We Need to Raise the Bar on Being an Ally.

A shirt that says "allies"

Racism is an integral part of US culture, but the shape and nature of racism changes with every generation.  This country’s roots in slavery and colonization gave way to Jim Crow, reservations, and racist immigration policies.  Since the late 1960s, we’ve been living in the post-integration era where real progress in a few areas has created a pretense that racism is over.  This things-are-so-much-better-now narrative continues in spite of people of color continuing to testify about how racism still affects every aspect of our lives on a daily basis.  

As the context of racism changes, what it means to be a white anti-racist “ally” has transformed, as well. 

In areas of the country where pretense around racism is strong, wearing the label of anti-racist ally is hip now.  In this these settings, the label of being an ally has been co-opted by generations of younger white people who grew up in an interactive era of white supremacy, complete with a banging hip hop soundtrack, and black friends they could use the N-word in private with, because, of course, the friend knew they didn’t mean it like that. 

There was a time when being an ally to people of color, women, and LGBT folks in the United States could carry serious stigma and consequences.  In this era of pretense, the label is not enough.  It’s time to raise the bar for what it means to be an ally in the fight against oppression.  

I am an ally chalking

Mia McKenzie’s recent anti-ally rant on Black Girl Dangerous was a critical wake up call for those of us who have gone around spreading the old school ally concept, myself included.  In the post, McKenzie rails against self-appointed anti-racism allies with low levels of commitment but high expectation of reward. What was originally intended to be a call to solidarity has become a cozy identity where people can shelter from having to take a real stand. 

“It’s not supposed to be a performance,” McKenzie writes.  “It’s supposed to be a way of living your life that doesn’t reinforce the same oppressive behaviors you’re claiming to be against.”  On her superb list of seven pointed and specific recommendations for allies, I was struck, above all, by her suggestion that being an ally needs to shift from a personal or professional identity (rewarded in many situations) to a set of daily ongoing actions.  She suggests allies use the phrase “currently operating in solidarity with,” even though “it’s clunky as hell.”  But as McKenzie rightly points out, it’s about action.

In reading her list, my generation and older activists got a much-needed wake up call.

I hesitated to write publicly in response to McKenzie’s post.  We are in a cultural moment where the most notorious example of an older woman giving feedback to a younger woman is the fractious exchange between Sinead O’Connor and Miley Cyrus—an unfortunate back-and-forth which reinforced the notions of competition and contention between women of different generations.  I am fierce about affirming McKenzie, both because I value cooperation between women across age differences, but also because McKenzie’s insight is so sharp, in part, because of her generation.  As I get older, I count on younger women to be able to see in my contemporary blind spots. 

I want to chime in on the topic with my own age perspective on what it means to be an ally, identifying the historical context of allyship, contrasting it with the present, and seeing what from the original ideas behind allyship are still useful in the fight against racism today.

A civil rights march where black and white men hold signs that say "black and white together"

The current envisioning of allyship, particularly around race, was done by the generation of activists that came of age in the sixties.  That generation born in the shadow of the cold war and McCarthyism, attended segregated schools, and participated in the Civil Rights, feminist, anti-war, and Black Power movements as teenagers and young adults.  They had seen friends shot and jailed and denied jobs based on their political beliefs.  They knew people who had been forced to go underground for years.  Above all, they lived in a time where standing up and declaring yourself as an ally—to movements against racism in particular—could mean an incredible loss of status, material wealth, or safety.

As a politically active teen in the ‘80s, I do remember, however, hearing white people talk about having “marched with Dr. King.”  The implication was that they were getting clubbed in Selma, when in reality, many were part of the massive March on Washington, standing safely in the giant crowd, risking very little, while earning bragging rights for life.  But the civil rights movement also had profound allies.  I will never forget the story of two young white men, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, who were shot by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964 along with African American activist James Earl Chaney while doing voter registration in Mississippi.

