Ethos of the Ally: Deference, Dialogue, and Distance
Revised: March 2, 2015
I have been asked many times to write about what it means to be an ‘ally’ or work in solidarity with marginalized groups. I am not fond of the term ‘ally’, nor do I think a ‘rule-book’ for aligning oneself with marginalized groups is a good idea. And so I have always declined and referred to what has already been written on the topic by those who have more relevant insight and experience. I won’t rehearse what these activists and writers have already brought to light. There are many common themes running through the various accounts, but where the prescriptions appear to be in tension with each other I have nothing to add other than my commitment to critically engage with them.
This is one of the biggest responsibilities of someone who wishes to do anti-oppression work: to think critically about the diversity and disagreement that naturally occurs within and between groups, and to make judgements about how to proceed given the inevitability of those disagreements. It is inevitable that someone in a group with whom you work in solidarity will ask you to be silent. It is also inevitable that others will ask you to speak up. The worst thing one can do is let a diversity of perspectives paralyze you intellectually or physically, rendering you unable to do the work. Many simply walk away from the role because they assume disagreement within a marginalized group signals some kind of unreadiness. I think this is a complete mischaracterization of diversity, as I shall explain further. But for now, let us turn to perhaps the most common strategy that allies employ in the face of diversity: uncritical deference.
Outside of deserting marginalized peoples, the second worst thing allies do is overcome their diversity-induced paralysis by abdicating agency altogether. It is very common that a prospective ally will avoid the tensions and risks that come with engaging disagreements by transferring their responsibility for thinking and judgement to a particular faction or member of a marginalized group. By positioning themselves as a deferential subordinate rather than as someone who is accountable, they lessen the probability of screwing-up and getting called out. If they do get called out, they find some refuge in having been co-signed by a different member.
The strategy of renouncing one’s agency and deferring accountability is itself an egregious exercise of privilege, not to mention an insult to marginalized groups who continue to have their own agency distorted or denied. The luxury of suspending critical thinking and judgement, given that the groups to which we are committed still struggle against the institutional suppression of their critical capacities, is a slight against them. Retreating into a privileged silence the first time someone tells you to be quiet is an affront to the principle of accountability and responsibility that marks out anti-oppression work. In short, inverting a personal structure of dominance to produce a structure of deference is just another patronizing failure to treat members of the marginalized group as full human beings.
Moreover, if you assume upon being “called out” by an individual or group of individuals within a marginalized group that an entire group has spoken, you have made the colonial move of erasing the diversity that exists within that group. To homogenize the views of a group with whom you work in solidarity is not an exercise in solidarity.
Of course, in many if not a majority of times deference will be the appropriate decision. But the judgement of when it is appropriate to defer cannot itself be deferred. To defer judgement indefinitely is to demand that one’s hand be held indefinitely, which is to debase those whose hands are already occupied with all the heavy lifting. The paralyzing fear of disagreement, of being called out, cannot be an excuse for perpetual unqualified agreement with whatever critique is cast.
Recognizing one’s role seems to entail an acknowledgment that domination and uncritical deference are two sides of the same privileged coin. Both allow members of the dominant community to recline, at ease in their privilege. Both permit the “ally” to abjure the risks involved in taking up the work of critical engagement.
Dialogue (and Choosing to Defer)
Once we recognise the dual dominance/deference strategies of privilege, we are in a better position to understand why it is one’s responsibility to actively engage with an inevitable diversity of perspectives. Dominance and deference are not our only two options. So it must be stressed that when one chooses not to defer on an issue it is not necessarily because they will dominate. To conceive of the absence of deference as a form of domination is to play into a false dichotomy that precludes the possibility of recognizing marginalized peoples as full human beings. Uncritical deference trades the self-assumed infallibility of white hetero-patriarchal privilege for a new projected mythos of ‘noble savage’ or ‘magical negro’ infallibility. Both eliminate the possibility of respectful disagreement.
