On April 12, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson were arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia. After a barista of the coffee shop called the police, a concerned white customer recorded the incident.
That customer became an ally after posting the video online to share the outrage of what had happened. Also of note, is that Nelson and Robinson’s potential business partner, a white man named Andrew Yaffe, can be seen proclaiming their innocence amongst several customers who can be heard defending them.
In the case of Nelson and Robinson, it is obvious that true allies are necessary. An ally recorded (was allowed to record) and spread the video that proclaimed Nelson and Robinson’s innocence. And then, Starbucks began to take moves necessary to undo the oppression that the clout of its institution enabled.
But being involved with allies isn’t always so easy.
For starters, why are allies, especially white ones, a more influential voice when oppressed racial minorities actively seek their freedom? It is a jealous question to ask that points to resentment toward the greater influence of white voices, even those of allies. But it is not a question to pose to the Black community, because we already know the answer.
There is also space for awkward direct interactions with allies.
Most feared are bad allies, or people who suffer from varying levels of self-serving arrogance or unchecked ignorance. The worse-case scenario is that the bad ally functions more like an enemy by hindering the racial justice work of the groups in which they function. These only succeed at emulating the oppressor.
Thus, whether or not any good allies exist, the Black and queer communities always wonder at the potential problems that allies– a subset of people who are often thought of as fickle– might cause.
After all, the most visible allies probably look like the oppressor.
The perception can be damning of an ally’s work before it even begins, since such suspicions can be unfounded. For instance, had it not been for the condemnations of the patrons of Starbucks during the arrest, Nelson and Robinson may have feared that the taker of the video meant to slander them. The opposite happened: the video went viral as a condemnation of racism.
By defining a subset of people in a movement as “allies,” it makes it acceptable to other them in a way that the oppressed subset of that group is inherently working against. Allies thus become the other other.
But unlike in this instance, negative suspicions concerning the deeds of allies are true often enough. (But someone posting a video to slander someone else doesn’t fit the description of an ally, not even a “bad” one.)
On its face, the term “ally” itself, is problematic. The ally falls under the constraints of a dynamic that oppressed peoples have of late been challenging: the binary. By defining a subset of people in a movement as “allies,” it makes it acceptable to other them in a way that the oppressed subset of that group is inherently working against. Allies thus become the other other.
Further, it is possible for oppressed groups to fail to fully appreciate their allies. The demands on allies to be less vocal and give space to the main subset of the group can lead to ignoring the multifaceted identity of the individual. When this happens to allies, they are expected to offer a degree of attention to an issue that ignores their own needs or their own ability to contribute their talents to solving the problem at hand.
Worse yet, people who aren’t even allies can be made into allies through an inverted form of this reductionist identification, through de-prioritizing oppressed subgroups (e.g. black queers and transgender individuals in the racial justice struggle) or refusing to acknowledge their issues in favor of others.
It is fair to commit members of a group to specific roles, but it may be that the burden of commitment is disproportionately harsh on allies or people falsely relegated to the role of allies. Do we expect too much from them, and do we really want them to do more of work we don’t want to define as theirs? And, if allies are to be in a group, what space must the other subset of the group offer in return for the movement to be most effective? Should they get any space at all? Here, the desired outcome is high impact, not basic functionality.
Alternatively, what is lost or gained when groups expect less of allies? Expecting their silence? Not making space for their input, but wanting their investment in dangerous work?
Finally, if racist or anti-LGBTQ oppression should ever be conquered, the oppressor would disappear. But what would become of the allies? Presumably, they are only needed to oppose an oppressor, but without that oppressor, their identity must be prepared to shift in a way that is not harmful. Should the formerly oppressed or the former allies guide this identity shift?
Cover photo: MPR News