[I don’t think this post needs any warnings, but let me know if I’ve missed something.]
Having seen some more conversations around ally behaviour, and done some more ally-ing and been allied-to some more, I’ve had a few more thoughts on how to navigate this area. I’ve realised that my original thoughts missed and crucial dimension of what it means to act as an ally:
Power is one of the pervading dynamics that we’re grappling with when we do anti-oppression work. We’re analysing which groups have power over other groups in society, and trying to reveal and counteract this. Power also plays out within all smaller groups, and this is deeply connected to the wider power politics. So a group that is fighting for their liberation is struggling against groups that hold societal power over them, and this will probably involve fighting against individuals or groups who wield that power on a more personal level.
What this means is that we need to recognise the power dynamics of the ally-oppressed person relationship. It is not neutral. The ally holds more power than the oppressed person, by very nature of the fact that they belong to the social group which is imbued with power. [Privilege is a term more often used in social justice circles, but I’m going to stick with power because of its focus on doing rather than being.]
Due to this unequal power relationship, a crucial part of the ally’s activism needs to be counteracting, and mitigating the effects of, the power they have over the people in the oppressed group.
This might be in individual ways, or group ways, or more structural ways. Even ignoring the effects of wider structural power on the two individuals, allies still have various advantages which give them more power and benefit. For example:
- We don’t *need* the movement: we can leave at any time. This means we are more free to piss people off etc
- Outsiders to the movement will reward us more. We’ll be seen as more generous, heroic etc for our efforts in the movement, and probably given more respect, airtime and resources as a result. Sometimes this results in really tangible benefits like research grants, book deals, employment.
- Insiders in the movement will reward and value us more, knowing that outsiders will value us, and that therefore we’re useful spokespeople and a legitimising presence. This means that sometimes we can get our way by threatening to leave. Even without threats, people will be eager to appease and placate us.
- Because we’re usually still able to access the various kinds of support and resources open to us outside the groups we are allies to, that means we have two areas to draw on, whereas non-ally activists have only their own communities’ support and resources.
The ideas which social justice communities have come up with around ally-ship, how to respond to call-outs etc can be understood as a code of etiquette designed to shift some of this power back in the oppressed person’s favour. Because of this, it can feel very weird, and sometimes bad, to be an ally on the receiving end of these rules – they are designed to shift power away from you, and that’s never fun. It’s basically like a super-diluted and time-and-space limited version of structural oppression: the rules are designed not to be in your favour. Without seeing the context of the power balance already being in the ally’s favour, it can be very easy to feel shat on by these rules. In fact, I think probably the less experience we have of being shat on by structural disempowerment, the more shocking and hurtful we’ll find these rules.
First I’m going to show how some of the more common ‘how to be an ally’ advice fits this pattern of shifting power away from allies, and why that’s a good thing, and then I’m going to add some more suggestions.
[Disclaimer: because no power structure works in isolation, there will be lots of cases where, although the people are talking about a structural oppression which the ally doesn’t experience, that ally experiences other structural oppressions which the person they are being an ally for, in that space, doesn’t experience. This might mean that the overall balance power is not in the ally’s favour, in which case some of the suggestions should be adapted or ignored. For example, a black straight woman has a gay white male boss, and they’re talking about gayness. The power is almost certainly in his favour, so some of the rules and suggestions will need rejigging.]
Common social justice rules and how they’re meant to shift power
‘Foreground the voices of the oppressed, don’t speak for us’
This is often framed in terms of getting the best information – the people who experience the sharp end of oppression necessarily know the most about how it works (and can also see the viewpoint of the oppressor, because their views are normative and widely disseminated). However, this is also an issue of power: silencing is both an active tool and natural consequence of oppression, so amplifying people’s voices is a way of handing some of that power back.
‘Don’t expect us to educate you‘
Many – though not all – structural oppressions are deeply tied up with labour. The oppressed group are forced/expected to work for longer, for less pay, on more horrible and less respected work. This literally disempowers them – they are left with less time, money and energy. Letting activism be one place where they can freely chose their work avoids disempowering them further.
Bear in mind that these two rules are set in the context of us really wanting to keep and appease allies, to educate and explain and to let allies be the more acceptable spokespeople for our movements. And that for those of us with experience of allies who leave if they don’t get their way, we may be going out of our way to avoid that.
