Bearing Witness: Ethical alternatives to ‘being’ an ally

[Warning: this article contains mention, but not discussion or description, of gender-based violence and numerous other oppressions.]

In various social justice circles, ‘ally’ has become a common way of referring to people who do not share a particular oppressed identity, but who nevertheless have given up oppressing that group, and instead position themselves as supporter of their cause. While it has various advantages, important critiques have been made of the behaviour of such allies and of the concept in itself (e.g. serious critiques and fun ones).  The failure of the concept of ally is best seen, I think, in the number of ‘how to be a good ally’ lists which start by describing ways to stop actively oppressing the group in question (e.g. this bi one or this disability one). This shows the commonness of people claiming the title who still haven’t forsaken their oppressive behaviours, let alone adopted useful ones.

So to replace, or work alongside the word ‘ally’, I suggest using ‘bearing witness’, which I think solves some of the problems. This article describes how.

1. It centres the right voices (or should do)

The best witnesses are those closest to the thing being witnessed: this language automatically acknowledges the superiority of the knowledge of people who have experienced oppression first-hand.  I’m proposing that we use ‘bear witness’ as an activity which is primarily an activity of people who have experience of that injustice, i.e. are members of the oppressed group in question, so it’s not a straight replacement for ally language.  I suggest it as a term that we can secondarily apply to those doing liberatory work on behalf of other people, and those who fall in the margins between those two groups (see section 6 below).

Much of the criticism of so-called allies has focussed on the way we tend to use our privilege to speak over or silence members of the marginalised group in question.  Bearing witness language hopefully makes obvious the idea that in any situation, we need to listen most, or exclusively, to the best witnesses.  The role for the secondary witness then, is to speak up in spaces where there are no primary witnesses, or where they do not feel safe to speak.  The second job being to make those spaces safer and less exclusionary to members of those marginalised groups.  So for example, responding to rape jokes when no-one there is out as a survivor, or awareness-raising about race in environments which are still 100% white. Even when relevant people are around, if they’re not being listened to, we can use our privilege to get others to realise that they’re not listening to the right people, or amplify the right voices.

However, bearing witness language does have the risk of ignoring the very people we ought to be centring: it would be possible for a load of white people to bear witness to racism as an almost abstract concept, using evidence distanced from black people’s experiences (e.g. stats). So this is not a perfect construct, and we still need to keep each other accountable.

2. It’s not about you

The language of ally-ship (like a mothership!) ties activism to identity, to who you are: we say “She’s an ally” rather than “She does useful thing x.” This seems like an advantage, since presumably if you can get someone to identify as a supporter of a movement, you can ask more of them. They have tied their self-image to their involvement with the struggle, so they would seem to have a greater incentive to be involved. It also neatly mirrors the emphasis on oppressed identities within social justice circles: you can see why if oppressed group X are organising based on their identity as X, then other who want to be involved are going to look for an identity, a noun, under which to organise and join in.

In my experience, lots of people who work with/for marginalised groups they’re not part of already have very strong emotional and identity-type links to that work anyway. This might be because they are close to someone in that group: a parent, a partner, a friend or child. Or they may have witnessed an event or worked in an environment where oppression was obvious, and have strong memories and emotions which inspire their work. Even nothing like that initially inspired them towards that work, if they have build up a reputation or indeed a career around it, they’re going to be deeply emotionally invested in their identity as an ally. My point is that the links to personal identity are already dangerously strong, and people’s strong feelings which inspire this work are often already taking centre stage: we don’t need to encourage them.

The identity language of ally-ship can also be pretty misleading, and conceiving of our identities in that way can be deeply unhelpful. If my self-image as an ally is inspiring my liberatory work, then I’m doing it for the wrong reasons. I’m also not going to react very well to criticism, because it will speak to the heart of how I see myself: I’ll be unwilling to acknowledge my oppressive behaviour because to do so would undermine my good opinion of myself. There are other ways in which identity-ally-ship makes me concentrate on me and my feelings instead of the people I’m meant to be working for. For example, in my own life, feeling guilt-ridden because one action meant I ‘wasn’t a good ally’ has got in the way of repairing the damage done by that action. Jay Smooth has an excellent talk here on how focussing on the person and their identity doesn’t serve justice, and a follow up here putting the responsibility where it should be, i.e. telling us how we can avoid focussing on our own identities when our behaviour is challenged.

So, using ‘bearing witness’ instead of ‘ally’ can avoid making it about my identity. I can’t hide behind my status as a Good Person™ to avoid accountability, and those feelings are less likely to distract me from the task in hand. It’s a label not for a person, but for an action.

3. It’s about action

If allyship is about what you are, not what you do, it’s easy to get complacent. I’ve seen lots of ‘how to be an ally to X’ lists which stress this point, that you have to go and do the work to earn the title. I suggest that instead of labelling the person, who may or may not be doing the work, to varying degrees of effectiveness or oppressiveness, and instead label the work.

I’ve seen various books and articles accompanied by an author biog which includes their status as an ally up front and centre: “Example Author is a trans ally and…” Bearing witness language would label the work instead: “This book bears witness to transphobic bullying…” If they really wanted something to put in the biog then maybe “Author writes on various topics including bearing witness to children’s experiences of transphobia…”

With this phrasing, no-one can rest on their laurels. Well, we can, but only if they are won fairly, and labelled with the race we ran, rather than our ‘identity’ as runner.

4. It’s not about their identity (or doesn’t have to be)

Lots of social justice work focusses on identity, and much of this is fantastically productive. Identities are extremely useful banners under which to organise, give emotional connections to the work, and facilitate human rights analyses of oppression (e.g. you can’t control your identity, therefore discrimination is unfair). It also speaks to one of the truths of many oppressions, that people (often) commit oppressive acts because of what they think a person is, not what they do. It allows us to talk about the status we’re given on the basis of identity. It also, importantly, allows us to celebrate aspects of our identities, the histories of those who shared it, and to cultivate a sense of pride in it.

However, I think an over-reliance on the concept of identity to analyse oppression lacks a few things, and in some areas can have negative effects. For example, sometimes people focus on identity when experience is a more pertinent measure: not everyone who shares an identity will have experienced certain forms of oppression based on that identity. Identity language can also erase the differences between the people who share a characteristic, often in oppressive ways: focusing on one identity tends to minimise the other oppressions felt by people in that group, or invisbilise their membership. For example, focusing on woman as an oppressed identity in a vacuum tends to create a norm that women’s issues are a separate thing from black issues, and to centre the experiences of white women, invisibilising many women’s experiences of racism, and of sexism and racism combined. (See ideas about kyriarchy and intersectionality).

The language of bearing witness can accommodate both diversity and the importance of experience, since the focus is on the oppression not the identity. There is still a risk of assuming that oppressions only strike one at a time, but I think talking about ‘bearing witness to the racism in/of…’ has less of a risk of this than ‘being an ally to black people’.  In centring the injustice it makes no implication of a unified community who all share the same needs and goals.

Also, In focussing on oppressions instead of identity, we can open up the language to include specific types of oppression, e.g. gender-based violence.

5. But it (could) make people disclose privileged identities

It’s easy to invisibilise your privilege with use of the word ally: you can avoid using ‘white’, ‘without disabilities’, ‘straight’ etc. You can hide behind assumptions of neutrality and un-markedness: you don’t have to disclose privileged identities because they are the norm, the ‘unmarked’. Instead, if you want to describe yourself as bearing witness to something you don’t experience yourself, you have to actually disclose your position: “as a white person bearing witness to racism” or “I’m aiming to bear witness to the endemic sexism in this industry (insofar as a man can).”

6. It’s not a binary

One advantage of ally language is that it describes a fundamental difference between those who work against an oppression having suffered it, and those who haven’t.  This is an important distinction and one we should never lose sight of, and bearing witness language doesn’t do that job, although it hopefully centres those with experience.

However, it does allow for more flexibility in distinguishing people in this way.  This will be useful for people whose identities or experiences are often deemed liminal (i.e. on the boundaries) in terms of allyhood: for instance, mixed-race people, non-binary gendered and agender people (with regard to feminism), women who have experienced some forms of gender-based violence but would never call themselves a survivor of rape or abuse, people whose identities are closeted or invisible and so do not experience the same kinds of oppression as visible members of that group.  Such people can be recognised for their bearing witness to the realities of oppression without designating them either as allies or as members of the oppressed group.


There are some problems with allies and ally-language that bearing witness language doesn’t address.  For example, nothing about it makes clear that it’s unethical to make any kind of profit from that work, or to pit marginalised people against each other to get the outcomes you want and lead from behind (what A.J. Withers calls “Leadership Shopping”).  Also, the concept of ‘ally’ implies reciprocity and a degree of equality, both of which fit badly with the way we currently use it.

So people, what do you think? Pros and cons? What have I missed? Could you fit ‘bear witness’ into your sentences?


One response to “Bearing Witness: Ethical alternatives to ‘being’ an ally

  1. I think that I’ve experienced myself coming up most sharply against these questions when I’ve been trying to work, in a progressive way, on issues where I’m privileged.

    I’ve noticed that, where I’ve been told I’m messing up, other people who at the time I thought of as fellow ‘privileged alllies’ seemed to me to be walking some kind of ‘charmed path’ of allydom (this is the language I used in my head, although I recognise it’s not on me to make that kind of pronouncement out loud).

    I’d see them getting involved in the same kind of issues as me, and somehow not clunking into things and causing problems in the ways that I became very conscious that I was doing.

    That’s not to say that they weren’t messing up – I’m sure they were, at times – but that it seemed like they were messing up in a different way to me, or at least significantly less often, in less problematic ways.

    Since then I’ve come to some of the same conclusions as you, though I haven’t been able to put language around it. It’s about actions, not people, it’s about lending energy, and it’s about somehow not dragging a huge ego right through the middle of the work, knocking things flying as one does!

    I think that the way you speak about ‘bearing witness’ instead of ‘being an ally’ describes the difference between what they were doing, and what I was doing/being.

    No doubt I still cause problems of many kinds when trying to bear witness, and certainly it’s not to say that I think what I do is ‘charmed’ in any way! But yes, these ideas have helped me to better approach struggles in which the consequences of bad action don’t fall on me (or fall on me more indirectly), and I think the way you’ve put words to them will help me more.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s