I’ve admired Professor Banks for a while know. I discovered her through a game designer whose works I admire. She is, no fooling, a powerhouse of social justice and compassion.
So, I was a little surprised to see this article from her, claiming that she isn’t an ally. I posted on her husband’s G+ post sharing this that I disagreed, a lot.
Read on, and come back. There will be a test. Breaking the Alliance by Jessica Banks.
Hmm. Her reasons why she isn’t an ally is exactly why I think she is. So, why isn’t she an ally?
First, I think we should define what an ally is. Let’s look at the worse place to start: the dictionary! To ally means “To place in a friendly association” or “To unite or connect in a personal relationship.” So being an ally means a united relationship.
Shockingly, I think the dictionary is a good starting point for definitions of social change. Instead of putting it in the context of nations or individuals, we’re talking about subcultures. Let’s take the largest oppressed subculture: women. Individual women may make more than men, may have careers in places of power and authority and demand respect above the majority of men. But looking at the culture of women in, say, America, and the overwhelming message is that there is a place for women, and it’s not as wide open as the place men have.
In every state in America, a man can choose not to have a child by walking away from the woman he impregnated. In some states, the man has to pay a monthly fee to do this. For a woman not to have a child in many parts of this country, she has to abstain from sex. If a man is assaulted in his own home, courts are more likely to punish his assaulter. If a woman is assaulted in her own home, courts are more likely to say that she wasn’t really assaulted and she’s making up a story out of vengeance. It doesn’t get much better from there.
Partners in Change says to be an ally is to: “interrupt acts of oppression or discrimination.” And they go on to expand the definition to:
One can be an ally to [the LGBT community], people of color, Muslim people, etc. It’s also important to recognize that we all have multiple identities that intersect in unique ways. When we think about ‘allies’, we might consider ourselves to be allies to groups where two or more identities intersect, such as allying with ‘women who are not US citizens’, ‘lesbians of color’, ‘Jewish alcoholics’, etc.
So, allyship seems pretty complex. Not something I would reject lightly.
They also say: “Allyhood is a process, not an outcome. One never reaches a space of optimal allyhood, but is rather constantly challenged by one’s own beliefs, bias, internationalization of previous experiences, and general stereotypes and resistance.”
I like this even more. Words are never things. We invent words to point to things. When we find a bunch of common things, we usually cover them all with one word. But no matter how alike a grove of oaks might look, those trees are all completely unique.
We can’t even be sure that the seed they drop is another tree. We can make a really, really educated guess thanks to centuries of objective research, but it’s like watching a cake bake. Come back after 100 million years, and the plants growing from those seeds may be quite far from anything you would call a tree. I would not want to be the guy that has to go through billions of generations and make the call about when those trees stopped being trees.
Being an ally is a process. Words are a process. Being an ally is more of an intentional process than the invention of words and the impact they have on our perceptions have ever been. So, I think if nothing else, we shouldn’t reject words just because they’re not good enough without making something better to replace them.
So, to begin, I admit, I can’t be sure what an ally is or isn’t. But the definitions above are pretty solid ground for me to start.
That’s where I’m coming from. Let’s explore where Professor Banks takes it.
First Claim: “See, if I were your ally, I wouldn’t have a stake in these fights. I’d only be working for others; that work would have no appreciable impact on my own life.”
First claim rephrased: an ally cannot have a stake in the fight.
Why can’t I have a stake in the fight? That doesn’t fit my definition of ally.
If I didn’t have any stakes in the struggle, how could I be an ally at all? Right now, me walking away from the struggles for feminism would require a complete and drastic change of character, the foundation of my spirituality, not to mention most of my beliefs in day to day life.
If I could walk away from the game, that means one of two things: I’ve placed horrible bets and need to get away, or I don’t need the money. None of those things would make me an ally to begin with. It’s only when I’ve placed my bets and I’m going to stand by them can I have a hope of becoming an ally.
And yet, if I was willing to take the costs (my character, my conscious, my marriage, my sense of right and wrong) I can walk away from the struggle of gender equality. If I was a woman, there is no place I could go to escape the oppression of my gender. The best I could do is find a community where people are trying to kill the inequality as quickly as possible.
However, Prof Banks goes on to explain her privilege, which as she says: “I am the veritable picture of privilege. So why can’t I be your ally?”
I don’t know why she can’t be your ally. In fact, her privilege makes being an ally the only positive thing she could do for you. So, I’m getting lost. Let’s go to the next claim.
Second Claim: “It suggests that I don’t benefit from the changes I help create.”
Second claim rephase: Allies cannot benefit from the change they help create.