‘Behave decently when called out on something‘
Many of the behaviours which are commonly bad ways to respond to a call out are attempts to hold on to power. Properly apologising for something is an act which shows vulnerability. Letting another person have control over deciding what you did wrong, and how wrong it was, gives them a kind of power over you, however brief and limited.
‘Go learn about your power and privilege‘
You can’t hand something back if you don’t believe you’ve got it. You can’t put the safety lock on a weapon you don’t think you’re holding. If you’re having difficulty believing that you wield power, or have to option of wielding power, or that either of those things matters to acting as an ally, then you especially need to go and read stuff.
More ideas for how allies can hand back power
Consider not getting involved
There will almost certainly be ways we can help the movement as a whole, but some spaces will be more effective and more powerful without our presence. Not just the spaces already labelled ‘X-only’. Consider refusing offers of power: leadership, publication etc. Or, for instance, turn up to the meetings, but rescind your voting rights.
Do the things which are considered menial
Sign up for tea-making, photocopying, washing up, data-entry. Compile lists of resources to make it easy for others to educate themselves. Not as ways to make friends and get known within the community/group/event, but as an end in itself.
Do things which allow more of that group to access the movement
Sign up for childcare, giving lifts, translation and transcription, etc.
Set up systems of accountability
Create way in which people from that group can talk to you about your behaviour and have control over that interaction. For example, let it be known that you will always try to respond to call-outs in a particular way. Or that you will leave the group if people request it. Or set up an anonymous feedback system on your blog.
If at all in doubt about a course of action, check with some of the relevant group, preferably those who will be impacted by it. Better still, let it be known that you’re up for instructions, and wait until people give you some.
If your power is backed up by institutional power structures in your professional life, try to subvert those structures to hand power back
If you have an managerial power, for instance, use any influence you have on policy, training, recruitment, wages etc in the group’s interest. If you interact with the public in a way which gives you any power over them, set up feedback forms or patient advocates tailored for the group(s) in question, so that they can safely complain or otherwise institute change. Ideally, let people from that group set up the system. If people from that group are contributing to your work, or you are otherwise benefiting from their existence or oppression (e.g. you’re doing research on them, writing a book about them, doing a programme on them etc) make sure that you share the material and non-material benefits you gain with them. E.g. share the royalties, credit them, pay them upfront, etc.
If your power is backed up by institutional power structures in your personal life, try to subvert those structures to undo the leverage it gives you
If you are in a romantic and/or sexual relationship with someone of that group, think really carefully about what kinds of power you do, or might wield over them, and try to counteract them. For instance, you could try giving them more control over decision-making, or make it absolutely clear that you never expect sex from them, or that you won’t leave them if they piss you off or disagree with you. If you are the parent or carer of someone of the relevant group, you probably have even more power over them – think really hard about what steps you could take to reduce this. Giving them practical resources, external sources of support and as much freedom as is safe are probably good places to start.
So, all of this might sound pretty scary, and kind of extremist. If you’re like me – i.e. involved in different movements, some where I’m an ally, some where I’m not – part of you might be going, ‘hell yeah!’ and part of you might be going, ‘holy shit, I can’t t do that.’
For me, the more I’ve come to learn about societal power and privilege, the more adept I’ve become at noticing it in my interactions, and the more uncomfortable I’ve felt noticing when I have them, and when I use them. So taking some of these steps has actually increased my ease and comfort – it decreases the guilt and feeling of responsibility that comes with noticing my power. [N.B. I’m not trying to say that you should take these steps because they’ll make you feel better about yourself. There are much bigger and more important things at stake in my behaviour as an ally than my feelings. I’m just trying to show how the loss of power and benefit can have some good byproducts too.]
I also want to acknowledge the role that my own tendency towards feelings of guilt and responsibility play in my taking these things seriously. For me, those feelings have a lot to do with what society has taught me about being a woman. It’s a pattern I’ve noticed, that activism women tend to be better at taking on criticisms, suggestions and ideas about their own power and privilege than activist men do. So that doesn’t mean that women are pathological or masochistic or shouldn’t take these things on board. Instead, the responsibility is on men, and anyone else who’s not taking these things on board as seriously, to pull their weight. And if we spot them doing otherwise, then we can use what power and privilege we do have to hold them accountable.
Understanding that ally-etiquette is about transferring power can also make life easier for us, because it explains why those rules feel difficult and disempowering. It’s a way to channel our energy into truly supporting and empowering those you work with, rather than in being confused or beating ourselves up because we don’t feel like a good happy ally.