Allies Are Trying… Very Trying

It’s dynamic, language and how it shapes how we do life. Back not so long ago, the word “Ally” had power. It stepped away from the idea that members of subordinated[i] groups (those from whom rights have been taken) needed rescuing by members of the dominating groups (those who took the rights), and toward the idea that members of the dominating groups ought to follow the lead of subordinated peoples by standing with and not for them. Then we lived inside that story long enough for two things to happen.

First, we started teasing out what this idea means, such as shifting from using it as a noun (to be an ally) to understanding it as a verb (allyship as a thing we do) or as a relationship. Second, our larger shared story asserted its relationship-shaping power and the word became (in some circles) mildly scornful, as in “ally performance” for when people aim to look right but not do right.

There is a Code Switch podcast which explores these concepts of ally and allyship. Like all their work, it is informative and deep and thought provoking and explores multiple perspectives. For some of the show’s guests, the concept of ally assumes inherent problems, like allyship is based on sympathy not empathy, or that allyship is “done to” a group/people, or that it requires compromises of the people “receiving the allyship”, or that allyship assumes that what is good for me is not good for you.

Seeking a better word for better action, some of us used “accomplice” to try to draw closer to expressing the action of challenging one’s own privilege in service of moving toward humanity-based justice. I haven’t heard it used in many places, and expect there are other words for this idea. I also expect that, with time, we’ll be back to the Ally problem for all these terms, that whatever language we use will eventually reflect dominant group blind spots and subordinated group frustration and we’ll be here once more, critical of people who do allyship wrong and our imperfect language.

The thing is, we really do need what that original version of Ally aspired to… that people given disproportionate access to resources work as real partners with those that access was taken from. I don’t know if we’ll ever settle on a word for it, but here is what I think it looks like:

  • Dominating groups will always include people who want to contribute to creating a fairer world.
  • When we members of dominating groups try to be part of the solution, many of us are going to start out in (or fall back into) the patterns that say we’re in charge. We can educate ourselves out of some of this, but it’s pretty much a chronic condition. This is our responsibility to handle.
  • Foundational principles include: That what we do is more important than what we say we believe; That we are likely to mess up sometimes; That people who point this out to us are doing us a favor; That sometimes we need to center our experience (e.g. whiteness when talking about racial identity) so we can learn how this stuff works, but it should not be centered otherwise; That we are harmed by socially unjust patterns, but people in subordinated groups are wounded and killed by those patterns so their needs come first; That we don’t know much about the lives of people in subordinated groups and should believe them when they tell us.
  • Finally, we should try until we do and not retreat when we get critiqued for trying wrong.

As my friends and I say, if this work were easy, it would already be done. And I am sorry for all the times our trying is … very trying.

[i] These issues of oppressing/oppressed groups are important in many forms of identity and always lead to language that is clunky and incomplete. Henry Louis Gates uses Dominant and Subordinated and that seems a good a model as any.

Author: Aron DiBacco

Aron thinks about conflict, communication, and how to help move the world in the direction of inclusive equity. She does these things through teaching, facilitating dialogue, social science research, and writing.

5 thoughts on “Allies Are Trying… Very Trying”

  1. So often it’s not the words, but tension created in the words as a result of misunderstanding or misusing what they stand for in offensive ways. But yes, “ally” is a word in disrepair at this time. Some anti-racist feminists I heard at a conference last fall introduced me to the language of “being in co-struggle”. I immediately started using co-struggle in my classrooms when introducing (and less often reinforcing) to students that they are empowered to enter into the struggles of communities to which they have no direct belonging. There’s no easy “noun” for this idea, which maybe is a good thing, no place to rest in identity (as in “I’m an ally”) for those with whichever form of social privilege. Just last week I used an analogy I wished I hadn’t when advocating for a feminist policy on my campus and suffered the self recrimination of it afterwards, finally letting go of my embarrassment days later, realizing I couldn’t go back and “fix” my wording but making of the mistake a reminde, again, that we can do better, we must do better, we will do better. Unlearning whiteness is a lifelong commitment and humility is key. Of these both, I am sure. But I like the langauge of co-struggle.


  2. I’m a little confused these days as I recently had a leader, a minister from the black community say that Racism affects People of Color but it is done by whites and whites have to fix it, however in the activist community so many say that whites can’t lead actions and shouldn’t hold events like Black Lives Matter, it makes it very difficult to act.


    1. My stance is that we (white people) need to take direction from leadership of color (including what messages to put out at the events) and — when we can — put our resources, reputations, and bodies between POC and those who would harm them. Also, after some self education, talk to other white people about why you think these issues matter to all of us, why “all lives matter” diminishes the need to pay attention to the casual erasure of Black lives, and why people with no options left might resort to violent resistance. (or whatever issues come up in your circles.)

      Good books to start that self-education with are “so you want to talk about race” (Oluo) “waking up white” (irving), and “white fragility” (diangelo).

      I will also add that I would not want to do this work without my cohort of other white people who also center this work in their lives. Find yours. Make time to meet with them. Come to love them. Though we are not the targets of racism and do not experience its most persistent and brutal blows, we are harmed in ways it is useful to unpack with each other and (more important) to reflect back to each other how we might be creating and sustaining the very patterns we want to end.

      Thanks for reading and for caring.


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