Updated: Jun 18, 2019
By Indira Walsh (‘19)
Our hyper-polarized world has produced higher awareness of movement work in communities that have previously been absent in the historic struggle for structural change. While many people consider how they can contribute to social justice frameworks, many place themselves into the category of “ally” without considering the resulting connotations of being tokenistic, and of doing “savior work” as opposed to “service work.”
If one is not part of the communities for which they are advocating, it is easy for them to say that they stand by and for marginalized populations as opposed to standing with them. With — a small word that, connotatively, makes all the difference.
Colleen Clemens of tolerance.org said, “For social justice advocates who use the term accomplice, they often see the site of focus as the main difference between the work of an ally and that of an accomplice. An ally will mostly engage in activism by standing with an individual or group in a marginalized community. An accomplice will focus more on dismantling the structures that oppress that individual or group—and such work will be directed by the stakeholders in the marginalized group. Simply, ally work focuses on individuals, and accomplice work focuses on the structures of decision-making agency.”
Corey Ponder, an author who focuses on building communities, spaces, and platforms based on inclusion and empathy, said that although the work of an ally is not always performative, there is more people can do when they want to contribute to advocating for justice.
He noted that being an ally has today been reduced to “short term gains we see from this “well-intentioned”, or even “self-serving” allyship. Hashtags, for instance, are powerful tools for raising broader awareness of issues, even while the retweet, like, repost, or love may not necessarily serve a purpose beyond the gratification of the sharer.” Ponder explained that “this performative and self-serving act misses the bigger goal and opportunity. Choosing to show up or speak up out of guilt, or only when you personally know the person being mistreated, is not really effective at disrupting systems designed to ignore or deny the humanity within those that may be different than us.”
His writing indicates that no matter what term is used to describe justice work, whether it be ally, advocate, or accomplice, all describe sustained action over time. When people dilute advocacy to simply having good intentions, the need for real commitment towards dismantling social and economic systems becomes muddled. This work is not about pontificating and congratulating yourself about how different you are for standing up for somebody else’s humanity.
Allyship discussions have recently been brought up as thousands of social media accounts change their profiles to a light blue color to raise awareness for Sudanese citizens. Many Sudanese people have been striking for democratic rule after President Omar al-Bashir’s power was ousted. Military leaders stepped in to run the transitional government, and though they initially agreed to civilian rule, security forces opened fire inside a Khartoum hospital and hundreds were injured or killed. The internet has been blocked in Sudan, so none of the social media activism, or "clicktivism", has been reachable to the people who need support.
Samira Mohamed, an officer of SBHS’s Amnesty International Chapter, said, “It is incredible that so many people are using their platforms and their voices to build momentum and attention on what is happening in Sudan. However, there have been people taking advantage of this humanitarian crisis by creating false accounts, such as @sudanmealproject on instagram. These accounts pretend to be nonprofits donating money towards meals in Sudan, and they ask people to like and follow their account before they donate money. Using a crisis for personal or monetary gain is horrible.”
Indigenous action networks have also commented on the commodification of allyship, and how savior complexes and exploitation are at the center of advocacy that is rooted in self-interest. In taking a deep look within one’s ascribed privilege, the Indigenous Action Network notes that building organizational capacity in “support work” is one step in a larger process leading towards something deeper.
Ponder added, “Allyship isn’t a badge to be given for single achievements. It is a skillset that acknowledges the journey we all have to go through to be better at standing up for others… Allyship with the wrong intentions or without fully grasping the work it requires over time is not allyship… the rising prominence of hashtag activism and the almost disengaged way we now treat the work… has reduced the concept of “ally” to a sideline affair, when we should really be thinking of allyship as entering a war where everyone fighting stands to gain or lose from the outcome. Allies are sharing their resources and fighting shoulder to shoulder.”
The Indigenous Action Network noted that part of the problem is that so many people are not willing to lose anything, and are not willing to stand up or tell the truth in a difficult situation, and people have to recognize that’s where change happens.