Throughout the manicured lawns of college campuses and the anti-oppression trainings in activist classrooms, a stark divide has developed between those who have agitated against systemic oppression since the 1960s and those who self-identify with what has come to be known as the Social Justice Movement. Activist organizations, once the hallmark of the Civil Rights movement, became institutionalized as 501(c)(3) tax deductible organizations serving as vanguards of grassroots movements. With these organizations came a new language to classify and sectionalize people to the point that they could no longer effectively organize unless they worked with these new self-appointed professional activists.
For lack of a better term, throughout this post I will describe this rhetoric employed by the social justice movement as “identity politics”, “privilege politics” or “allyship.”
Granted, recognition of privilege is a key part of understanding complex intertwining systems of oppression. As liberal commentators note, all politics are in fact identity politics. Its naïve to think that we can somehow move beyond the identities constructed within the spectacle that socialized us. There are no postmodern conceptions of gender or race that could be achieved, especially under the current structures in which we operate. Yet, the individualistic nature of these identity-orientated politics seem to reinforce oppressive systems and modes of exploitation rather than working to dismantle them.
Allyship revolves around the idea that life experiences are derived from people’s perceived identities, not their environment. The thinking goes that someone with a privileged identity can never understand the experiences of someone with an oppressed identity. However, there is nothing essential to the experience of any of these oppressed “categories.” As stated by the pamphlet Revolutionary Solidarity, “Oppression runs along countless axes, and the subtleties of our experiences are irreducible—which makes a strong case for listening to and trusting each other wherever we possibly can.” Its impossible to section off and fractionalize people along these arbitrary definitions since having multiple identities creates a unique experience of oppression for everyone. Yet, the very way allyship is employed by activist non-profits seeks to further cement division and disempower the oppressed by centering all activist agency on the privileged.
If You Have Come Here to Help, You’re Wasting Your Time
Let’s start with the fact that these anti-oppression trainings are led by and for the benefit of white people. While well-intentioned, the desire of white activists to seek solidarity with a struggle in the form of anti-oppression politics shifts the focus from the experiences of the oppressed to the experiences of whites. The focus becomes how white activists relate to the struggle through the lens of their identity rather than expressing solidarity with black folks who rose up against the state and figuring out how to support their struggle. In this way, ally politics seek to reaffirm white supremacy by robbing people of color of their agency.
Another strange ritual within social justice circles involves white activists stepping forward and declaring “I have X privilege.” These confessionals never really have a point other than seeking some type of activist salvation like a person confessing their sins before a priest. Activism isn’t missionary work. The oppressed are not there to be “saved,” they’re simply looking for people to work with them to achieve liberation. However, the self-centered individualism of “savior” allies not only dilutes the complex understanding of systemic oppression but also turns activism into a game of who can become the most oppressed. Activism then structures a hierarchy in which the “most oppressed” are put at the top, a tactic those from the Occupy circles will recognize as “stacking.” From this, the goal doesn’t seem to be dismantling oppression at all but rather seeking self-reflection so that everyone operates within the tyrannical superstructure while collectively feeling miserable about the horrible atrocities brought about by their positions in society.
The white allies participating in this savior mentality are sinisterly just trying to use interpretations of identity and privilege to feel oppressed. Oppression is not an experience ranked depending on one’s privilege. To understand the sheer scope and trauma brought upon by oppression we must understand one’s experiences. Ally politics work off the assumption that material relationships don’t exist. That some how its only individual biases that reproduce structural oppression. The one-sided focus on interpersonal dynamics suggest that oppressive systems such as racism and misogyny originate within isolated bigots rather than acknowledging the historical and cultural apparatuses that produce these injustices. Furthermore, through the assumption that there are fixed groups of people who are structurally oppressed in our society, the conclusion becomes how members of these separate, atomized groups can work across these differences to achieve equality for all. Through the “stacking” concept, this responsibility falls to those from the most privileged groups.
In a truly perverse fashion, the very agency these activists rob reflects a dependency on the white ally. They become the focal point of the struggle and suggest that without their presence the “assistance” to the masses of color could not occur. Allyship becomes an identity in and of itself. White activists then come to the rallies and demonstrations with a “I’m here to help!” attitude that comes across as downright patronizing. The problem with these concepts is that, as stated in Revolutionary Solidarity, “Communities of color are not a single, homogeneous bloc with identical political opinions. There is no single unified antiracist, feminist, and queer political program that white liberals can somehow become ‘allies’ of, despite the fact that some individuals or groups of color may claim that they are in possession of such a program.”
Most of the time, when professional activists claim of such a program, their intention is really to de-escalate mounting tensions toward the power structure and channel the rage into “constructive” behaviors such as voting and supporting the Democratic Party. From this perspective, most of the work non-profits engage in is profoundly Orientalist in nature seeking to assimilate oppressed peoples into a dominant culture by essentializing complex identities into easily digestible categories.
As Andrea Smith of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence explains:
“There is no sharp divide between those who are ‘oppressed’ and those who are ‘oppressors.’ Individuals may find themselves variously in the position of being the confessor or the judge of the confession depending on the context. Rather, the point of this analysis is to illustrate the larger dynamics by which racialized and colonized peoples are even seen and understood in the first place.
The presupposition is that Indigenous peoples are oppressed because they are not sufficiently known or understood. In fact, however, this desire to ‘know’ the Native is itself part of the settler-colonial project to apprehend, contain and domesticate the potential power of indigenous peoples to subvert the settler state. As Mark Rifkin has argued, colonial logics attempt to transform Native peoples who are producers of intellectual theory and political insight into populations to be known and hence managed. Native struggles then simply become a project of Native peoples making their demands known so that their claims can be recognized the by the settler state. Once these demands are known, they can they be more easily managed, co-opted and disciplined.”
Prioritizing the actions of some people over others also overlooks the oppression those actors have to deal with. A common ally tactic suggests that white activists should form a wall around people of color since their white privilege affords them less severe repercussions from arrest. On the surface this may make sense, but tactically its counterproductive especially if some of those white activists have prior arrest records or are transwomen who also experience disproportionate police violence. The effort to so clearly define and focus on how white people relate to the struggle marginalizes the voices of those they are trying to help leaving everyone involved feeling helpless. Instead of challenging the nature of oppression we are made to celebrate its ever gripping hold over our lives.
As the zine blog Escalating Identity succinctly put it:
“We are told that resistance lies in ‘speaking truth to power’ rather than attacking power materially. We are told by an array of highly trained ‘white allies’ that the very things we need to do in order to free ourselves from domination cannot be done by us because we’re simply too vulnerable to state repression. At mass rallies, we’re replayed endless empty calls for revolution and militancy from a bygone era while in practice being forced to fetishize our spiritual powerlessness.”
We relinquish our collective power by refusing to work with each other out of a fear of forcing innate oppression just by interacting. This behavior demonstrates the sheer lack of understanding of how colonialism actually works and in the long run ensures that we can never truly confront the power structure as it stands. The ideology of the non-profit industrial complex becomes clear upon examining the class privilege of the sector’s leaders.
The question becomes, if allyship and identity-orientated politics don’t work, what will? Well, indigenous activists have paved the way for methods to struggle together that don’t reinforce privilege or oppression. We need to understand that we live in a multi-racial multi-gendered white supremacist patriarchal society. We live in a society where gay Latino men run Fortune 500 companies and feminist nonprofits are staffed with unpaid interns. The belief that “essential” people of color or “essential” women can operate systems of power without reproducing the oppression that radiates from those systems is to be ignorant of history and the nature of how the dominant culture maintains itself. Since liberal notions of intersecting identities reaffirm this essentialism by emphasizing individuality, it’s necessary to build a more holistic understanding of how we as people with complex identities relate to each other that doesn’t reinforce oppressive structures of power.
There’s a reason indigenous activists have such clear understanding of empire and colonialism. They’ve been fighting it for over 500 years. They’ve advocated autonomous organizing for the precise reason that these struggles have been occurring for millennia. As they’ve noted, the enclosure of land, the enslavement and genocide of non-Europeans and the 7000 years of patriarchal structuring will require “revolutions within revolutions.” Such a transformative struggle will require a profound reorientation of identity and the very nature of how we relate to each other. The scope of what is possible seems very limited within the liberal conception of ally politics. Indigenous activists aren’t seeking “more rights.” They want to do away with the entire idea of the nation-state altogether and instead create a new conception of community that recognizes the agency of its people and the sanctity of the land in which they reside.
