Ally Versus Allyship
In writing this section on allyship for the activist toolkit, I must admit that I struggle in defining my status within feminism. The reason is because I have continuously struggled with one question; can men be feminists? Although I readily claim to subscribe to feminist theories and ideals, I have often questioned whether I am feminist, a feminist ally, or simply a person who believes in feminism as an analytical tool. The following section is my own personal reflection of why I have struggled with my identity within feminism. My purpose of writing this personal narrative is not to lay out some hard and fast rules of what constitutes allyship, but instead try to practice some reflexivity about my positionality and how it relates to feminism. By doing so, I hope to encourage you as a reader to question your own positionality and be self-reflexive on how you relate to communities that are different than your own. Returning to the question of can men be feminists, I recognize that claiming to be a feminist might be a good thing since there exists a large stigma around what feminist are and what they want. That said, by embracing a feminist identity, I can make the claim that “This is what a feminist looks like,” and in doing so work to combat stigma. However, in my experience, claiming to be a feminist has not significantly challenged the stigma that surrounds feminism mainly because of the politics of my location. I am a middle class cisgender male who can pass for being white and straight. So when I claim to be a feminist, people who I come into contact with applaud me and give me praise for being an exceptional or “Special” kind of man. In contrast, friends of mine who identify as women, trans*, or genderqueer are often questioned about who they are and what they believe in when they identify as feminists. These questions often try and find a specific identity, belief or thought that can be used to explain and pathologize as to why a person is a feminist. Since I have never experienced this stigma, can I really believe that I am challenging the stigma of feminism by claiming to be a feminist?
If I am not a feminist, then what am I? For a while I identified as a feminist ally; someone who could not identify as a feminist but who believes in and desires equality between people of differing identities. This idea was informed by people who claim to be allies to the LGBTQ movement but as my feminism studies continued, as I came into contact with groups such as Black Girl Dangerous and the critiques of allyship by people like Jay Dodd, I began to see that being an ally is not an identity that can be claimed. Instead allyship should be seen as a lifestyle commitment that is signified by the acts that we commit, and the acts that we fail to do. In my own experience, I have challenged friends assumptions and beliefs about gender and other identities from time to time, but in truth I do not have much experience in activism or community organizing. For this reason, I don’t think I am a good example of a feminist ally yet, and I currently define myself as a student of feminism who believes in feminism as an analytical tool. With all of that said, the next section intends to discuss what it means to be an ally vs what it means to practice allyship and how we can apply these understandings to shape our activism.
The useful but incomplete guide to allyship
To start, here are some resources that discuss what being an ally should and should not be.
How to better practice allyship
- shutting up and listening
- educating yourself (you could start with the thousands of books and websites that already exist and are chock full of damn near everything anyone needs to know about most systems and practices of oppression)
- when it’s time to talk, not talking over the people you claim to be in solidarity with
- accepting feedback/criticism about how your “allyship” is causing more harm than good without whitesplaining/mansplaining/whateversplaining
- shutting up and listening some more
- supporting groups, projects, orgs, etc. run by and for marginalized people so our voices get to be the loudest on the issues that effect us
- not expecting marginalized people to provide emotional labor for you
In truth, the first resource is most likely the easiest to accept because this resource talks in a very objective tone when laying out the guidelines of how to be an ally. However, even though this resource seems inviting and does have some good points, the first resource does have some flaws that can be improved upon with points from the work of Mia McKenzie. To begin, some of the points that I find particularly useful is to allow yourself to make mistakes and to not allow this fear of making mistakes paralyze your activism. This is useful is because activists such as Allison M. Attenello who wrote about their experiences in the book Leading the Way reflected on how at times they felt paralyzed by their privilege and desire to not make mistakes which resulted in feeling little was accomplished. While it is important to forgive ourselves for the mistakes that we do commit, one equally important decision is to try and minimize the harm that we may unknowingly commit by being in conversation with groups and communities that we are speaking about. At the same time, when we do make mistakes as we are all destined to do, it is important that we work on correcting these mistakes by apologizing, learning some new lessons on what not to do and most importantly listening to the critiques of what we have done wrong.
Refocusing on the first resource, one of the concerns that needs to be raised about this resources is that this resource places too much emphasis on what an ally can do by themselves to challenge stop oppression. This can be seen in statements such as “Knows that it is your responsibility to fight oppression whether or not the persons in target choose to respond.” The problem with this statement is that by in believing that it is our job to speak on behalf of other communities, we become much more likely to make mistakes. Examples of these mistakes be seen in the work of Jessie-Lane Metz’s article Ally-phobia, where she discusses of how well meaning individuals can do a lot of harm to communities. One case example that was offered in Metz’s article was a critique of the famous piece by Peggy McIngtosh on white privilege and how the article in centers itself around the experience of white people instead of the experiences of people of color. As Metz points out, by centering others oppressions around ourselves, or trying to relate our experiences of oppressions to others outside of our community, there is an erasure of the lived realities of different individuals that serves to obscure the systems of oppression.
For this reason, many authors such as Mia McKenzie fed up with the ideas of ally and allyship because of these terms allow for people who are benefiting from a system to claim solidarity with a group and simultaneously perpetrate acts of oppression. This is in large part due to the fact that resources like the first communicate a message of “Only you can stop and challenge oppression.” The reality is that by believing that we should practice allyship by doing things by ourselves without the contributions of the communities that are affected, we are acting in more of a savior role than an ally role which limits how meaningfully we can challenge systemic oppressions. So what Mia McKenzie proposes is that we scrap the idea of ally and allyship and instead adopt an idea of “Currently operating in solidarity with.” The reason that Mia McKenzie proposes this language is that this phrase is an action that makes people reflect how they are showing solidarity and support for others within that moment. By shifting the language away from ally which is an identity, Mia McKenzie forces us to reflect and ask what have we currently doing to show our solidarity.
In closing, the point that I am trying to communicate is that person who is trying to demonstrate solidarity with another group should not try and give voices to the voiceless (
an expression that is often used within feminist writings). Instead, we should practice listening to other communities and asking how we can help. With all of this said, feel free to challenge and debate what being a feminist is or being and ally entails. In these debates, I encourage you to ask how your actions signify your status.
[i] Black Girl Dangerous- http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/
[iii]Mary K. Trigg. Leading the Way: Young Women’s Activism for Social Change. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010.