#14: How do I talk to people who are against allyship as a concept?

Dear Ally (Skills Teacher),

I am a cis-gender, heterosexual, white, male, working in academia (pursuing a PhD in Computer Science at a US University) so I am very aware of my privilege. I’m a huge advocate for ally work as I myself struggled immensely in the early phase of my doctoral studies and through that came to learn more about the challenges others faced generally due to identity, privilege, power, and more. Computer science is particularly bad historically, so I’ve put a lot of effort into taking time to listen, being an advocate or voice for others, and try to push for changes which support equity in my lab, in my department, and in the university.

I recently was challenged by a colleague who identifies as a member of an underrepresented minority. They agree with me that equity is important to fight for, but that someone like myself who has privilege shouldn’t be the one fighting. Effectively they seem to be against allies. How do I talk with them?

—Troubled Ally

Wow! Speaking as a woman who used to be in computer science and actively advocated for women in computer science, all I ever wanted was for the men I worked with to speak up and take action so I could get a break sometimes. Thank you for stepping up and doing this work!

You don’t say why your colleague objects to people like you acting as an ally, so I will lay out a few reasons why, in my experience, marginalized people object to allyship. If they are objecting to ineffective or counterproductive forms of allyship, you may be able to come to an agreement in support of positive forms of allyship. But if they are against the concept of allyship as a whole, you may have to continue to do ally work without their personal approval.

Allyship theory

For me, this is the main idea behind acting as an ally:

If I am benefiting from systemic oppression, I have the responsibility and the power to take action to end that oppression.

I wrote an entire talk on all the logical reasons behind why allyship is so important (short version: we’ll make progress fighting oppression much faster that way), but that’s the moral underpinnings of it for me.

There are plenty of criticisms of the concept of allyship, and we will talk about several of them in the rest of this column.

Ally vs. accomplice

My favorite criticism of allyship is that it doesn’t go far enough—that people with relative privilege should risk more and be more disruptive of systemic oppression than what usually falls under the description of allyship. This is often described as “moving from ally to accomplice,” which intentionally invokes the connotation of risky law-breaking with the word “accomplice.” My personal goal is to help make allyship seem boring, blasé, beginner stuff that everyone should be doing, so I support challenging people to level up from ally to accomplice.

This probably isn’t your colleague’s criticism, but it is one way to approach an argument over the merits of allyship. If they say, “I think allyship is a waste of time,” you can say “I agree, allyship doesn’t go far enough! We need accomplices, people willing to put their bodies and their rights on the line for justice.” Then you can have an argument about how far people should go to fight oppression against groups they aren’t part of.

False allyship

It’s possible your colleague has criticisms of people doing allyship in counterproductive ways—that is, people who want to be allies think they are fighting oppression, but they are actually reinforcing and strengthening oppression. Some examples of allyship gone wrong:

  • “Allies” taking leadership positions better occupied by marginalized people
  • “Allies” talking over or failing to listen to marginalized people
  • “Allies” centering the conversation on themselves and their feelings
  • “Allies” using respectability politics, the tone argument, or other silencing tactics
  • “Allies” taking money, credit, publicity, etc. that should go to marginalized people
  • “Allies” acting in patronizing or paternalistic ways
  • “Allies” using their allyship as a cover for abuse or exploitation

It’s possible that your colleague’s experience of allyship is dominated by false allyship of this type, and they would rather do all the work themselves than see their cause constantly dragged backward by well-meaning but incompetent “help” (or, in all too many cases, deliberate abuse and harm). In this case, if you ask them why they object to allyship, they will give you examples of false allyship that reinforce systemic oppression instead of fighting it. If so, you can have a discussion about what effective allyship looks like, and how you are avoiding falling into the trap of false allyship (if you are—take the time to review your work as an ally and see if you’re doing any of these things).

Other criticisms of allyship

We’ve talked about the main criticisms of allyship that have real merit if your goal is to fight systemic oppression. Now we will talk about the criticisms of allyship that support and reinforce systems of oppression.

The “bootstraps” argument

Shelves displaying dozens of different cowboy boots for sale
CC BY-SA Wesley Fryer https://flic.kr/p/5WriFx

The argument against allyship that I hear most often from marginalized people is a version of “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps”: that helping marginalized people fight oppression is patronizing or infantilizing them. The idea is that if we truly respected marginalized people, we would allow them to struggle and work against systemic oppression on their own, because we respect them enough to believe they are capable of overcoming these obstacles without help.

The key here is recognizing that these additional obstacles facing marginalized people are (a) unfair, (b) unnecessary. Forcing marginalized people to overcome higher barriers by themselves only harms marginalized people.

Proof of exceptionalism

Another way to look at this argument is that some marginalized people think that having more privileged people fighting oppression is a way of “lowering the bar” for marginalized people, when actually the bar has already been raised far higher for marginalized people. Allyship is about making the bar equal for everyone. Some marginalized people are proud of being able to pass this higher bar, but that’s not a good argument to keep the higher bar in place!

As a young woman in computer science, initially I was proud of being exceptional. I was used to taking on and accomplishing difficult tasks with little help from others and I saw overcoming sexism in computer science as just another task that proved my competence. But as I learned more about the systemic obstacles that faced marginalized people in computer science, I changed my mind. I decided I wanted equity and justice more than I wanted the distinction of being one a woman in computer science who overcame higher barriers than most men.

Weakening affinity groups

Another criticism of allyship is that it can weaken the cohesiveness and connections within marginalized groups, with the idea that it is best to rely on and build relationships with people who at least share the experience of being marginalized. As a member of many groups for women and non-binary people in computer science, I know firsthand the value and benefit of being part of these groups. My view is that groups for marginalized people work best when they support and help marginalized people to grow and strengthen their networks, rather than limit their connections or relationships.

How to talk about allyship

When talking about criticisms of allyship with others, I like to ask questions like:

  • “How is this different from telling people to ‘pull themselves up by their own bootstraps?'”
  • “Do you think mediocre people from this marginalized group should be as successful as mediocre people from the privileged group?”
  • “What does your ideal future look like, if you were able to stop this system of oppression?”
  • “If I am benefiting from a system of oppression, what actions should I take?”
  • “What if someone acted as an ally without doing the negative things you are describing?”
  • “Is it fair to ask one group of people to do all the work to make change while all the other group of people gets all the benefit of leaving things the way they are?”

However, if someone’s self-image is built on being the exception to the rule as a successful person from a marginalized group, it may be too difficult for them to rebuild their entire sense of worth and self in a short time. It took me many years to reconceptualize my own self-image as someone who was good at computer science, rather than a woman whose skill at computer science was proved by the relative rarity of other women in computer science. Your colleague may be in a similar place.

Ally skill: Focus on people who are open to changing their minds

A huge arena of people with a performer highlighted by spotlights
CC BY Richard Whitaker https://flic.kr/p/egtG24

My best advice to you is to not spend a lot of time trying to change your colleague’s mind if they seem determined to oppose allyship. People who have a firm opinion on a matter rarely change their minds; that’s why I advise people to “play to the audience” in the Ally Skills Workshop. Your colleague probably won’t change their mind, but other people at work may not have strong opinions about allyship one way or another. They are more likely to be swayed in favor of allyship by your example and explanations. Focus on learning how to explain allyship to them, and being a role model through your actions.

Featured image CC BY Oak Ridge National Laboratory https://flic.kr/p/qkgyvJ

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