“What I need is for [white] people to come and work with us in the trenches and be there alongside us. It’s not about being on the outside and saying ‘yes, I support you!’ It’s about ‘not only do I support you, but I am here with you, I am rolling up my sleeves. What do I need to do?”
Last semester, after one of my professors shut me down in class when I called her out for racism and every single White Rad Queer (WRQ) in class stayed silent (but filled my Facebook inbox with their sympathy), I officially gave up on white Allies™.
I’ve given up because whenever I go to an event about racial justice, I can count the number of WRQs on one hand. The same WRQs that would be normally present at any queer dance party suddenly get overwhelmed with midterms and assignments when it comes time for an event focused on the experience of queer people of colour. When, in a typical women’s studies course, the single week focused on theorists of colour and on the experiences of people of colour finally rolls around at the end of the semester, the same WRQs that are so ready to call themselves intersectional feminists refuse to shut their mouths and listen. And these are just the ones that do make some effort to be decent people. The rest are just Allies™, whose empty ‘allyship’ really means nothing; they might as well call themselves a washing machine or a screwdriver if they can’t back up the label with solid action.
Allyship in general has somehow been distilled to an identity label and commodified as such; at Pride, there are actual “Ally” stickers being sold along with “Gay,” “Butch,” and “Stud.” First things first: allyship is the process of coming to terms with your privilege and unlearning your harmful behaviours rooted in patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity, and so on – and yes, it involves learning what these words actually mean instead of crying “social justice warrior” in deflection.
It is indeed a step forward, for example, for men to overcome the constraints of masculinity and be able to call themselves feminists in the first place – even if it comes in the flawed form of “I support the real feminists that are about equality, not the radical ones; I’m not too sure who they are but I’ve heard this excuse before so I use it.” But white men are generally quick to call themselves feminists, and not just for politically admirable reasons. First, because it’s easy. While there’s an adjective for supporters of gender justice, no such adjective exists for anti-racism, for instance. Second, because gender inequality necessarily affects people defined in personal relation to men – wives, sisters, mothers. But what does feminism, as a collective movement, gain if one more man identifies as a feminist with no effort to actually act in a feminist manner? And what does it mean for women of colour if these feminist allies don’t speak about race? Not much.
Allyship in general has somehow been distilled to an identity label and commodified as such.
I have cut the racist misogynists (courtesy of rez and high school) out of my life. Yet I still receive hatred from men who call themselves feminist on a regular basis, feeling as if I owe them something now that they are Allies™ – “Paniz, you know I’m a feminist and support gay rights.” Allies™ often see their apparent allegiance to one cause as enough to have earned their self-adopted label, yet very often know next to nothing about what they’re supposedly supporting. Considering yourself an Ally™ is a baby step, and at some point, you really need to take the next step. No, you’re not an ally if you support men’s rights activism. You’re not an ally if you cry “not all white people,” if you get hennas done to look edgy, if you are anti-choice, if you bring up false rape allegations during conversations on sexual assault, if you are against affirmative action. You aren’t an ally if you – gasp – vote for conservatives and actively support people in power who trample on the rights of marginalized people. Allyship isn’t just whatever you feel like it should be.
Good allyship: taking action and taking direction
So what is good allyship? When I talk about the need for allies to take actual action, I am not asking them to join us at every march and conference and event (though that would be nice). If anything, at least understand your privilege, unlearn harmful practices, and learn about systems of oppression. Understand that, when it comes to activism, for once in your life, it’s not for you – or people who look like you – to be in charge. For once in your life you don’t get to set the agenda, your voice isn’t the loudest one, and you need to take the backseat and do as you’re told.
Allyship is an incredibly uncomfortable process. But it is worse for those you claim to support, who actually go through life in a society that constantly and consistently erases their existence and ignores their needs. Don’t claim space in a movement that is not about you. Instead, work to make the many spaces that have been built to accommodate you and your needs accessible to the people to whom you’re supposedly an ally.
Here’s how you can start. Shut down rape jokes. Have a conversation about cultural appropriation with that white roommate with dreadlocks. Demand that event organizers hold their events in accessible venues. Don’t ever call women “slut,” “bitch,” or their derivatives.
Work to make the many spaces that have been built to accommodate you and your needs accessible to the people to whom you’re an ally.
Take on the responsibility of calling out and educating whitesplainers (I’m looking at you, WRQs). Stop telling us how to feel or what to do about our own lives – we have our own brains and understand our struggles much better than you do, thank you very much. As an ally, understand that your opinions on many things are irrelevant because your so-called allyship isn’t about you, nor is it about your personal feelings as a member of a dominant group, or the fact that you’ve read bell hooks or have three friends who are people of colour. While, for you, activism may be an edgy thing you do on the side, for some people this fight is necessary to be able to survive in a system that is, regardless of your personal opinion, actively benefiting you.
That is why I don’t believe that we have to roll out the welcome mat in order for white people to feel the need to listen to marginalized voices. I think if people really cared, they would not ask us to water down our demands just to appeal to their fragile white egos. I will take pride in sounding harsh and “alienating people,” those “good people,” those people who are “really on my side,” those people who “aren’t racist, just grew up in a rural redneck town.” Because to be a real ally you also need to stop tone-policing marginalized voices and quoting Martin Luther King Jr. on the importance of love out of context, as if what we are saying is less important than how we say it and how it makes you feel. Yes, MLK was full of love, and so are we. But he was also full of rage, and so are we, because our anger comes from a place of love for ourselves and for others in our communities – something that takes a lot of work in a society that erases our existence in the first place.
We are angry, and we are entitled to be angry, but even if we weren’t also so full of love, the fact of the matter is that what activists fight against isn’t all sweet and dandy. Activists are fighting against the prison industrial complex, sexual violence, Israeli apartheid, racist immigration systems, settler colonialism on stolen Indigenous land, imperialist wars, police brutality, state surveillance. These are not fun topics by any stretch of the imagination; they are very serious, and reducing the complexity or horror of any of them in order to placate white egos is downright offensive to those who are most affected by them.
And, speaking of your ego: if it is too fragile to stand the tone of my voice, it probably is also too fragile to come to terms with your privilege and complicity in oppressive systems anyway. If this is all too much for you, maybe it’s not yet time for you to call yourself an ally. Go spend a few afternoons reading Everyday Feminism and Black Girl Dangerous. Go to any of the hundreds of social justice events happening on and off campus. Take WMST 200 (Introduction to Women’s Studies), INDG 200 (Introduction to Indigenous Studies), or SDST 250 (Introduction: Sexual Diversity Studies). If you are still an Ally™ in name only, take your allyship and burn it, because we don’t need you anyway.
Paniz Khosroshahy is a U2 Women’s Studies and Computer Science student. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.