“Allyship” is a concept featured heavily in modern social justice movements. UMBC even has an “Intern for Cultural Humility and Student Allyship” at the Mosaic Center and regular “How To Be A Better Ally” seminars. Yet, what it means to be an “ally” remains a controversial and nebulous concept.
The Anti-Oppression Network describes allyship not as an identity, but rather as an ongoing process wherein privileged individuals offer support to marginalized individuals. Therefore, receiving recognition as an ally is granted through the trust of marginalized individuals.
This definition certainly seems popular as it is featured on several other websites on the topic, but it has a number of deep flaws.
For one, marginalized people are not a monolith. How many marginalized folks need to recognize an ally for them to actually be an ally? All of them? Most of them? One of them? In any case, it begs the question of who is the judge? In a system of privilege, the de facto answer becomes “the one with privilege” which definitely seems like something to avoid, yet it is implied in this system of allyship.
The issue of recognition itself aside is important to consider in the covert implication of this definition–that recognition is owed to the ally. It certainly does not seem to just stem from a position of privilege to offer support and expect or even demand recognition as an ally in return, but if this definition is normative, then that expectation is reasonable.
Which, in turn, leads to the most glaring issue regarding allyship: savior complexes.
In a system of allyship, the ally holds all the power and none of the real struggle. Any discussion of how “good” allies feel creates a sense of “duty” or “responsibility” that leaves the doors wide open for privileged individuals to use as a fight against the plight of marginalized people, primarily for their own satisfaction; thereby, perpetuating that same plight.
An example of this that I am personally familiar with are events like Pride or the Trans Day of Visibility. There are many cases of cis and straight allies co-opting these sorts of events as little more than celebrations. Even going as far at times to push back against LGBTQ+ folks who would make these events “too radical” or “too hostile” to allies.
The power dynamic here can be seen by the fact that the burden is on the LGBTQ+ individuals to extend a sort of respect in recognition of allies. This sort of respectability politics only serves to further marginalize LGBTQ+ voices for the benefit of allies.
This is why the concept of solidarity in allyship is key. Solidarity is the recognition that though oppression manifests in innumerable, diverse ways, the underlying system of that oppression is universal. To this end it gives every person at least some sort of stake, leaving no one wholly unaccountable.
Providing a hypothetical example, solidarity encourages white LGBTQ+ individuals to advocate for the liberation of people of color as the systems of hegemonic white supremacy functions the same as the systems of hegemonic homophobia and transphobia.
This contribution does not demand any recognition or trust in the same way that a system of allyship would because there is no longer an exchange between individuals with privilege and individuals without privilege. Respectability politics as well are made obsolete, as a desire for satisfaction from respect is no longer the motivation behind support. Rather, it is an intersectional exercise of self-liberation across different axes of oppression.
Now, this is significantly less romantic than the idea of a selfless individual giving out of only the goodness of their heart, but frankly, that is the point. Counting on someone to be “good,” “nice” or even “just” is significantly riskier than counting on them to stand up for themselves.
Ultimately if it comes down to a choice between an inherently risky system of utopian selflessness or a safer, albeit less heroic system of practical liberation, I believe it is far wiser to pick the latter.