The Revolution Glossary is our new series where we dive deeper into words which are part of the conversations about justice happening around all of us. The goal of this series is to provide a resource for people who want to expand their vocabulary around social justice topics, or people who want extra context and perspective on their word choices. Our hope is that this series can spark some important discussions, and help people jump into those discussions with enthusiasm.
We’re diving right into our Revolution Glossary with the word “ally,” a word which often lands differently than intended. Broadly, allyship is when a person with a dominant identity acts to counteract the oppression which gives power to their group and takes it away from a marginalized group. The first social justice related instances of the term ally probably referred to straight people in movements for LGBTQIA+ rights in the 70s. But in recent years ally has become a widely used and debated term.
Within the idea of “allyship” lies a bigger question. What role should people with dominant identities play in movements for the liberation of oppressed people? Oppressed people often disagree. In the present day activists have called for white people looking to take action on racial justice to redistribute their resources, use their bodies to protect the lives of Black people, and intentionally redirect focus towards the voices of Black people and other people of color. If a white person does all of these things, can they then claim the title of ally?
The obvious danger here is that regardless of the changes any individual person makes, racial inequity and colonialism aren’t math problems that can be solved by a simple transaction. A person with a dominant identity can go to great lengths to untangle themselves from one part of their privilege while still benefiting from it in other ways. And can a donation — or attending a protest — undo every microaggression, biased decision, or moment of privilege that person has experienced? Obviously not, but it’s easy to see how a privileged person might want to think so. There’s no way to make up for being racist or benefiting from racism, but when activists for racial justice put out calls like the ones above, they often report being inundated by white people who are looking for absolution. For that reason, many activists and advocates have decided that the term ally and the concept of allyship do more harm than good, and that they can accept help from people with dominant identities without giving them a specific title.
Other terms have arisen as potential replacements. “Co-struggling” emphasizes that everyone who organizes against oppression has to commit to a constant personal struggle, and that charity and pity are unhelpful lenses. “Accomplices” emphasizes that people with dominant identities should try to support an effort rather than lead it, but people in criminalized communities have sometimes pushed back against appropriating justice system language. And other people are fine to stick with the term ally, not necessarily as a title any person can claim, but as a goal to strive toward.
Whether or not you, dear reader, should call yourself an ally probably depends on context, and whether the people you’re talking to feel okay with you using that language. Either way, knowing a bit about the term’s history and controversy will help you use it better in conversation, and understand the debate around it.