressed as we both felt the uncomfortable racism and Islamophobia behind it, particularly as this image was contrasted with a row of photographed portraits of women, all white, licking popsickles. Because you know – oral sex is always so fucking liberating. #Femen. I spoke with my friend who said “Why isn’t anyone saying anything?” Being the only Muslim woman there, and a black woman at that, and judging by her reactions, I could tell this situation was uncomfortable for her. I quietly offered to support her if she chose to speak up, and if she felt she couldn’t, I would step in, but wasn’t sure if that would make her even more uncomfortable.  After quiet whispers, she said “I can’t ask you to do that, but someone should say something. I wish someone would say something. If it gets too much for me, I can leave.”

I remember approaching the artist and asking her for her motivations behind the project, but the conversation quickly grew hostile, with her refusing any responsibility for the racism she wanted to convey.she adamantly insisted that Muslim women were oppressed and that it was indeed a white woman underneath the niqab/abaya, which she had picked up as a “costume”. She wanted to convey, she said, the symbol of oppression of women – and accused me of not knowing anything about feminism – because women of colour obviously haven’t been plagued by white women’s efforts to “save us from ourselves/our men/etc”. #Femen. Again. I remember standing there, surrounded by white people, ALL of whom were mostly silent – and do you know what I thought? I remember being grateful for their silence. That they weren’t choosing to take her side and gang up on me. I remember murmurs of French passing between them, many pointing out to her that I had a point, that this was not an appropriate thing for her to. I remember her fury as I continued to insist on speaking in English,  in her house,  demanding explanations for her racism. And then it happened – without any more cards left to play, she accused me of reverse racism – and that’s when my friend stepped in to cover the silence.

Friend. And also ally – but friend. “Uh,  there’s no such thing as reverse racism.” There was pin drop silence. Do you know how effective it is to have a white person say something anti-racist? He was not exactly loud, not exactly quiet, but was indignant, and there was sharp criticism in his voice. Immediately, he had a crowd of people around him, listening to what he had to say, congratuling him on speaking up. “Thank Kshyama” he said. “You should all be supporting her, if you feel this way”. But I didn’t care – I was floored, grateful that yes,  the crowd was on my side. A group of white people largely believed she was wrong to do this. I remember a few white people coming to me during the conversation, discussion, debate, argument – asking me if I was ok, nodding along. I remember finally being kicked out, the emotion of the event overwhelming me such that I cried – and I remember the model who had posed in the niqab/abaya approaching me and apologizing profusely, alarm written on her face. I remember thanking her in French, but mentioning that I couldn’t deal with it anymore.

And I remember thanking my white friend, the gratefulness in my voice triggering the discomfort on his face as he said “look, it was just the decent thing to do – like a bunch of white people standing around  doing nothing… but I wasn’t doing anything above and beyond.” And later, I remember my black muslim friend approaching me, thanking me as grateful as I had been to my white friend who spoke up – but she was also troubled. “Why couldn’t I stand up for myself? You’re so brave.” And immediately,  I knew there was something inherently fucked up about allyship. And immediately, I knew my own face reflected the discomfort on Fred’s face. Because here’s the thing, that cost of gratefulness? It is a bullshit cost. No one should have to feel that gratitude for people around them, who they love, doing a decent thing. As reposted by thequeerproletariat, the term “ally …presupposes you are doing a good job, and by its very use, is a coercive request to members of the oppressed group to give approval to the person in question.”

And no one should feel troubled for being overwhelmed in an overwhelming situation. I’m not Muslim – it was comparatively easier to speak up in that moment against Islamophobia than it was for my Muslim friend, because while the issue infuriated me, and even hit me in some ways, due to how WOC are consistently portrayed in western news, art, and other media, I wasn’t Muslim. If the same event had revolved around Hindu icons of women “suffering” because of their culture, would I have been able to swim through my feelings of utter rage and confusion and torment to even formulate arguments in a predominantly white crowd? Probably not. In fact, definitely not. I know this because I have been in those situations and fallen utterly mute, shaking with rage.  So here was the uncomfortable truth about allyship – I hadn’t stood there with Zara because of some self-titled or granted notion of allyship. We were friends. And Fred, my white friend who chose to stand up for me, didn’t do it out of rhetoric but love, and a sense of decency.

I’m not saying that allyship is necessarily rhetorical – there are good allies out there – or at least, there is good allyship work that is done. And actually it would be really erroneous to say “there are good allies out there” – because no one is good all the time, and no one is a good ally all the time, and moreover, allyship shouldn’t be an identity.

