Allies, Actors, and Activists
4 ways coalition work is more effective and less obnoxious than ally theater
Posted Aug 10, 2016
Ally activism is nothing new in the world of social movements, but a particular type of ally performance has insinuated itself into present-day activist discourse, especially on social media. An ally is someone from a dominant group working on efforts that seek to dismantle the form of privilege they receive. Allies are all over social media: white people supporting Black Lives Matter, straight and cis folk supporting LGBTQ rights, men acknowledging the existence of rape culture. Obviously allies are better than oppressors, and ally hearts generally are in the right place. Moreover, ally status may be an important and inspiring starting point in the early stages of social justice work for activists first grappling with their privileges. At the same time, the underlying assumptions of claiming "ally" as an identity can limit and stifle the potential for lasting change.
As an identity marker, "ally" becomes a description of who someone is (or imagines they are), rather than what they do. That’s a problem because when it comes to social change, the work you do is far more important than who you think you are. If your social justice profile crumbles when you can't use the term ally, then you might be stuck in the Ally Identity and that identity has no substance. If you can't work without that label, then maybe you aren’t really doing any useful work.
Second, wearing "ally" as an identity can easily slip into a performance. Princess Harmony Rodriguez refers to this dynamic as “Ally Theater,” part of what Indigenous Action Media calls the “Ally Industrial Complex.” The concern here is when activism is limited to performing an identity for an audience of disadvantaged folk rather than doing the hard and often unseen work of social change. To get out of the surface-level ally theater loop, white people need to challenge other whites about racism (even when no one else is watching). Straight and cis people need to confront other straight and cis people on their assumptions about gender and sexuality. Challenging people in your own community is one of the most important and difficult tasks of allies and one that is (or should be) largely invisible to people who are marginalized. You gotta be willing to do the work even when the work is invisible and even when you risk alienation from your own community.
A third problem with "ally" arises when activists get divided into dominant-group allies and subordinate-group people-who-need-help. This framework reduces complicated relationships and social positions to a simplistic and inaccurate static binary. In fact, we all carry multiple identities as we navigate the world and our activism. Most of us are simultaneously in some privileged and some targeted positions--you might be a cis woman of color, or a white man with a physical disability. The binary construction of ally-and-other can slide into the implication that the work of well-meaning people in the dominant group is uniquely valuable to the helpless activists in the targeted group. As Benjamin Dixon says, allies aren’t heroes, they’re sidekicks.
Finally, the use of the term "ally" has shifted over time from a descriptor other activists might use about you to something more self-serving and narcissistic, something you call yourself: “As an ally, I . . . ” Declaring yourself an ally distinguishes you from other people in your own group (“I’m white, but I’m one of the good ones”), and also sets you apart from the activists you are attempting to work with. Declaring yourself an ally centers your dominant and privileged status and, unintentionally, can become an othering gesture. For instance, some straight people exhibit their support for the queer community with “Straight but not narrow” t-shirts and buttons. While we can appreciate the sentiment of support offered by such a gesture, especially when straight support of queer people involves risk, the straight-but-narrow frame also declares, I’m not one of them, but I support them. Such self-labeling allows you to showcase your support of a group targeted for violence while simultaneously keeping yourself separate and away from peril.
We propose an alternative framing of social justice work that de-centers "ally" and instead brings into focus more complexity, more action, and less posing. Instead of ally-as-identity or ally-as-performance, we would like to shift the focus to a more productive frame for understanding the role of activists who work across differences: Coalition building.
Coalition work focuses less on individual identity and more on the work that different groups engage in to struggle collectively for social change. Whereas you can call yourself an ally alone in a room (or retweeting yourself on Twitter), you do coalition work only by engaging with people different from yourself. And such work is inherently challenging and risky. As Bernice Johnson Reagon says, "Most of the time you feel threatened to the core and if you don’t, you’re not really doing no coalescing."
Rather than a simplistic binary, coalition work is inherently intersectional. Unlike ally, coalition makes visible complex (and fraught) activism and movement-building among activists in various social positions. The top of the power structure does well when the 99% fractures and fails to form progressive alliances. We can chart different historical moments when coalition work among marginalized groups panicked the elite who then furiously deployed divisive tactics to keep those groups fragmented along various lines (particularly racial). And we can chart historical and contemporary moments when marginalized groups forged ways to create coalitions instead of falling into the horizontal hostility that serves the elite. For instance, Blacks and landless whites came together in Bacon's Rebellion in the 1600s. This early coalition so alarmed the governing elite that they responded with everything from state violence to new laws to keep Blacks and poor whites in their proper places, as Pem Davidson Buck and Michelle Alexander have analyzed so well. Latinos and Filipinos built alliances to fight for farmworkers' rights in the 1965 Delano grape strike that helped lead to the forming of the United Farm Workers. Today people of color and working class whites can organize to fight for a living wage.
Coalition politics demands more from you than does being an ally. The hope of being called an ally is not why you do the work. You engage in the process because independent of your label, it’s important work. Coalition work is an active process, not a passive identity, and not a performance for ally points. Whereas ally theater is often both a starting point and end point, coalition work is continuous. "Some people will come to a coalition and they rate the success of the coalition on whether or not they feel good when they get there," says Bernice Johnson Reagon. "They're not looking for a coalition; they're looking for a home! They're looking for a bottle with some milk in it and a nipple, which does not happen in a coalition."
Coalition work recognizes that fighting oppression binds us together, and it's the ruling elite who benefits when we fail to forge alliances for social change. Those who aren't immediately targeted by a certain form of oppression or discrimination might think they can be on the sidelines until someone makes it worth their while to get involved. But whites shouldn’t have to wait for a person of color to say that police violence is wrong, men shouldn’t have to wait for a woman to say that rape culture is bad, and cis folk shouldn’t have to wait for a trans person to tell them that “bathroom bills” are dehumanizing. As activists who engage in coalition politics, we should be motivated by broader principles of justice, liberation, and resistance. Coalition work then is riskier. We’ll make mistakes. But working for liberation requires courage.
By Kristin J. Anderson and Christina Accomando
Kristin J. Anderson is Professor of Psychology at the Center for Critical Race Studies at the University of Houston-Downtown. She is the author of Modern Misogyny: Anti-Feminism in a Post-Feminist Era (Oxford 2015).
Christina Accomando is Professor of Critical Race, Gender and Sexuality Studies and English at Humboldt State University. She is the author of “The Regulations of Robbers”: Legal Fictions of Slavery and Resistance (Ohio State University 2001).