Before I go on, I want to say that her reasonings and logic behind all this are wonderful (you’ve read her article, so you know). I will explain why I disagree, vehemently, with the idea that allies cannot benefit from each other. However, she is 100% spot on in her claims that everyone will benefit from a more just and equal society.
Fighting to remove oppression will benefit the whole of human society. However, getting something out of the bargain does not revoke an alliance. In fact, working towards mutual benefit reinforces alliances in all the histories and stories I’ve read only serves to strengthen alliances, compassion, and mutual understanding. I object to her rejecting the ally label. In my book, if every single person on this planet was an ally to everyone in their life, we would live in a world that is difficult to fully imagine.
Now, in some ways I agree that she is not an ally.
She mentions women’s rights and freedom. In these senses, she I could agree. She is not necessarily an ally. As a woman, she is fighting for her rights often in those cases. As a male who can profit from gender imbalance, I can only hope to be called an ally by someone of Professor Banks calibre in the struggle for gender equality. The best I can hope for is being an ally. Women fighting for their own rights don’t need to stop at being allies, they can be freedom fighters, pioneers, barrier breakers, revolutionaries. They can still be allies to other women, but that’s up to the other women.
For instance, Professor Banks says “High-quality, truly accessible health care keeps me alive.” That is undoubtedly true, and yet, she has affordable health care right now which is a lot more than many can say. I’m in between jobs, and affordable health care would reduce stress for me, as I’m sure it would for her when in between jobs. But neither of us have to live chronically with a lack of health care. As far as I know, we don’t have to choose between food and a life saving operation, and hopefully never will. There are families with children who have no health care. They will benefit from her work more than she or I will.
And if I did struggle to keep my family healthy and make ends meet, I would be extremely put out if some privileged person with a great job that provides health care told me, “I don’t see myself as an ally, I see myself as sharing your struggle!”
It’s wonderful that she fights for affordable health care for more Americans, but she gets to do so from the comfort of having affordable health care. That is privilege and that makes her an ally in the health care struggle. Will quitting her job and losing her health care package make her more involved in the struggle? Maybe. It will definitely make the issue seem more urgent. Or maybe she would be unable to be in the fight at all until that problem is addressed. Either way, she would stop being an ally, but that’s not something to celebrate.
She is rejecting the term “ally” not because it’s misleading, but because: “your rights are my rights. Your liberation is my liberation. Your safety is my safety, and that of all I love.”
It sounds pretty, but it’s not truth. The truth is, I will never know what it’s like to be as oppressed you, because your oppression is not my oppression – even if you are a straight white American male just like me. Your experience is still completely unique. Your path to liberation is not my path to liberation.
Professor Banks seems to be claiming that she’s just as much involved in the struggle as those who desperately need a stronger society. Her skin color, her job, her health care, her hetero-normative family, her seamlessly integrated husband – all of these ensure that she is not that involved in the struggle. No matter how much our hearts bleed, no matter how expansive our compassion, people like us are not part of the same struggle for rights, liberation, or safety.
And no matter how urgently I understand the need to remove your oppression, I will never be more than an ally to you. That’s where I find common ground with Banks. I feel so deeply in what injustices are wrong and which are right that I wish I could be more. I wish I could do more. Nothing will ever be enough. I wish I could say that I’m just as much a part of the struggle as everyone else. But at the end of the day, I am not oppressed in the same way as you are. So if I am fighting for you, the benefits I will get will be different.
It’s obvious to anyone who cares to look that we’re in this together as fellow humans. I know it. Banks knows it. You probably know it. That’s not the problem. The problem is in the millions who still claim that we are divided in ways that are unreconcilable, despite all evidence indicating otherwise.
The problem is those assumptions in my mind that I absorbed over my life, assumptions that were presented as facts, and accepted as easily as “ice cream is good” and “my hands hurt when I fall on them.” These ideas, these memes, that came from my culture, my friends, my family that reinforce the idea that inequality is just the way things are, and that “those people” are just getting what they deserve, ask for, or work for. I need to be vigilant to recognize these. I need to try and be a part of the struggle, but always be mindful that my perspective is not the same perspective as people who have no choice but to be involved in the struggle.
Being an ally doesn’t mean “we’re not in this together,” it precisely means “we’re in this together!” more than almost any other word I can think of.
What we need is more words, not throw them away when the mood suits us. We need more words to teach and spread the truth that we are all in this together. We need more words to cherish our over 7 billion differences and counting.
I don’t know what Professor Banks is either, but I am with her in the fight all the same. Even if she doesn’t know what to call herself. However, if I go to just about any social justice community, link them to her work, and ask the entire community what she is, I believe one word that will come up a lot is “ally.”
Sometimes we don’t get to choose what we’re called. I’m sure the tree wanted to be called something else too.