There’s plenty of historical examples to support these claims. Look at the ethnic make up of Seminole tribes in Florida that resisted US colonial expansion. The Seminoles themselves formed as a rebellious splinter to the American-friendly Creek natives that sought assimilation. When these indigenous rebels fled to the marshlands of Florida they came across maroon communes, ex-slaves who had escaped captivity and lived in areas free of colonial control. The maroons, Creek rebels and disillusioned European settlers all fled from formal American civilization to live together into what would eventually become the Seminole tribes. These tribes led the resistance to Andrew Jackson’s invasion of Florida.
The whole idea of native identity was a Western conception that pretty much just classified anyone who didn’t conform to the European cultural standard as “Indian.” One of the best examples of this is the Lost Colony of Roanoke. The mainstream narrative suggests that a local native tribe, Croatoan, had kidnapped and murdered the colonists of the small English colony. What never seems to dawn on writers of the history textbooks is that the starving Europeans simply ditched the colony to go live with the people who knew the land. They assimilated into the Croatoan tribe. Europeans were never able to recognize them because their cultural classification mindset prevented them from seeing this reality. All they saw were Indians, and the nuances of skin color, body shape, and dialect were lost.
The most relevant example of individual solidarity would be the white Christian evangelical abolitionist John Brown. Here was a man, so driven by his faith, that he took up arms against to the state with the sole goal of eradicating slavery. Fredrick Douglass didn’t tell Brown to check his privilege. Nor did Brown confess his white guilt to his comrades. He simply saw a grave injustice occurring within the society in which he lived and believed direct action was the only way to rectify this.
Friends Make the Best Accomplices
“Whereas ally politics suggest that in shifting one’s role from actor to ally one can diminish one’s culpability, a liberating approach presumes each person retains their own agency while also accounting for and responding to others’ desires, revealing how our survival/liberation is fundamentally linked with the survival/liberation of others. This fosters interdependence while compelling each person to take responsibility for their own choices, with no boss or guidance counselor to blame for their decisions.” – Accomplices Not Allies
Those burdened with the toxic guilt of their perceived privilege would be more useful in building solidarity with the struggle rather than constantly affirming their relationship to the power structure that forced this struggle to coalesce in the first place.
Solidarity is an old term used by activists for centuries, originating from the 19th century labor movement. Over time, the word lost its meaning and has become the Leftist equivalent of saying “I’ll pray for you,” making it no more useful than the concept of allyship. Still, the original intent of solidarity meant acting on behalf of an exploited identity for a common interest and is actually where modern ally politics derive. Back then, labor activists used ‘comrade’ to express their solidarity with fellow workers. However, this term also proved problematic when the idea of worker seemed to exclude women and non-Europeans. As different labor factions competed to form hierarchical governing structures, the term became less effective at describing worker solidarity. By the time titles such as Comrade Stalin emerged, it lost whatever notion of equality had been attached to it.
Instead of ‘ally’ or ‘comrade,’ a more accurate description of activist solidarity can be the term accomplice. Like the dictionary definition explains, an accomplice is someone who helps another commit a crime. In the context of struggle, it means engaging in mutual risk through actions that seek to dismantle structures of oppression. Accomplices operate off the values of mutual aid and affinity. Mutual aid means that we all have a stake in each other’s liberation, and that when we act from that interdependence, we share the outcomes of that struggle together. Affinity means we can work most easily with people who share our goals, and that our work will be strongest when our relationships are based in trust, friendship, and love.
So, instead of reinforcing mutual powerlessness through the declaration of privileged identities, we can reclaim our respective agency by taking action against the system that creates those privileges. This may even require to move beyond previous conceptions of activist identities altogether. Instead of building alliances, we should build friendships. After all, what is the point of struggling against oppression if we can’t have fun? What just world are we fighting for if we’re not even going to hang out afterwards? To declare friendship as the basis of activist struggle is to totally negate that activism has traditionally represented a form of work separated from other life routines. Friendships are based in reality, they are the basis of our lived experience. In that regard, accomplice doesn’t even adequately describe this political relationship, unless it becomes commonly understood that our friends are our accomplices every step of the way as we struggle through this oppressive and complicated world.
– Nothing Short of Liberation
– Why the Right Loves Privilege Politics
– How to Uphold White Supremacy by Focusing on Diversity and Inclusion
– Creating an Anarchist Theory of Privilege
–‘We’re Here, We’re Queer:’ The Nature of Identification and Subjectivity Among Black Blocs