Disagreement is not a sign of unreadiness. Indeed, respectful disagreement itself presupposes an acknowledgment of mutual worth; it entails a recognition of the other as someone who has a perspective of value – someone whose thoughts warrant evaluation. The marginalized group is neither above nor below the judgement. To have a dialogue across difference that results in respectful disagreement is a prefigurative practice; that is, it is precisely the healthy outcome that we are trying to promote in opposition to the pathological erasure of diversity. In this sense, respectful disagreement is the marker of readiness.
One very important note: Dialogue must be distinguished here from decision-making. Although it is the responsibility those in positions of privilege to participate in conceptual and theoretical discussions and debates, they do not participate in decision-making. Taking a role as a decision-maker violates the principle of mutual autonomy.
It should also be noted that just as the member of the subordinated group has perspectives and understandings of relations of domination that remain inaccessible to those in positions of privilege by virtue of her lived experience, so too does being in a position of privilege afford perspectives and understandings that are inaccessible to others. The difference is that having privilege means never having to interrogate those experiences. When an ally does do the work of interrogating relations of domination from the internal perspective of the dominant, their findings become important contributions to critical dialogue.
Maintaining mutual autonomy is important because there are many times when a group will reject dialogue with members of privileged society. Like the exclusive black and feminist enclaves that emerged in the early 20th century, certain spaces must be secured from the constraining and distorting influence of dominant perspectives. These spaces are exclusive and private, not public. In these situations, it is the responsibility of those in positions of privilege to respect the autonomy of the group by maintaining their own autonomy. This means working toward the aims of liberation in the absence of dialogue. It means working even when no one is watching. Allies struggle against oppression because it is oppression, not because they are being encouraged or monitored.
Allyship as a Practice
In this respect, allyship is a practice rather than a designation. One can struggle against patriarchy in ways that are not public or visible, as when straight men subvert the hetero-patriarchal norms inherited in their families. These men could be called allies of feminism despite the absence of a label. Conversely, a white woman can be very public in voicing her opposition to racism – and may be called an ally by those she supports – all while engaging in less visible but still very damaging racialized exclusions.
Our performances are always better or worse, of course. The contribution of people in positions of privilege exists on a spectrum; it is not an on/off switch. And so whether or not one has been designated an ally at some point by a marginalized group matters less than if one is actually engaged autonomously (as opposed to only when people are watching) in practices of anti-racism, anti-sexism, etc.
Solidarity as Intersectional
Lastly, I would like to add that if anti-oppression work is indeed a critical practice in which one does not defer thinking to any one member, faction, or group, then it follows that allyship is also inherently intersectional. Intersectional approaches aim at the most inclusive account of how identities and patterns of domination manifest. The work is far from easy and requires a great deal of dialogue and critical engagement. Allies don’t restrict their critical work to, for instance, just anti-blackness, racism, sexism, or colonialism. Critiques of racism will reflect a critical awareness of its relationship to colonialism and visa versa. Conversely, those who play it safe by chosing to remain aligned to a single issue or to a marginally inclusive intersectional enclave will incur very few risks. For instance, much of anti-oppression work takes an intersectional approach within which anti-colonial considerations are either weak or an after-thought. Hence, they do not have to deal with the ways that anti-colonialism bears on and in some ways problematizes the work of, say, anti-racism.
There is still serious disagreement within and between intersectional approaches, but committed people do not shy away from the conversation. Members of dominant society are imbricated in manifold overlapping relations of power. It is their responsibility to dig as deep as possible, even though this may result in friction between them and fellow allies and the groups with which they are aligned.
People in positions of privilege who do anti-oppression work do not become paralyzed by disagreement and then abandon marginalized peoples. Nor do they uncritically defer the hard work of thinking and acting to marginalized peoples. Rather, they engage in critical dialogue based on their own lived experience. This often results in a decision to defer but it sometimes leads to respectful disagreement. They cannot make decisions for others. They are always prepared to undertake the work of critical thinking and acting autonomously, especially when the groups to whom they are committed require an autonomous space.
In closing I would just like to reiterate that these comments are not meant to serve as some kind of ally ‘rule book’, but rather as meditations on the ethos of an “ally” that might help others think through their roles and responsibilities. To that end, I intend these comments to corroborate and elaborate on what has already been written and to serve as a compliment to the work on solidarity work that already exists. I encourage you to read anything you can get your hands on.