BY SARAH WASHINGTON
Allies need to take a smaller role in the social justice movement. Currently, privileged people are taking the spotlight instead of passing the mic to those primarily affected by the actions of our current presidential administration and those who are the targets of oppression.
Allies do have a specific function to play as a support system or buffer for the marginalized. However, they are increasingly co-opting social justice movements for their own gains or social status. If one wishes to be an ally, one must perform the duties of an ally, and that involves working behind the scenes.
Allies are people from privileged backgrounds who have joined various social justice movements out of their own philanthropic tendencies rather than for personal gain. If this definition does not fit one’s form of “allyship,” then that per- son is not truly an ally. If one claims to be an ally for personal gain or for any reason other than to help amplify the voices of the oppressed, they are not truly an ally, and we should stop supporting these so-called “allies.”
“Ally” is not an identity; it is a role one chooses to perform. When someone chooses to treat their allyship as an identity, they may become unconscious of their own privilege, equating their experience as an ally to the experiences of those with marginalized identities. This phenomenon was seen frequently during the debate over whether the “A” in LGBTQIA stood for “asexual” or “ally.” Of course, for members of the LGBTQIA community, it made much more sense for the “A” to represent “asexual,” as allies are typically cisgender and heterosexual, meaning that they are not LGBTQIA by definition alone.
Straight and cisgender allies certainly play a helpful role in supporting the community, but they are not part of that community. Any sort of pushback they feel for being an ally is nothing compared to homophobia or transphobia. By internalizing their allyship as an identity, they become unconscious of their privilege and incorrectly assume that their experiences are comparable to LGBTQIA individuals’ experiences.
Since allies are typically privileged individuals, their voices are more easily heard by mainstream society. Because of this, it is much easier for allies to become the face of social justice movements. Take, for example, some of the “faces” of current social justice movements. Chances are, more people would be able to recognize celebrity allies over actual community leaders.
People would probably recognize Ryan Reynolds’ feminist leanings before recognizing Audre Lorde or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, unless they were particularly familiar with the feminist movement as a whole. The fault doesn’t lie with the person unable to recognize the true leaders. Instead, the issue lies in the system that amplifies the voices of the privileged and silences the oppressed. And sometimes, even if allies have the best intentions, they can drown out or speak over minority voices.
Since allies can sometimes become absorbed in their identity as an ally and their messages tend to be received better by the general public, their messages may not accurately reflect the movement they are trying to support. This is especially true if they get the majority of their in- formation from other allies instead of the leaders of social justice movements. This is clearly illustrated by allies who support organizations like Autism Speaks, which seeks to “cure” autism.
However, many autism activists with autism do not wish to be cured, and instead simply want society to be accepting of people with autism. Allies, who may be allies because social justice and progressive ideals are in vogue, may support Autism Speaks during their many campaigns out of a need to boost their status as activists. Or they may genuinely believe that they are supporting the movement while ignoring the wants of the group they claim to support without even realizing the harm they are causing.
The only way allies can fix this situation is by acknowledging their privilege and consciously giving up the spotlight. Society will always try to center allies, as they are the least threatening to the hegemonic order. However, if allies actively fight against this, and use their privilege to draw attention to certain issues while letting the leaders of social justice movements speak, they will allow these movements to run more efficiently and give credit to their true creators.
Allies should also be mindful of the information they share, and be aware of the sources of their information. Instead of circulating information from other allies, they should boost the voices of marginalized individuals. Lastly, allies should always be prepared to listen and learn. Since allies are typically privileged, they can have a lot of toxic ideologies embedded into them that they will need to unlearn.
Allyship is not an identity, but an active role that requires work and effort. Allies need to put in their effort behind the scenes. Only then will social justice movements be truly representative of the groups they are trying to uplift.