I think we all want to feel like we’re good and valuable people. Unfortunately around allyship this can mean being moved to do entirely unhelpful things. Ostensibly we rock up as allies because we want to help, but often what we do instead is put ourselves centre stage instead. It can also result in treating the people who need to be ‘saved’ like they’re inferior, and genuinely need us to save them.
If this is an unfamiliar concept, I invite you to listen carefully to what’s going on in this song (or read the subtitles) – how inaccurate and patronising it is, and how it centres the idea of rescue and doesn’t talk about international debt, exploitation of resources or the legacy of colonialism, for example.
I could spend a whole blog post deconstructing this song line by line because there’s so much that’s wrong with it.
It doesn’t really work if you’re showing up because you want a pat on the back. Being the guy that women reassure is a good guy. Being the white person who is affirmed by black people as not being the problem. Being the straight person the gays think is ok… there’s nothing weird about wanting praise and affirmation, it’s just this is a really unhelpful way to go about it. The result is putting pressure on people to stroke your ego, rather than doing anything to solve the problems they face.
Good allyship looks like talking about how we change things and flagging up issues in systems that cause oppression. It looks like educating people who are like you so as to spare the people you are supporting from having to keep doing that. Which may look like explaining about pronouns, or why it isn’t cool to touch other people’s hair without permission, or that catcalling isn’t a compliment, and so forth. Sharing content from people who are affected by an issue, and undertaking to learn from them about the issue is all good work to be doing.
It’s important to avoid speaking for people or over people – the balance can be delicate around avoiding this, while educating people like you. Care and attention are required. It is vital not to patronise the people you are supposed to be helping. Discretion is also important – if being an ally involves sharing the private details of people you’re supposedly helping, you aren’t much of an ally. I’ve seen this one done, and it’s very much about centering the ‘activist’. Again, there are balances to strike here, because stories can be educational, and talking about what you’re doing can be a good way of getting others engaged with an issue. But, keep a close eye on who and what is centre stage, and what the story is for. If you’re telling stories about how you go round heroically saving disabled people… you are the problem not the solution.
One of the most useful things a person can do is look at their own involvement in things that exclude, or are unfair and unjust. That tends to be uncomfortable. It means looking at your own complicity, and at how you might benefit indirectly from privilege. But, this is key to levelling the playing field. Wanting to ride in, the glorious knight on horseback here to save the day is part of the normal desires many of us have to feel special, powerful and important. But when we do that, we only empower ourselves.
It’s not your job to feed the world. Better to stop doing the things that contribute to hunger in the first place.