Four Pitfalls of the Ally
Lessons from Psychology Research on Activism
Posted Feb 02, 2018
In this time of major political upheaval and consciousness, many people are identifying as allies to various groups to show solidarity and support. But the well-intentioned ally may make a number of missteps, as seen in my article with Konjit Page, “Evaluating the Ally Role” (Mizock & Page, 2016). What are the potential limitations that can come from calling oneself “ally”? Below I sum up some of our major findings.
1. Hero-victim narrative. Among the biggest problems with the ally role is that it might contribute to a narrative where allies are cast as “heroes” to helpless “victims.” The ally role can miss some of the harm oppression poses to dominant group members who benefit from toxic social structures that create disparity.
2. Pseudo-allies and hidden agendas. Another of the most central issues with the ally role is the problem of pseudo-allies. These folks align themselves with a group mostly to benefit from the secondary gain of social desirability. That is, they get to be seen as sympathetic to a cause, without making a substantive contribution.
3. Role confusion. Role confusion could occur for an ally doing activism solely on behalf of another group. Yamato (1990) encouraged white allies in particular to "work on racism for your sake, not their sake" (p. 423). Social psychology research has demonstrated that aligning oneself with an internal mission to end injustice is vital to engaging in effective social change and clarifying one’s role.
4. Overlooking intersectionality. We have multiple identities within us, and each might carry varying levels of privilege or oppression that shift over time. For example, a gay, white man may experience social advantages associated with his gender and race, but also experience stigma surrounding his sexual orientation. You can be a member of a dominant group and a marginalized group at the same time. But the ally position can fail to capture the complexity of intersectionality in identity, where one might not fall neatly into either an ally or oppressed group.
Considering all of those challenges, you might choose a name other than ally. Some prefer terms like accomplice, activist, advocate, solidarity worker, womanist, feminist, or community collaborator. Or you might shirk labels altogether and focus instead on describing your mission, values, or efforts to make social change. Regardless of how you “language” your self and your political work, it is critical to avoid reenacting the disempowering dynamics of oppression in activist settings by maintaining awareness of your privilege and power.
Mizock, L., & Page, K. (2016). Evaluating the ally role: Social justice and collective action in counseling and psychology. Journal for Social Action in Counseling and Psychology, 8(1), 17-33.
Yamato, G. (1990). Something about the subject makes it hard to name. In G. Anzaldua (Ed.). Making face, making soul, Creative and critical perspectives by women of color (pp. 20-24). San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Foundation Book.