Why We Need to Define “Allyship”

 Several women chant with raised fists

Following Trump’s inauguration, people across the country and around the world came together to protest the values, or lack thereof, of a man who embodies everything feminists have fought against. Social media platforms around the world expressed a range of sentiments regarding the millions of men, and mainly women, who took to the streets to stand up for all sorts of human rights issues, including LGBTQ, immigrant and women’s reproductive rights.

A photo that received a lot of attention, and a personal favorite, was of activist Angela Peoples nonchalantly sucking on a lollipop while holding a sign that read, “Don’t Forget: White Women Voted for Trump.” The photo got as much praise as it got criticism. Many women were offended by the sign and accused Peoples of encouraging further division amongst women. At the same time conservatives attacked Linda Sarsour for wearing the Muslim veil instead of the infamous hat created by The Pussyhat Project supporters. And Pussyhat supporters were criticized for being non-inclusive and for essentializing womanhood to female body parts. We all have something very important to learn from these differences at the march. We must collectively make sense of what happened and understand why many of us are currently engaging in discussions about what it really means to ally with others different than ourselves.

What is allyship?

Allyship is not an identity–it’s a lifelong process of building relationships based on our ability to support marginalized groups different than ourselves. It isn’t self-defined—as in “I am an ally.” Instead the value of our work must be defined by the people we seek to ally ourselves with or else our efforts are meaningless. It requires us to use our privilege to show support for others. Reintroducing the meaning of allyship is critical now more than ever because the well-being of millions of people depends on our ability to work in solidarity. Being in solidarity is something we can strive for, but in the end, it is the choice of those we are attempting to ally ourselves with to see us that way. More importantly, just because someone considers me an ally, doesn’t mean every person of that marginalized identity feels the same way. If we want to be supportive intersectional feminists, we must make a habit of exploring our own identities. Everyone is engaging in feminist discourse, but not everyone is doing so in a way that helps create a more forceful, collective movement.

Learn from history–beware of white feminism.

Feminist history has shown what happens when feminism isn’t intersectional, we end up creating changes for a specific group and thereby participate in the continuous oppression of other, and often more marginalized groups. Initially feminism was only for white women with white feminism being only about issues impacting white women. This inherently excludes issues facing women of color or other marginalized women. White feminism was heavily criticized during the marches and white women were appalled by the accusations made by women of color, along with trans and disabled women. Their biggest mistake wasn’t their lack of inclusivity, it was their unwillingness to listen to what other women had to say. As feminists, we are susceptible to making mistakes and being called out on things we do or say is par for the course, especially when we are trying to ally ourselves with other women whose experiences we haven’t lived. Mistakes are bound to happen, but nothing justifies refusing to acknowledge our faults. If we want to be truly intersectional we must stop centering the issues that only affect us.

Going back to the earlier case, in response to People’s sign that called out white women, Emma-Kate Symons accused marginalized groups of competing for a more oppressed status. This reasoning is deeply flawed because you can’t compete for an oppressed status–this isn’t a game. Men and women can’t choose to be oppressed, they just are. Being marginalized isn’t a choice. Marginalization exists because there are people with privilege who are unwilling to give up their power for the sake of equality. More importantly, what Symons did is a prime example of what we shouldn’t do. Too often, when allies are called out, they defend themselves by saying they’re allies and therefore would never speak in a way that oppresses others, as if calling themselves allies protects them from engaging in oppressive behaviors. 

Don’t mistake perpetuation of oppression for allyship.  

Allyship is difficult because it’s not easy to accept when you’ve engaged in the very oppressive acts you’re fighting against; however, you can’t let your fear of guilt keep you from doing the only thing that gives your allyship value, an ability to use your privilege to turn the spotlight towards the voices of those who are continuously marginalized. When we react the way Symons did, we try to escape the system of injustice and renounce our privilege. We cannot reject the oppressive system if we deny our privilege. That’s the great harm.

Although there is a fundamental difference between engaging in allyship and engaging in oppressive acts, many people fail to see the very fine line between the two. When we fail to check our privilege, we fall into the habit of speaking for, instead of with, others. This is not what allyship is supposed to look like. Being an ally is not about our own feelings or experiences, it’s about living a way of life that is inclusive of the various experiences of various identities. Forcing our own experiences and beliefs on others ultimately invalidates the very lives of others and is ultimately no different than the acts of the oppressors.

To work in solidarity with marginalized groups we must learn about their experiences and act in accordance with their cause. Together we can collectively participate in the powerful movement to resist Donald Trump. We’re all having difficulty coping with what’s happened over the last few weeks and are looking for ways to channel our grief, so we need to harness our energy to power change. To do this, we need to voice solidarity with communities that are equally, or more marginalized than ours. We must listen to what they say, make changes if necessary and thank them for making us better allies.