When Allies Aren’t Enough

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1620-21, oil on canvas, 162.5 x 199 cm (Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy)

Yesterday’s panel on allyship at Boston University’s Day of Collective Engagement: Racism and Antiracism, Our Realities and Our Roles, was disappointing, and highlighted several issues I have with the use of the word “ally” and current assumptions about how to move forward in authentic relationship together for real systemic change. I’m trying to think critically about our assumptions about effective roles in structural and regime change, and what I saw yesterday was just… not that.

The language of “allyship” has diplomatic and military associations, and alludes to treaties of mutual aid and protection. On the face of it, allyship seems a reasonable enough way to label a relationship whose purpose is to “join forces” to attack a common enemy: presumably institutional or systemic racism. I mean, that’s a cool martial metaphor we can all get behind, right? Fight the power!

But it shouldn’t take long in scratching the surface of this usage to ask: now, who is the “enemy” again? The truth of systemic racism is that the enemy is, for all intents and purposes, the ally (and vice-versa). Black folks and People of Color have been telling us this every time we come together. It isn’t overt, but implicit racism that is the real problem, and allies engage in it constantly, whether through big performative gestures or the death by a thousand cuts of relentless microaggressions.  

A recent article in Medium by Catherine Pugh put it flatly: “There Is No Such Thing as a ‘White Ally.’” The author reminded self-styled white allies: “You’re not ‘helping’ when it’s your mess we’re cleaning.” I know “good white people” who are taken aback by this discomfiting frankness. “It makes me not want to help at all!” one of my colleagues snapped during a group discussion on how we could best be of service to the BLM Movement recently. It was a disappointing remark, but you can see how the allyship frame sadly makes this a logical thought-process for many white folks. 

Alliances are arrangements built on power, after all. Between nations they involve treaties, containing casus foederis clauses that outline when allies are obligated to aid one another. But as we’ve seen in the behavior of the current US administration, alliances can be abandoned by bad faith actors at any time, especially those who feel they don’t need the protection the alliance provides its members. Mr. Trump never tires of reminding the allies of the US of what he perceives as imbalance in the power dynamic. Assistance is offered only where fawning appreciation is assured. In some ways this is the usage that has seeped into the implicit understanding of white allyship.

I realize it may seem frivolous to be arguing semantics at this point, but the words we use to describe relationships are important — and loaded. Sometimes they carry meanings we are not fully aware of until we begin to examine them more deeply and from different vantage points. I have been reading some trauma theory in preparation for a course this fall, and it has gotten me thinking about different ways to frame relationships steeped in abuse and generational trauma. Prof. Shelly Rambo has suggested “witness” as a theological response, something I’ll be exploring in a future post.

I’m also curious about Jewish and early Christ communities’ response to the systemic violence inherent and endemic in empire. How can we talk about a liberative agenda that goes deep into the structural roots of the particular kinds of violence we have internalized and normalized? How do we transform the awakening to systemic evil into relationship in community?

What are the words and metaphors we need to breathe life into this awakening?

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