First posted on Medium.
A couple of months ago, I was part of a conversation on whether the term “ally” was outdated and didn’t go far enough in the conversation on supporting diversity and inclusion in our daily lives.
It isn’t the first time I have heard this conversation. There are dozens of think pieces out there that argue the term ally “doesn’t go far enough”, is “performative”, or “is well-intentioned”.
The problem with arguing over what the label for the behavior is…is that allyship should never have been reduced to a label in the first place.
People desiring a label, a badge, or an affirmation of their good deed miss the point, but we shouldn’t penalize the concept for that. We don’t rewrite arithmetic (+, -, x, /) because people don’t understand. We focus instead on how we teach it, and how we communicate about it.
So then, how do we explain “allyship” to someone that craves the badge without the work, wants recognition for their contribution without understanding the point behind their performance?
Allyship Is Supposed to Represent A Journey.
As being “woke”, “an ally”, and “conscious” has become hip and part of the cultural lingo, the idea of allyship seems to be becoming more of a hashtag than a series of actions.
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. True allyship moves beyond simply “supporting someone” by acknowledging someone’s hardship. It is actually about evolving and growing through knowledge about people’s experiences who are different than us and then growing with those people.
Allyship with the wrong intentions or without fully grasping the work it requires over time is not allyship. Sure — there may be 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.
But 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.
Allyship is recognizing common humanity consistently — having the difficult conversations because it is right and challenging unfair norms because they should be challenged. Whatever term you ascribe to it — ally, advocate, warrior, accomplice — they describe consistent action over time on behalf of others. Good intentions and convenient actions are not allyship or advocacy.
And eventually every one of these terms will become overused and diluted if we can’t reeducate a well-intentioned populace on what committing to these journeys require.
Allyship Is About Sharing The Burden of the Outcome.
An ally is fighting not just for someone else’s victory; they are fighting for their own. Because being an ally is about a shared investment in the outcome of the war. The definition of “ally” even incorporates concepts like “cooperation”,
“combining resources”, and “mutual benefit”.
Allies in a military sense cover everything from states sharing resources to actual boots on the ground fighting together. The term ally outside of this context has lost this imagery of commitment, probably because of the rising prominence of hashtag activism and the almost disengaged way we now treat the work. I mean, “woke” has literally become a trending label we use to highlight even the most casual expressions or acknowledgment of life’s unfairness. This slacktivism 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.
Most important, real allies know what they are fighting for and understand that they are fighting as much for themselves as they are for the people next to them on the field, because their victory on the battlefield is intertwined.
We treat ally and activist as mutually exclusive identities, when really, the terms highlight the same thing — the battle for inclusion, equality, and fairness requires a belief in common humanity and rights, the will to act, and a shared stake in the outcome.
Ally. Warrior. Advocate. Accomplice. The word we use to describe the commitment to justice is irrelevant, because they all describe the same thing — committing to a journey toward just outcomes for others as vigorously as you would if fighting for your own interests.
The label isn’t the issue — language will inevitably change and evolve over time. What is problematic is our commitment to the idea that a label needs to exist in the first place in order to know what to do and how to feel about doing it. Until we refocus on the journey itself instead of what to call it, every movement will feel like a trend. Every new term will be diluted in its potency until what once felt like a disruptive statement becomes a safe alternative to doing the hard, difficult, and scary work of standing up and speaking out when no one is forcing us to care.