Is the best way to support the struggle against oppression to become an “ally”? The concept has become increasingly popular in liberation movements, but it was in Black Lives Matter that it first reached a large audience.
The way in which millions of people joined the fight against injustice—even if many were not directly affected by racism—is cause for celebration. Allyship appears to offer them a way to be part of the struggle.
The University of Pennsylvania defines an ally as “an individual who uses their privilege to advocate on behalf of those who do not have the same privilege.” It goes on to argue that listening is the key task of an ally. “Allyship is a journey that takes time, effort, and an open mind,” it says.
Anyone involved in struggle will tell you that listening is a vital skill and that the best campaigns are those that are open to new ideas and strategies. But allyship goes further than asking people to practice self-reflection.
It suggests those who do not face a particular form of oppression have no direct interest in combating it—and may even a material interest in maintaining it. That is true even if they find abhorrent the suffering it causes. That means an ally’s interest in the struggle against racism is, at best, secondary.
A big part of the practice of allyship in racism is devoted to uncovering hidden prejudice and acknowledging how all white people benefit from their comparatively high status. There are three serious problems with this approach. First, it is hopelessly pessimistic about the possibility of a world without racism.
If it is true that all whites are inherently stained by prejudice, then racism is inevitable, and its hold can never be broken. Second, the focus of allyship is relentlessly individual. One of the great breakthroughs of the Black Lives Matter movement was the way it understood racism as primarily institutional and structural rather than a product of a person’s psychology.
But allyship wants to move the focus back to within ourselves rather than the system. Third, the idea that all white people benefit from racism is simply untrue. In a capitalist society, racism functions as a means of divide and rule.
Its purpose is to break the working class and the poor into completing racial groups. Racism ensures a marked difference in how black and white working class people experience the world. We need only look at Covid deaths and police harassment for evidence of this.
But black people’s suffering is not best explained by reference to white workers. Instead, the rich and powerful are the actual beneficiaries of this set up. It’s for those reasons that socialists prefer “solidarity” to allyship.
Implicit in solidarity is the idea that all those that stand against racism have a vested interest in the success of the struggle.
The fight against racism matters to us not only because injustice is a moral outrage but also because there can be no definitive working class victory while we are divided on racial lines.
Solidarity has another great advantage—it doesn’t demand that all those who give it have first cleansed themselves of any lingering prejudice. Instead, it acknowledges that people’s ideas change in struggle.
When people take their first steps into anti-racism, they often come with all sorts of contradictory opinions and even some ideas that reflect the racist society in which we live. The arena of struggle puts people’s ideas to the test precisely when they are most fluid.
And it is this possibility of individual and societal change that allows socialists to envisage a world without racism.
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