A friend and comrade just shared a slew of articles that challenge Liberal ally politics. I pass them on to you as tools for reflection and guides for how to act as an accomplice.
The Problem with “Privilege” by Andrea Smith
“In my experience working with a multitude of anti-racist organizing projects over the years, I frequently found myself participating in various workshops in which participants were asked to reflect on their gender/race/sexuality/class/etc. privilege. These workshops had a bit of a self-help orientation to them: “I am so and so, and I have x privilege.” It was never quite clear what the point of these confessions were. It was not as if other participants did not know the confessor in question had her/his proclaimed privilege. It did not appear that these individual confessions actually led to any political projects to dismantle the structures of domination that enabled their privilege. Rather, the confessions became the political project themselves. The benefits of these confessions seemed to be ephemeral. For the instant the confession took place, those who do not have that privilege in daily life would have a temporary position of power as the hearer of the confession who could grant absolution and forgiveness. The sayer of the confession could then be granted temporary forgiveness for her/his abuses of power and relief from white/male/heterosexual/etc guilt. Because of the perceived benefits of this ritual, there was generally little critique of the fact that in the end, it primarily served to reinstantiate the structures of domination it was supposed to resist.”
After several recent disappointing and hurtful experiences—and to be clear, a lifetime of related minor and major run-ins with friends, comrades, and activists—my need is unrelenting for us to rethink how we engage with the question of otherness and our organizing. How do we integrate a genuine approach to oppression and anti-oppression? This writing takes apart the concept of “ally” in political work with a focus on race, though clearly there are parallels across other experiences of identity.
Since the Ferguson decision, we have been flooded with stories about how the overwhelmingly peaceful nation-wide protests against police brutality have been occasionally ruined by looting and property destruction caused by “fringe” elements. In conservative media, the trouble-makers have been generally characterized as parts of the black “criminal” underclass. In the liberal media, the law-breakers have often been characterized as “outside agitators,” “violent political radicals,” and “white anarchists.” While the conservative side has worked to make it seem like the actions of these black “criminals” are not legitimately political, the liberal side on the other hand has avoided publicizing stories about people of color engaging in property destruction altogether. There is a real danger that these omissions have been motivated by white guilt—as well as by the legitimate concern that publicizing these stories will be interpreted as feeding into racism. However, rather than challenging the assumption that property destruction is necessarily bad, many liberals have refused to acknowledge the law-breaking altogether, perhaps for fear of being labeled racist.
The ally industrial complex has been established by activists whose careers depend on the “issues” they work to address. These nonprofit capitalists advance their careers off the struggles they ostensibly support. They often work in the guise of “grassroots” or “community-based” and are not necessarily tied to any organization.
They build organizational or individual capacity and power, establishing themselves comfortably among the top ranks in their hierarchy of oppression as they strive to become the ally “champions” of the most oppressed. While the exploitation of solidarity and support is nothing new, the commodification and exploitation of allyship is a growing trend in the activism industry.
A lot of these essays, along with other good ones that are not available online, are in the book “Taking Sides – Revolutionary Solidarity and the Poverty of Liberalism” edited by Cindy Milstein and available for purchase at AK Press.
The lines of oppression are already drawn. The only question is, Which side are you on in the struggle against the violence that is white supremacy and policing? Taking Sides supplies an ethical compass and militant map of the terrain, arguing not for reform of structurally brutal institutions but rather for their abolition. Its thirteen essays are sharp interventions that take particular aim at the role of nonprofits, “ally” politics, and “peace police” in demobilizing rebellions against hierarchical power. The authors offer tools to hone strategies and tactics of resistance, and hold out the promise of robust, tangible solidarity across racial and other lines, because in the battle for systemic transformation, there are no outside agitators.