Missing poster for James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman

Consequences like those were firmly embedded in the historical concept of being an ally.  The activists and thinkers who developed the concept of allyship in the 70s, 80s, and 90s could not even imagine a time when being a white ally around racism would guarantee a writing and speaking career or that ally pickup lines would be used by men in an attempt to bed queer feminists of color in urban social settings. 

The original vision of allyship was calibrated to a society that would punish people who declared themselves as allies.  Now we live in an era where there are many spaces that reward the label, socially and materially.  So now that being an ally conveniently raises peoples’ status and could absolve them of accountability, we need to completely re-think how allies are shaped and prepared to do work.

Key areas where the landscape has changed have to do with transformation in cultural and educational segregation.  It wasn’t until the late sixties that schools began to be desegregated (some are still essentially segregated to this day) and large numbers of people of color began to go to college.  It wasn’t until 1969 that the first African American, Latin@/Chican@, Asian American and Native Studies departments were formed.  Three decades later, we have multiple generations of people of color and white people who have been exposed to anti-racist ideas via colleges and community activism.  But white supremacy continues to shapeshift.  We’ve learned the hard way that integration won’t solve the problem of racism.

I am not longing for the good old days of segregation where the lines were clearer and consequences of declaring oneself feminist, progressive, and anti-racist were harsher.  I do, however think we have something to learn and study from the relationships that were forged between white people and people of color who had committed to fighting big messy battles against racism that existed in a more segregated world.  Nowadays, what’s at stake is often discourse—and online discourse at that.  As McKenzie has pointed out, talk is cheap.  Many movement strategists have decried the fact that so much community building and activism takes place online.  This further weakens connections and accountability between allies and those they claim alliance with. Being an ally is not a social status, it’s not about having a black best friend with whom you hang out and have drinks. It’s about doing the work.  In particular having a significant relationship with a person of color who’s in leadership around ending oppression and backing them in the work and in their lives. 

In previous generations, where organizing happened face-to-face, many of the white people who stepped up to join or back anti-racist activists of color were fierce.  The relationships that they forged had the potential to be real and valuable.  This is particularly true if the relationships took place outside academia.  Over time, people of color learned to trust those working allies, and rely on their commitments and perspectives.  I believe that model of allyship is still valuable.  And it takes much more than self-appointment or cultivation of ally brownie points to develop relationships of that caliber. 

 One benefit of having working allies is that they don’t have the same vulnerabilities and those in the target group.  Sometimes, they can see from an angle that isn’t distorted by internalized oppression. Better yet, they can use their privilege to step up and confront people in power in ways that are not as easily dismissed as the efforts of people targeted by oppression. 

McKenzie stresses current action.  I agree, and would add that when people in a real ally relationship have developed trust, it’s not just about what a person is doing now, it’s also about being able to rely on a body of work done in the past, and having expectations of what can be done in the future.  In relationship, it’s also about going to your ally and cussing them out when they got too scared or self-absorbed or comfortable, or busy protecting their privilege to do the right thing.  Then it’s about getting that apology and that restorative justice, where they clean it up and you can move forward in the work together. 

A friend and comadre, the Kenyan author Shailja Patel, criticized a white woman so-called ally about her feminist work in Africa.  She said the woman’s allyship was a sham, because she maintained herself at the center of the conversation at all times.  Patel insisted that this woman should never accept a speaking invitation without bringing an African woman along to share the spotlight.  I thought this was a powerful standard, and it definitely raises the bar for “currently operating in solidarity with…”

Sometimes solidarity is about taking a public stand, a risky or costly one that undermines the ally’s own privilege.  There are still key moments where standing up as an ally against oppression can have real consequences.  Other times, what’s needed is a private stand between friends who trust each other—like an intervention where a white woman tells a woman of color she’s currently operating in solidarity with that she has to slow down and take care of herself.  And then the ally needs to stand firm through the woman of color’s tirade that “you don’t understand, you privileged white [expletive].  It’s easy to say slow down when you don’t have the [insert heavy-ass burden of oppression here].”  And then the ally gets to say, “yes but you’re not good to this movement if you’re dead from [insert health challenge with well-documented links to stress, racism and sexism here].  So go take a nap, and let me wash the dishes and go pick up the flyers.” Maybe the ally is the only one who can make this intervention, because all of the woman of color’s other friends, colleagues, and mentors are living the same way, under the same burden of racism and sexism.  Maybe the ally’s family has a house in the woods that they acquired by some shady means connected to racism generations ago and the best she can do is to send her brown friend there for a couple of weeks to rest and write, and eat organic vegetables, and it makes a big difference in the brown friend getting her book done and in her life in general (not that this has ever happened to me, but I’m open).

So I want to hold out hope for the idea that “currently operating in solidarity with” can move from a consistent set of actions to a set of powerful relationships where white people learn to back people of color leading in the fight against racism, or men backing women, or straight folks backing queer folks, cis folks backing trans folks, etc.  Relationships need to be built and maintained.  In a point and click world, it can be easy to think you’re an ally.  As Britney Cooper AKA Professor Crunk put it, “I have always been skeptical of white people who claim that ‘one of my best friends is black.’ Internally my response has always been, ‘They may be your friend, but are you their friend?’”  We can be just as skeptical of people who call themselves white allies.  Does any leader of color in the fight against racism consider you to be currently operating in solidarity with them?  It’s time to take off the identity label and start doing the work and building the relationships.

I’m not done with allies just yet, but I’m definitely revising the application form and preparing to check some references.

Aya de Leon is an award-winning writer, teaching creative writing at UC Berkeley. She is currently working on a novel, a sexy feminist heist caper. She blogs at ayadeleon.wordpress.com & is on twitter @AyadeLeon.

Photo credits: Allies shirt is from Revel & Riot; “I am an ally” chalking is via EROS; photo of the civil rights march in Forsyth County, Georgia, is by Bill Clark, via Negro Artist; missing poster is via The Nation

by Aya de Leon
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Aya de Leon teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley. Her feminist heist series from Kensington Books, Justice Hustlers, consists of UPTOWN THIEF (2016), THE BOSS (2017), THE ACCIDENTAL MISTRESS (2018), and SIDE CHICK NATION in 2019 about the hurricane in Puerto Rico. She blogs and tweets at @ayadeleon & ayadeleon.com.

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2 Comments Have Been Posted

I'm glad to see this

I'm glad to see this continuing to be talked about. That particular article of Mia's was particularly powerful to me. For one, when I first read it, I felt exasperated. I was like "What the fuck?! Can't I do ANYTHING right?!"

Thankfully, I recognized that emotion. I recognized the selfishness in NEEDING a label as if it were some sort of secret handshake that I could do around pretty much anyone that wasn't a cis/white/male such as myself and say "See?! I'm cool, I wanna fight oppression! Let me in the club!"

I realized that if I was doing this for some kind of "cred" I was doing it for all the wrong reasons, and if I thought there was a magic keyword that gave me that power, without having to truly lift a finger to work in solidarity with the oppressed, then I was pretty much the biggest hypocrite ever.

I write this obscenely long comment because I know I'm not the only white person who is guilty of this, and I know that many of the people who ARE guilty of this aren't TRYING to abuse the term "ally" it simply happens because we don't realize how important it is to go beyond talk, and move into action. We think that simply by wearing pin, reading a blog post or changing our Facebook icon is enough, because that in and of itself turns heads in parts of the white community.

I think that the idea of working in solidarity with oppressed peoples starts with what you DO and not how you DEFINE yourself is too overlooked in white on white peer education. Anyone can pick up a button that says "I am an ally" and act like it means something, but unless you're actually doing the legwork, it's little more than an excuse to be lazy.


I'm glad this conversation continues. TY.

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