Sometimes, allyship becomes such a central portion of discourse that they start to dominante – and when this happens, there’s no distinguishing a discourse centered on allies from a discourse centered on the privileged – it’s not one I really want to participate in. As thequeerproletariat reposted, “By self-identifying as an ally, you are building an identity on others’ oppression. This is profoundly appropriative, because it is making oppression you do not experience part of your own identity. It also furthers the Othering of oppressed classes, as it once again has people defining themselves in terms of not being the Other, and reinforcing the view of the Other at the margins.”  I’m not saying there isn’t any value to men figuring out how they can advocate feminist values, or how white people can incorporate anti-racist themes into their lives – but I never want these terms to be identity markers. Building an identity on the oppression of others is problematic because it again centers the voices of this made-up identity of “allies” – who are basically privileged folk along the axis of whatever it is they claim allyship on!

Donna Haraway wrote once that “identity is a poor visual system” (or something like that) – and when I first read those lines, I felt affronted. Identity was something I’d been investing in – slowly building from the wreckage of racism and sexism in my youth – how dare she say it’s a poor visual system? But it is, and here’s why: because calling yourself a feminist should never be a shortcut to doing feminist work, or practicing feminism, or advocating pro-feminist policies. Calling yourself an ally without showing support is useless. I saw many carrés rouges at the party – symbols of solidarty between the student protestors in Montreal. But how many of them bothered to speak up and challenge racism around them? Did they even understand why or how Islamophobia constituted racism? Had they ever bothered making an effort to learn about how Islamophobia affects Muslim women, particularly those of colour, and how these women were impacted by tuition hikes or by the protests themselves? And how many of them call themselves anti-racist? As Spectra writes, “we’ve become so narrowly focused on the theoretical “what” at the expense of the practical “how” of creating change, we’ve forgotten that change happens primarily through our personal relationships, not just passionate rhetoric.”

I’ve gotten over the “what” of allyship now, for the most part, and want to focus instead on what it means to be a decent person: it does mean working on your privilege, but it also means destabilizing these stupid codes of gratitude that oppressed classes must express at hearing that a privileged person is “being good”. No. No more of this stupid affirmation. In keeping with a kyriarchal notion of how privilege and oppression function, literally fucking everyone should be working on their privilege and how to mitigate it. Everyone should, like Fred did that night, try and center the concerns of the Other. I also don’t want to get into tricky notions of “using your privilege to benefit the Other”  – that’s not how privilege really works. Fred speaking up was great, and someone could rightfully argue that was him benefitting from his privilege as a white masculine-identified person (though I should briefly mention that not being cis definitely impacts how he is perceived). White people do tend to listen to white people more about race anyway, and in that moment, I saw it as an instance of POC concerns being centered rather than whiteness – he was careful not to take over the conversation, but also careful to ensure I wasn’t stranded on my own. So I wouldn’t call what he did “using” his privilege so much as helping with directing the sails of the conversation – if I was at the helm, he was commanding the sails a bit – and I am ok with that. Other people may not be and prefer support in other ways, and that’s ok too! Jason, another friend, often stood reassuringly beside me, nodding along, sometimes putting a hand on my shoulder for comfort or asking me if I needed water or if there was anything he could do.

Someone responded to “Can We Stop Using The Term Ally” by writing “Acknowledging and working on all of one’s privilege is fucking difficult; anybody who at least makes an active effort to do so is worthy of a bit of my appreciation.  In fact, allies often share in the oppression of the groups they advocate for simply by voluntarily being an ally.  Allies risk sacrificing their privileges from being perceived as part of the groups they advocate for.” You want to know what else is difficult? Actually being oppressed. I may appreciate someone for working on their privilege, but do you recognise what such appreciation implicitly advocates? It advocates appreciating someone for baseline decency. And I’d rather appreciate people for being more than baseline decent, because baseline decency shouldn’t be something needing cookies, dammit. And as to the absurd notion that “allies often share in the oppression of the groups they advocate for “ no. No you don’t. If you’re white and call yourself an anti-racist, you don’t somehow suddenly start getting read as non-white on the fucking street. You may have to open your mouth to make your views clear, and boo-hoo that might be so hard for you, but judgments are made about me before I even open my mouth. The end result is that I have to undo judgments and undo existing notions about who I am whereas white allies get to create their identity each time because they are read as white first, not “ally” first. Even if they do claim to be allies, they are still perceived as having more authority when they speak about oppressions they do not experience since people assume a sense of “bias” if you’re talking about your own oppression. Hearing “um, there’s no such thing as reverse racism” from Fred had a markedly different response from what would have happened had I said the exact same thing. And this goes for all self-proclaimed allies – allies don’t risk “sacrificing their privileges” because they are not read as oppressed!

