Lift your gaze from “SLM” scrawled on the pavement to the people mulling about Telegraph Avenue. Think of Philando Castile — it has been almost one year since his death and one week since the officer that shot him was acquitted. Think of Pride — it exists in multiplicity as an emotional concept, as the month that is meant to celebrate it, as a product of a violent history. Think of your place in our sociopolitical state and its future — it is necessarily uncertain and violent, no matter which side you are standing on. Consider the crowds of strangers and peers always flowing through these Berkeley streets. How are they reacting?
Do they position themselves away, intellectually uplifted in their apoliticism and “objectivity?” Do they craft multi-paragraph Facebook polemics resisting some disgrace done by (insert group here; suggestions include “racist Trump supporters,” “liberal cucks,” “The Right™,” and so on)? Perhaps it is not just social media on which their crusade is carried out, but on the streets, wearing merchandise that shows support for some cause? There are many discussions we can – and should – have about the orientations that have arisen from these tensions underscoring our social, political and economic climate. Many of them are riddled with inconsistent positioning that is annoying at best and dangerous at worst but one phenomena in particular stands out in the wake of Pride: allyship.
Those who take on certain positions against injustice are known as “allies” — defined as members of non-marginalized groups who use their relative privileges to advocate for marginalized people. The processes by which marginalization occurs — institutional exclusion, “otherization,” dehumanization and segregation being only a few — leave these communities at a disadvantage with regards to resources. These communities develop solutions to social ills without assistance, but the products of this work may be exponentially increased if allies use their access to resources and certain social and political spaces to directly supplement such movements.
Many allies conceptualize their political orientation as an identity rather than an operative framework of intersectionality and solidarity. The concept of ally-as-identity comes as no surprise, given that the word “ally” has been rising in use since the late ‘90s, thanks to the popularization of the associated rhetoric by LGBTQ+ groups and intellectuals. Performative allyship is not simply the culmination of inadequate, ineffective or misguided beliefs. It is an apparatus of self-aggrandizing that posits the ally, not the marginalized group, as central to any movement, discussion or instance of oppression. It diminishes the structural and enduring facets of marginalization to individual experiences of prejudice that can be “fixed” on a case-by-case basis. This ally prioritizes the accumulation of cultural capital over the prospect of change.
In short, the performative ally wears the safety-pin, buys a “FCK H8” sticker, films themselves wearing a hijab for a day and wears the pink beanie for the sole reason that we may all bask in the light of their morally astute politics.
Privilege has become a dirty word. It is not a meaningless SJW pejorative — it’s a substantiated analytic concept with a history that predates the polarized internet fights that have made the term mainstream. “Oppressed” and “privileged” are not diametrically opposed. Each individual is constituted by a variety of relations to various social positions including race and ethnicity, sexuality, class, nationality and citizenship, gender, and health and ability. It is in vogue to set hard and fast delineations of oppressed groups, homogenizing experiences and pitting these now unidimensional groups against one another. You may have heard this referred to as “oppression Olympics.”
This decontextualization of oppressive structures has created the perfect foundation for the ally to thrive. Here, they can position themselves as a direct recipient of whatever oppression some faces, regardless of their experience with it. The marginalized group becomes a prop for this individual’s “journey” — they see, for the first time, the evils of the world. How do we, the oppressed, handle it? They must be our voice — as if this perceived silence means we have ever been voiceless.
White abolitionist writers created literature that co-opted the imagery of slavery and freedom from Black writers to illuminate their spiritual journey to personal liberation while refusing to write with, publish the works of, or even name former slaves whose lives became the background of their performance. Early feminists who wrote fervently of racial stratification (often as metaphor for the marginalization of women) excluded women of color from their organizing because ultimately, their race precluded their womanhood. Progressive academics discuss micro-inequities around disabled bodies in a lecture hall that is inaccessible to those with mobility aids. A group of young male leftists sit in a café discussing the problem of gender inequality and various prejudices with a trans woman and activist who is interrupted every time she tries to speak. Wells Fargo celebrates queer couples in advertisements while funding the destruction of indigenous land. Mic names the Babadook an “LGBTQ+ icon” while Miss Major — one of the mothers of our movement — is still struggling to pay for basic living expenses and has her name wiped from our history.
Our frustration, our exclusion, our pain and our deaths are made into an object no larger than your palm to be fixed on the front of your T-shirt.
Allyship is an uncomfortable and continual process, not an identity. It is standing witness to, and being an accomplice of, the fight against oppression by those who have been left without recourse or reprieve. Replace your performative guilt with dynamic self-criticism and leave no tendril of institutional prejudice around you uninterrogated. Do not expect us to thank you for this hardship — we have been doing this for decades (centuries, even). This may be your political experiment, but this is our survival.
Jack is a third-year transfer student at UC Berkeley. Their research focuses on ethnic studies, gender studies, rhetoric and neuroscience.