On the morning I begin writing this article on the problematic culture surrounding allyship, I open my university’s student publication and land on a poem by a white woman. The poem collates the xenophobic vitriol of an ALP politician, lyrics from a Nick Cave song, and decontextualised quotes from an asylum seeker on Nauru. The piece upsets me, but not because of the proximity of these disparate snippets on the page. Proximity can highlight stark incompatibility, perhaps. No, I am upset because, once more, allyship received lip service and nothing else. Once more, I have unwittingly consumed a spectacle of white guilt masquerading as solidarity. Once more, the good intentions of allyship have functioned effectively to clamp tight around my mouth.
I speak to this problematic culture of allyship only in relation to my own oppressions, though it is by no means confined to them. My family fled Afghanistan during the Soviet Invasion and I identify as a diasporic QTPOC.
In Australia and abroad, allyship so often revolves around the pursuit of social capital. Typically, we see a person of privilege make a spectacle out of the trauma and tragedy of an oppressed group, right in time for the photo op. Soon enough, interest in the oppressed group wanes, yet the aggrandisement awarded to the person of privilege endures. Macklemore is forever canonised now as that straight guy who wrote the song about gay love. Frankly, it doesn’t concern me which of his extended family members was gay – that was not his story to tell, but it became my oppression that he profited from.
There are ways to demonstrate allyship and there are ways to perform your allyship – and written into the difference between the two are the stage lights of Ally Theatre.
In the leftist circles of Australia, asylum seekers – especially LGBT asylum seekers – occupy particularly pitiful cultural iconography. There is anger and backlash towards the government’s reluctance to process and resettle more refugees in Australia. That retaliation is noble in itself. Yet there are ways to demonstrate allyship and there are ways to perform your allyship – and written into the difference between the two are the stage lights of Ally Theatre.
Activists associated with the #BlackLivesMatter movement coined the term ‘Ally Theatre’ to describe the phenomenon whereby people with privilege perform their solidarity publicly on behalf of marginalised people. In performing Ally Theatre, misled allies reduce the complexity of the story, siphon the narrative through a discordant gaze, tokenise and thus exacerbate existing marginality, and rob oppressed people of the opportunity to speak for themselves.
Perhaps by nature of its reductive punchiness, social media sets an open stage for Ally Theatre. Social media is a cyberspace infected with mansplaining and whitesplaining, which are dual iterations of Ally Theatre. Again and again, I see people take up online space they feel entitled to because of their privilege. They post teary laments about racism or condemn transphobic legislation at length, while expecting validation for the performance of their allyship. Like actors in a circus, they perform sorrow for applause, as though the absence of an offensive phobia is medal-worthy.
Real solidarity doesn’t take place in full view of an audience.
If you are complicit in structural oppression, real solidarity means enabling those less fortunate than you to speak for themselves. If you want to demonstrate real solidarity with Trans people or queer asylum seekers, donate privately to Ygender. Volunteer at one of the many detention centres speckled across this country. Better yet, shut up and start listening. Real solidarity doesn’t take place in full view of an audience and I commend all the real allies who work tirelessly behind the scenes.
Unlike this year’s premier production at Midsumma Festival, that is, which did take place in front of an audience. A packed audience, in fact. The play demonstrated the performance of allyship with impeccable literality. I sat in the audience of that show, stunned that I had paid to watch a play ‘inspired by’ the stories of gay refugees but, importantly, performed by a white man. Later, I scanned the cast and crew looking for names like mine, names that weren’t John and Nick and Adam and Russell, but those were the only names I could find.
The show’s booklet claims that it provides ‘an understanding of the gay refugee experience whilst also feeling more alive for doing so.’ As the lights came up, white people around me in the audience patted white tears away with starchy napkins, and I sat there, mortified. Under the guise of allyship, the show had effectively exploited the tragedy and cultural dissonance of LGBT Muslims like me. Once more, my story had been reduced and appropriated, with just the right amount of emotional impact to keep it palatable to a white audience.
By nature of your privileges, there are spaces and narratives that you are not entitled to co-opt. Self-reflexive foregrounding of your privileges cannot compensate for the entitlement inherent in taking up cultural spaces that you are simply not welcome in. If I want to hear about the experiences of a certain group, I don’t want to hear it siphoned through white bodies. Furthermore, if I intend to hear stories from groups I identify with, I don’t want to see whiteness erasing and distorting those stories to suit an exoticising appetite. And if I want to hear a cis straight white man’s critique of structural oppression, I’ll be sure to send a carrier pigeon back a couple centuries to where that opinion belongs.
Ally is not something you are, it is something you do.
For ally is not something you are, it is something you do. It is an action that demands constant attention. Allyship is a goal to strive towards, but one you never reach. Allyship is a title you can earn, but that you have to keep fighting to deserve. It is not static and it is not a salve to diminish your guilt. