I'm Not Your Ally: The Problem of Ally-As-Identity

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When my parents were naming their children, they ran into a few problems. They wanted names that fit with our last name, and since Mom refused to let the family name “Oscar” appear anywhere near her children, they limited their search to Biblical names. But, they were also both teachers, which meant they had come across A LOT of kids with names that they were considering. Some of those kids tainted those names – Mom and Dad knew that if they named their children the same thing as an awful student in their class, they’d have trouble divorcing the name from that personality.

This is why my brother's name is spelled with a "c" instead of the more common "k."

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to the word “ally.” It’s a word that’s becoming tainted to me because so many people who use it don’t understand the implications of declaring “I’m your ally.” It’s taken on such a sour taste in my mouth that I refrain from saying the word when I can, refusing to give the impression that I think of “ally” as a type of identity. In other words, the jerks have ruined it for all of us.

Melissa McEwan at Shakesville explains this concept better than I ever could, but I’m going to have a crack at it nonetheless (though you should definitely go read her post!).

“Ally” as an identity – as a label you declare for yourself – is problematic because it centers you and your privileged identities within a discussion that should center marginalized folk.* It is the inability to set aside the limits of your own experience in order to listen to others. This is a problem that plagues identity labels of all sorts – “I am Christian, therefore I must respond to a situation this way,” which leads to people trying to guess what religious platitudes people want to hear rather than actually listening. “I am a woman, therefore I like X,” which leads people to condemn those who do not like those things or measure up to their centered identity of womanhood.

As a result, it’s incredibly easy to leap from owning the identity or label to refusing to let anyone challenge that label – even people in the group one is supposedly helping. Because we have made the identity and not the action the most important, challenges to the label become even more threatening. There is a self-soothing aspect of being able to assure yourself you are helping because you’ve declared yourself an “ally.”

“I’m LGBT-positive,” you might declare, “I don’t think it’s a sin!” Which is all well and good, but it only goes part of the way. What are you doing to actively center LGBT discussions of theology? Where’s the line of rights you support (and there is ALWAYS a line)? It’s one thing to declare yourself an ally; it’s another thing to actually taken actions to do ally work. And, I’ve experienced, most of those who want the label of ally? Don’t want to take the steps to de-center themselves from the conversation and shut up once in awhile.

The way that “ally” has been treated throughout modern progressive discussion has lowered the bar for what people consider an ally – simply because ally-as-identity has become so pervasive. I am continually coming across able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual white men who think I should accept their sexist behavior simply because they’ve supported women’s rights in the past. One man, Thursday night on Twitter, even declared that he had donated $100 to Wendy Davis for Governor, and therefore couldn’t POSSIBLY be a sexist. Later in the “discussion,” he declared that I had lost the movement a good ally.

This is what ally-as-identity does. The centering of your own privilege becomes so important that you think a movement cannot possibly survive without your essential leadership and ally-behavior. Naturally, this view negates completely that the very basic fact that, as an ally, you are not essential because it is not your fight. This doesn’t mean that we just leave marginalized groups hanging, but that we recognize marginalization as an area in which our privileged asses are not the center of the universe. When I talk about feminist issues and female-created works, I don’t need a man to come in and validate it for me.

Marginalized people can and do exist outside of the gaze of the ally, a fact which “ally-as-identity” denies. Therefore, the first step in being an ally is to drop your deathgrip on the idea of ally status. It is a process, it is work, and it requires trust, patience, and most of all, a willingness to shut up and listen.

So, no, I’m not your ally. But I am here to listen, if you want me to.

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*"Centering" language is thanks to h00die_R of Political Jesus.