The Point of an ‘Ally’

The New Year always seems to bring about reflection, which is much needed after a year like 2014. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and protests against racism and police violence (and Palestine, and the gay rights movement, and many other moments of oppression) people often exclaim that they are allies to the cause, whatever cause that may be. In taking in and reflecting upon all of the race-related matters I am struck by the following common theme/question: what is the point of an ally?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an ally is “a person or organization that cooperates with or helps another in a particular activity.” Embedded in this definition is the implication of action. In simple terms, an ally must do something. Well, what is this something an ally must actually do? In December, this article circulated that may provide some guidance on this point (so poignantly so that I will not rehash it here). The Root also provided sensible guidance as to ways whites can be allies, particularly in the wake of Ferguson.

I will now turn to the first part of the definition. Putting organizations to the side (mostly because I think they tend to do a better job than people), an ally is “a person who cooperates with or helps another.” To me, this is the most important part of the definition, as an ally is someone who helps by doing. In my experience I have observed many self-proclaimed allies do many things without stopping to question whether what they are doing is in cooperation with or of help to those who they are in this supposed allegiance with. One of the things that many such allies have done is publicly proclaim (often via Facebook, Twitter, or other social media outlet) that they are an ally. This is quite the useless action from the perspective of those living the struggle who are faced with racism and systemic oppression on a daily basis.

Furthermore, I must question the need for and motivation behind such a proclamation other than to gain kudos from friends and pat yourself on the back for being ‘hip’ enough to be anti-racist or post-racial or whatever your preferred term is. If you were truly an “ally” it would also resonate in thought and deed, not just in words, and those who you are in allegiance with would already know that you are down for the cause. Furthermore, as this aptly titled NYT article restates, racial bias exists even in those with good intentions.

But here is the real problem I see with the concepts of racial allies (or many other types of allies regarding hegemonic domination and systemic oppression) in the United States. As aptly phrased by a friend in casual conversation, being an ‘ally’ to a cause allows for a person’s removal from their role in the problem and then allows them to conveniently come back in as a supporting person of the ‘other’ being taken advantage of by ‘the system’ that the ally is not a part of. This is not helping the problem, this is the problem.

So, again, I ask, what is the point of an ally? If an ally does not cooperate with or not help those being subjugated by ‘the system,’ if an ally does not acknowledge that we are all a part of the same system which has the dual role of both privileging and oppressing, and if an ally does not actively work to dismantle said system in favor of one that is truly just, then what is the point?

by Portia Allen-Kyle


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