The term “ally” is typically used within progressive circles to refer to people with power and privilege who work in solidarity with marginalized communities. But have we been thinking of allyship all wrong?
Ana Maria Caicedo, Community Relations Manager
Last January, I attended NASH81 in Calgary, an annual conference for student journalists hosted by the Canadian University Press. Vicky Mochama and Katie Jensen, the founders of Vocal Fry Studios – a feminist podcast studio that produces podcasts like “The Secret Life of Canada” and Mochama’s “Safe Space” – delivered their keynote speech on the second night. During the question period, a white man approached the mic stand. He asked the speakers for tips on how to be a better ally. Mochama answered, saying she doesn’t believe in allyship because she doesn’t believe in giving titles to people for doing things they’re already supposed to be doing. I felt a smile creep up my cheeks.
Mochama’s words stuck with me the following months, long after the conference had ended. The “how to be a better ally” posts I used to fiercely applaud online now made me cringe. I’ve seen the word “ally” used and abused by many people, including myself, as a way of gathering free “progressive points” without putting in any actual work or effort. A couple of people come to mind. I remember when one of my managers at a former job, who would speak passionately on social justice issues, watched quietly as her co-manager verbally abused my co-worker, who is black, for reasons that seemed to be beyond her actual work performance. I remember when a close friend, who considered herself an ally, dismissed the xenophobic comments of the guy she was seeing. I’ve stockpiled so many memories like this, memories where people who claim to be allies inevitably ended up disappointing me.
I’ve also stockpiled the times where I hurt other Queer and Trans People of Colour (QTPOC) with ignorant comments, silence and inaction. I wish I could detail those missteps here, but I’m honestly not brave enough, nor do I think progressive discourse online has evolved enough to not cancel me forever.
The point being, “ally” as an adjective is like a badge that tells a given marginalized group you’re “one of the good ones,” until you’re not. It’s a way of aligning yourself with social movements and marginalized people without actually sacrificing anything. You might find all this pedantic, but words are how we frame our world.
For many people of colour, “ally” is the word we use to describe white people who work towards dismantling white supremacy. But acting according to the values you claim to hold does not, in itself, warrant a reward, praise or title.
I want to highlight another fault I’ve noticed in how allyship is often interpreted: the idea that allyship means standing in solidarity with a member of any given marginalized group regardless of context. It’s kind of like the “women should always support women” argument (which I hope most people would gladly dispel by now). Having any given marginalized identity shouldn’t shield your politics or actions from criticism. This might seem obvious to you, and it seems obvious to me as I write it now, but I wanted to articulate it because for a long time, my conception and practice of allyship has been based on this very ridiculous, reductive way of interpreting solidarity. This kind of allyship – the idea that an individual must make up for their power and privilege by surrendering, ideologically or otherwise, to another’s stance because that person belongs to a particular marginalized group – is a toxic and transactional way of envisioning allyship, and it’s reminiscent of the colonial framing allyship is meant to dismantle.
As a woman of colour (specifically a light-skinned, brown Colombian woman) I think I practiced this version of allyship so easily, for so long, because it allowed me to take power for myself. After a lifetime of adapting to the terms of white people, this understanding of allyship involved white people adapting to my terms. I also think I practiced this kind of allyship because, well, it was easier for me as someone who enjoys many intersecting racial, gender and class privileges. It was a self-indulgent, lazy kind of allyship, one where I could claim to support my QTPOC friends, and other marginalized folks, without empathetically familiarizing myself with the totality of their problems, problems I will never have to face first-hand as a light-skinned, cis and able-bodied settler.
I used to have a boyfriend, who was white, and would say things like “I don’t understand why women need to direct more films” (give me a break, I was 20). He was sweet, but we did NOT share the same politics. I sent him articles on critical race theory and feminism, and we would have long, exhausting conversations where I would try to “teach” him my politics.
It did not work. I should have realized, through that breakup, that allyship cannot be coerced because empathy cannot be coerced. Genuine allyship, I think, requires a very involved, reflective and engaged kind of empathy. And before that kind of empathy can even take place, there has to be an honest willingness to empathize in the first place.