“A Critique of Ally Politics,” an excerpt from TAKING SIDES.
Taking Sides: Revolutionary Solidarity and the Poverty of Liberalism, edited by Cindy Milstein, promises to piss a lot of people off. Not that the essays it contains all agree with one another, but each of them does challenge some familiar aspect of activism-as-usual. Below are some fighting words from “A Critique of Ally Politics,” by M. [Oh, and you can get the whole book here.]
A Critique of Ally Politics
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.…
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.…
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.