In this post I want to reflect on two main ways in which the concept of allyship against injustice is conceived… and then argue for a third way. I often get asked at talks on decolonisation/EDI how to be a good ally in the fight against racial injustice. I struggle with this question for two reasons. Firstly, I don’t really like telling people what to do, especially with reference to antiracist work. I don’t think there is a magic formula that solves all the problems. I am always happy to tell people what I think about things and let people decide what they want to do for themselves. Secondly, and probably more importantly, I think the word “ally” itself is not able to do the work that we are calling upon it to do – especially with reference to antiracist or decolonising work.
The word and its allusions to alliances between states, suggests that two parties work together for a common interest. Yet, in actual fact, “ally” is often deployed to describe a position taken by a person who is outside of the system of oppression and has no common interest with those subject to it. This positioning often serves to distance so-called allies from the system of oppression and minimise their contribution in the system as well as the investment and disinvestment necessary to overturn the system.
In my thinking around “allyship” and its [mis]uses, for the purposes of this post, I will be making some references to the global anti-apartheid movement and how it has been described in the movie and book both named “Death is Part of the Process” [DPP]. In my classes on race and resistance to racial injustice, I often use the anti-apartheid movement as my illustration of the topic. The semi-fictional book, DPP, was written by Hilda Bernstein, a British-born author who emigrated to South Africa at 18 and became active in the anti-apartheid movement. DPP describes what happens when a racially and class mixed group of anti-apartheid activists decide to band together to dismantle the system of apartheid – a system of institutionalised racial segregation. One of the key foci here is their mixed experiences of resisting the system of apartheid – the tools available to them, what they put in, how they engage and how they react to pressures from the apartheid state. I have watched the movie many times since I was about 5 years old. I also have a copy of the book. If you have access to Box of Broadcasts you can watch the movie there [Part 1; Part 2].
In the story, Bernstein reflects on what each person is willing to give to the struggle and what each person is asked to give [note the difference]. There is a stark difference between who eventually pays the ultimate price and who is willing to pay that price, when push comes to shove. Also note who has the choice to give up the struggle and who takes that choice. There is a particular conversation in the movie that strikes a chord with me on these foregoing points.
Ralph Stern and Richard Slater are white university professors who have been campaigning against apartheid in a very academic way – with pamphlets, open letters, and meetings. When these yield very little result, Ralph tells Richard about uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the paramilitary wing of the African National Congress (ANC). He wants Richard to teach MK about explosives – do his ally bit. The following conversation ensues between them [starting around 24 minutes in Part 1]:
Richard: When is it going to end?
Ralph: The campaign?
Ralph: Black majority rule
Richard: *startled look*
Ralph: So, you see, you have… nothing to gain and everything to lose… who could resist such an offer.
Richard: There must be another way.
Ralph: Another way?!! Every path is blocked….
Richard: I am frightened.
Ralph: That is an eminently sensible reaction.
Richard: There is the fear of doing nothing and there’s the equal and opposite fear of involving innocent people.
Ralph: There are no innocent people…
Reflecting on this conversation, I think for me, the concept of ‘allyship’, coupled with the way it is often used, [especially in antiracism work, but beyond that too] raises two conflicting ideas. One, that being an ally suggests that your investment in the struggle is completely outside the structure of oppression. You neither benefit from it, not suffer under it. The second idea conflicts with this, as the very concept of alliances, suggests shared interests. So what position do allies occupy in struggles? People outside, or people who understand that they are within the system and their investments in the system give them shared but different tools to contribute to the struggle? I think a lot of potential allies, would agree with Ralph in the conversation above… they think they have nothing to gain and everything to lose. And I think this forms the basis of a problematic starting point for ‘becoming an ally.’ As the following definitions suggest, we increasingly think of allyship as coming to someone else’s aid with no benefit to ourselves:
Cambridge English Dictionary: ‘someone who helps and supports someone else’
Merriam-Webster Dictionary: ‘one that is associated with another as a helper : a person or group that provides assistance and support in an ongoing effort, activity, or struggle’
These conflicting ideas around allyship have led to me doubt whether or not the word ‘ally’ is suitable for the task we wish it to carry out. It ultimately places people belonging to dominant groups outside the system to be dismantled, and imbues their motives with benevolence rather than necessity. It also places groups that suffer oppression outside the standard of humanity. What I mean is that there is a not-too nuanced difference between saying “This should not happen to you because you belong to group X”, and “This should not happen to anyone.” So rather than thinking of the questions of oppression that lead us to require allies more thematically and structurally, we are forced by those same questions [in an effort not to ‘all lives matter’ a human problem] to think through group experientiality and not structurality.
