I’m a cynic.
I’m suspicious of people who eke out a living out of things like anti-racism. I feel strongly that in order to justify a paycheck, they have to overcomplicate the dynamics of racism, by misapplying academic theory to the mechanics of everyday living. Their greatest utility seems to lurk in identifying the insufficiency of extant systems.
In recent years, I’ve found one particular individual in my hometown to be one of the most obscene examples of this. As another friend puts it, “he’s appointed himself as the all-knowing gatekeeper of anti-racism work and tears down others in the process.”
I’ve let most of it slide. I don’t live in Lancaster anymore, even though most of my friends and family reside there, so it’s not my problem.
But the accusation that the Lancaster YWCA is invested in “white supremacy” was simply too much.
Is there legitimate criticism to be made? I’m sure there is. The Lancaster YWCA’s commitment to the anti-racism mission seems to be limited to fund-raising with the annual Race Against Racism, and expensive joint workshops with the Lancaster Theological Seminary. I’m frankly more familiar with their great work on behalf of disenfranchised women, especially women of color.
Still, an accusation of an organization being invested in white supremacy is a disqualifying and astonishing hyperbolic extreme. One of the reasons cited was that the organization would not endorse Black Lives Matter.
Why should it? Does the absence of an endorsement, in a mature world of intersectional theory, truly negate the ability for two distal organizations to work towards a common purpose? The BLM manifesto, which many recognize many components of BLM have no stake in nor control over, is a disqualifier for many Jewish organizations with common goals.
I think, sometimes, the nature of modern “allyship” has stifled necessary criticism of anti-racism’s self-appointed gatekeepers.
“Allyship is not an identity–it is a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people. Allyship is not self-defined–our work and our efforts must be recognized by the people we seek to ally ourselves with.” – Allyship definition, culled from the Feminist Humanist Alliance, which may be citing another source.
On its surface, I think this sounds like a meaningful way to engage with marginalized groups.
On the other hand, I think it leads to precisely the kind of problem that begets the “local woke bloviator” I mention above. Being seen as the “right” kind of ally means finding POC, women, or LGBTQ people to take direction from. In turn, we naturally will resolve against specific groups with politics that may pattern match our own. I might turn to a prominent minister, the NAACP, or the YWCA. I might turn, as I did in 2014, as a Democratic candidate, to Equality Pennsylvania, for both their endorsement or their guidance.
Ironically, in Lancaster, I note many of my friends, keen on being perceived as the best sort of allies, turn to a heterosexual white man as this kind of authority. In social media and in person, my white friends are profoundly deferential to him. How is this not white patriarchy? If I weren’t serious about the writing on this blog, I’d insert a “LOL” after that sentence!
After my years in politics, and my years as a determined military change agent, I’m dubious of any kind of allyship predicated on deference to institutions or someone’s “because I said so.” The only way you can hit the eject button on your privilege is to surrender your individual agency, and fall in behind someone who exists at the right level of oppression.
It’s also far too easy for anyone to disqualify the sufficiency of someone’s concern. “Allyship is not self-defined” sounds great, but it also insulates groups from sometimes necessary criticism.
I prefer libertarian-themed relational mechanics to allyship.
I don’t need to have the NAACP or BLM to tell me there’s a problem of over-policing in black communities. I can recall my black friend being threatened with juvie after curfew, while I was sent on my way with just a warning. I don’t need Stonewall Democrats to tell me LGBTQ folks need better legal protections when I have a friend afraid to display his husband’s photo on his desk for fear of being fired.
You can expose yourself to these realities, too, without friendships. You just have to look around, and think critically.
It’s also far more sustainable. There are too many former “allies” who walked away from doing good work, not because they didn’t operate under the appropriate level of humility, but because of the hostility they have faced when they’ve expressed their own agency. It’s too easy to be turned off by the message and the messenger. See 2016, election of Donald Trump.
The greatest example of how allyship is problematic in this way is found with the Starbucks debacle in Philadelphia. It was easy to see the injustice. Two dudes, just sitting at a table waiting have the police called on them. Starbucks wants to exude corporate responsibility, calls in groups, including the ADL, to lead some workforce training. The ADL, however, is too Zionist for black anti-Semites, and Starbucks caves. My human impulse, because of the slight, is to give less of a shit about the misfortune facing blacks.
“Well, if that’s how it’s going to be…”
There are plenty of people, for good or for ill, who will walk away and find themselves with diminished concern for marginalized citizens. This is a frequent occurrence, especially for Jews engaged in social justice causes. And it takes white “allies” out, too, who see the unnecessary exclusions or are subject to it themselves.
I act according to my own perceived need, and because of my relationships to marginalized individuals, I frame my responsibility for fulfilling my own goals around how my needs impact others. The simple act of humanizing groups will go much further than falling all over oneself to be the appropriate ally.
It works better with electoral mechanics, as well. Allyship and the framework of intersectionality, arguments about privilege, are simply not persuasive. California’s Proposition 8 wasn’t passed in 2008 because of guilt, allyship, or movement politics. It was passed because people did the hard work of building relationships and exposing the humanity of those who did not have marriage rights. And cynically, because of the shift in understanding on the part of the electorate, it became electorally important for representation in swing districts to embrace a more open mind.
This has worked time and again. The current state of identity politics, on the other hand, is unsustainable.
It might be tempting to write this off as a variant on “all lives matter.” No, aligning my own self-interest with the needs and productive citizenry of marginalized groups, and not operating out of deferential, guilt-laden allyship, does not preclude recognizing that there are specific justice deficits facing specific marginalized groups.
I want the right, as an individual with sovereignty over self, to simultaneously believe blacks are subject to horrible mistreatment in the criminal justice system, and to be annoyed when they shout at the screen in movie theaters. I want to both be able to support efforts to reduce over-policing, over-charging, and mandatory maximum sentencing, and still call out Tamika Mallory for her Farrakhan-love and her jive about the Anti-Defamation League.
The reality is, as I tell my children, I don’t have to do anything but stay Jewish and die. This overriding social justice formula right now doesn’t inspire compassion and empathy. Misapplied pathos, inappropriate outrage, and outright mischaracterization of the intentions of individuals and organizations is never a good look for anyone.
And if you’re a disgruntled former employee, the kind that says, “I held up the mirror, and they didn’t like what they see,” you perhaps need to buy a clue before you calumny an organization.