I will say that for some LGBTQ allies, this sometimes happens – people will be “called gay” or “called homosexual” – but again, this is markedly different from actually being gay and having that hurled at you as an insult. So again, not the same thing, primarily because while an ally can always go “well actually I’m straight” and have that be a true, non conflicting statement about how they feel about LGBTQA. LGBTQA never have that opportunity, and nor should it be one that LGBTQA need to reach for. I think it’s absurd and ridiculous that an A needs to be added to LGBTQA to accommodate allies. (asexuality, I can understand, but their relationships are often fraught with political struggles with how they are perceived by queer communities so I’ve left that off in this post – but really, trans* folk and bisexuals also have similar tensions with queer communities.)

The response also includes this little gem: “ RE: build identity on others’ oppression – Allies are Others, too.  Or perhaps they fill that grey area between non-Others and Others.  The thing is, identifying as an “Ally” places somebody on the outer crust of their privileged group.  The ally might sit on a cloud, but the ally reaches deep down from that cloud to grasp the hands of oppressed groups.  The ally works to pull people onto that cloud, bring that cloud closer to the earth, form a connection between the two “worlds” all at once.  ”Ally” is not a label, it is an identity, and it profoundly affects the experiences of those who carry it.”  Just read that and see if you can get through without laughing about how “savior complex” it sounds. Literally, Fred was reaching down to me, lowly human that I am, from a cloud. He was clearly my angel, not afraid to let my brown hands stain his white ones. The analogy itself is sickening. Let’s consider this critically: the positioning of an Ally as an Other or even “between” Others and Non-Others confounds the very notion of what an Ally is or can be – are we supposed to now stamp approval badges for privileged people along any axis simply because they’re aware of their privilege? What, is this like boy scouts? Should I have a little badge pinned for acknowledging my cis privilege, class privilege, able-bodied privilege just because I choose to speak about these oppressions alongside those that directly affect me? See, this is where I want to point something out: I feel like it’s only people in positions of a LOT of privilege who actually want this approval, because they’re so unused to actually facing criticism for their beliefs that when it happens, they think “oh! This is what it’s like to be an Other!” no. Stop that. If it’s too hard for you to be decent without expecting anything in return, then just go back to being a douchebag. No one has energy to expend in terms of actually rewarding you for not being a shithead.

I know this from actually having identified as an ally in the past. It’s bullshit because it’s pain and suffering you never actually experience but may be articulate enough to speak about – that doesn’t mean you’re experiencing the pain of it! In fact, your ability to speak out about it may be directly tied to your privilege, not whatever sense of “oppression” you feel because people don’t like what you’re saying. Loads of people don’t like what I’m saying, and occasionally it’s an oppressive environment for me if it’s along the lines of racism or sexism or biphobia. But if I’m arguing, say transphobia, the environment itself in that discussion isn’t actually one that’s hostile to me. It’s hostile to my views, sure! It’s hostile to points I’m making – and it’s certainly hostile to a lot of my friends who might actually find the space so unsafe that they cannot access it. But my presence in such a space is actually evidence of my privilege not my supposed “second hand” oppression, because the points the other person makes are never hostile to me since I am cisgendered. My identity is not at stake. My humanity is not at stake. My personhood is not at stake. I will of course be offended by what they say because they are saying oppressive transphobic shitty things. But will I be oppressed in that conversation? No. Would my trans* friends be? Perhaps. Would I feel safe in that conversation? Maybe not. Would my trans* friends be safe? Definitely not. And there is the difference, friends. Oppression isn’t someone disagreeing with you. Safe spaces are contextual and contingent on how someone else chooses to attack you, and how able you are to speak up in the moment and what support systems you have near you– and I must say this: allies, don’t confuse someone else’s oppression with your feelings of nerves, anxiety, and general ~badfeels~ for dealing with jerks. 

So ok – how do we actually go about creating solidarity? What does it mean to stand in solidarity? I think ending oppression is a worthwhile goal – and it’s obvious that everyone approaches oppression/privilege dynamics in their own lives from different standpoints. So what do I value more than labels, rhetoric, and making space for people who aren’t actually oppressed in anti-oppression movements? In my next post, I will discuss the varied and complex ways allyship has played a role in my life – and why I’m personally mistrustful of the phrase now.

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4 Responses to On Allyship, Abuse, Identity, and Solidarity – and How to Make a Damn Difference (1)

  1. Pingback: On Allyship, Abuse, Identity, and Solidarity – and How to Make a Damn Difference (3) | Mid Sentence Revelation

  2. Pingback: Solidarity and Allies – Online Resources for Radical 101 Series |

  3. Pingback: On Allyship | The experiences of a radical social worker

  4. Pingback: On Allyship | Social Work from an Intersectional Perspective

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