In other words, the idea of allyship and our discourse on it, has become predicated on making the overarching structural technology of oppression invisible, and situating the conflict in corporeal manifestations – race, gender, class, sexuality etc. And so, many calls to ‘allyship’ focus on seeking to understand how people who are oppressed FEEL, rather than an understanding of how the oppression WORKS. One major problem of course, is that these opposing meanings of allyship both have their limitations as well as their advantages.
Allies as outsiders – “helpers” and “aides”
When we conceive of allies as outside helpers, this helps us to explore the differential power and positionality of those who are subject to a particular injustice and those who benefit from it. In essence, this allows us to frame our work accordingly. Allies are called upon to use their positions within the system to speak when it may be difficult or even dangerous for others to do so. In essence, the very position of the ally as being outside, i.e. not subject to the oppression, becomes an integral and vital part of their work as allies. However, those same positions referent to power may result in different investments in dismantling the structure. In other words, “nothing to gain and everything to lose.” This also means that allies may inadvertently distance themselves from the structure. They may advocate for less than they would accept for themselves. In other words, allyship becomes its own move to innocence. The foregoing limitations often lead to allies choosing when to opt in and out of the struggle – a luxury often not afforded to the groups they are allying with. This is illustrated in Death is Part of the Process. Certain people suffer less for their involvement with the anti-apartheid struggle. Some allies even opt out when the pressure becomes too much. And for some, the only price of freedom is death.
Allies as insiders – comrades and accomplices
Alternatively, allies can be insiders. In other words, accept the fight for justice as their fight, in which they are completely invested. This reduces the binarising of conflict along group lines and also strongly recognises that not all skinfolk are kinfolk. In Death is Part of the Process, this position is also illustrated, as not all those racialised Black are equally invested in the struggle. One drawback of conceptualising allies as insiders, is the danger of not recognising and using their differential power positions within the structure of oppression. This often leads to allies taking space when they should not, in ways which replicate the logics of the system that is being resisted.
Thinking differently about allyship
So, how does one answer the question: ‘what does it mean to be a good ally’? [Let me know what you think in the comment section below]. I may not be entirely sure what the answer to that question is, as the foregoing discussion illustrates, what I do know is that the use of the word ‘ally’ is fraught. I have used Death Is Part of the Process to demonstrate my points because it is a story that unveils the limits of allyship and the complexity of resistance movements. Resolve is not for the faint-hearted. True resistance is persistent and continually ongoing. One needs the endurance of the long distance runner and not the quick brief burst of speed on the sprinter.
However, I think what is important is that we move away from thinking of allyship as something we are, but instead think of it as something we do, each time we do something. Each time we want to contribute to a particular struggle for justice, we must decide what must be done in the moment, irrespective of what we have done before or what type of person we think we are. To this end, I have a set of questions as suggestions we should think through before we act.
First, do I know enough to act? It is vital that our actions are grounded in a deep understanding of the structure that we are fighting against, how it presents itself, how it works to sustain itself, the impact it has on the people most subject to it. According to Che Guevara, ‘The first duty of a revolutionary is to be educated.’ Nevertheless, although ‘listening’ and reading lists have their place, one must eventually act. Which brings me to my second question: what needs to be done? I have made this question depersonalised because it fits with the next one: Am I the best person to do it? As stated above, a lot of times what seems like good ally activity ends up as an exercise for taking up space or refusing to cede power. By focusing on the structure and the activity that is required for justice to be done, we are less likely to centre either our hurt feelings or needs for validation in the struggle.
In many cases, we will need to act. However, when we do choose to act, we must also consider the effects of our actions. Which brings me to the next question: How does what I am doing help? Or to put it differently: What are the effects of my actions? In a way, the work of justice is never really done, which is why it is important to think of allyship as something we do and not something we are. As I have said elsewhere, we are all becoming… becoming free, becoming just, becoming more. Therefore, constant re-evaluation of our actions is necessary to improve on the work we are doing. If allyship is something we ‘be’, then that becomes the end point that we do not need to look past. But if we conceive of allyship as something we do, when we are doing it, we can be more alive to the effects of our actions. For example, the tendency for ‘allies’ to send stories of racial injustice to racialised people is often seen as a badge of allyship. A way to denote that ‘this disgusts me too.’ However, to think through the previous questions, this does nothing to dismantle the structure of oppression, does not help anyone, and may have a severe traumatic effect on those with whom this information is shared. Allies will often do the wrong things, or things that don’t meet universal approval. That is par for the course. If we have moved our actions through the foregoing questions, then we may discover that we need to learn and listen more, or do things differently. But ultimately, it should mean that we are taking responsibility for a system that we are embedded in, as well as for our own actions.
Which leads me to my final question: What must I do next? For the work of justice is never really done. We are always becoming more. Ultimately, an ally is not what you are, it is what you do. And there is always more to do.
This is such an amazing piece. Thank you.
Excellent analysis. The Struggle is Real.