I'll be the first to call myself out -- I know for a fact that I've been guilty of jumping on Facebook and claiming to be an ally to one cause or another, as have most of my friends as well. But while we might think we're helping the situation, as Mia McKenzie and a growing minority of voices in social justice work have pointed out, claiming allyship is really quite the opposite.
True solidarity is about more than just making a Facebook status claiming to be an ally. Yes, verbalizing support for a cause is a beautiful thing, but one of the biggest problems with calling ourselves "allies" is that too often, we use it as a means of ridding ourselves of any guilt we may be feeling for unintended complicity in the oppression of those we love. "Ally" has become a cloak that we can put on to absolve ourselves of accountability when we make an off-handed comment or deeply offensive joke. In this way, calling ourselves allies allows us to feel warm and fuzzy inside without actually having to do anything to address our own potentially harmful behaviors and checking and renouncing our own privileges. As a result, the label inherently leads us to get defensive far too easily, putting us and our discomfort at the center of the struggle, rather than the marginalized identity at hand. While this is a problem with white "allies," we cannot ignore that it's also a huge issue for non-Black people of color who call ourselves "allies" as well, but continue to excuse ourselves and ignore anti-Black sentiment in our own communities.
What's more, calling ourselves allies detracts from the cause at even the most basic linguistic level. McKenzie points out, "'Currently operating in solidarity with' is undeniably an action. It describes what a person is doing in the moment. It does not give credit for past acts of solidarity without regard for current behavior. It does not assume future acts of solidarity. It speaks only to the actions of the present." Whereas McKenzie's example is actively ongoing, "ally" itself is merely an empty, dead-end label -- a stagnant, unmoving noun that doesn't specify what if any action is actually being taken.
This is a massive problem, because it's perfectly contradictory to everything you'd expect the ideal "ally" to be. Just as both the privileges and oppressions we face don't take breaks, neither can true solidarity. Discussions regarding being an "ally" inherently imply choice -- the choice to step back, and not engage. But as Jamie Utt points out, "part of the privilege of your identity is that you have a choice about whether or not to resist oppression." True solidarity involves having the difficult conversations -- starting in our own circles, rather than just scrolling quietly past both blatant racism and microaggressions in our newsfeeds.
It also involves educating ourselves, rather than expecting to be spoon-fed information. It's already a burden for marginalized people to live with their identities; we should not be adding to that burden by demanding they answer questions that could easily be answered with a simple Google search. Can we ask our friends for good resources and clarifications? Of course. But it's up to us to again, key-word actively, lay the foundations for knowledge for ourselves.
With that said, however, we must also recognize that solidarity means that we shouldn't always be involved. While we should always be educating ourselves and working against the various structural forces that work against our loved ones, we also need to recognize that there is a very fine line between solidarity and encroachment.
"Ally" implies that we are part of the same team as those we are trying to help. But just as claiming to be a fan of the Green Bay Packers doesn't mean you can run onto the field, claiming to be an ally of Palestinian voices doesn't make you Palestinian. And just as your amazing throwing skills still don't mean you can replace Aaron Rodgers, no matter how much literature you read, or how many gender studies or cultural anthropology classes you take, you cannot replace the voices of those who are actually members of a marginalized community, and you cannot better speak about the experiences of someone who is actually living in a situation that you are not.
I'm far from perfect, but I'm working on bettering myself and bettering society. So my New Year's resolution? Get rid of "ally," and other weasel words that undeservedly assuage our consciences -- and instead, make 2016 a year of real action itself.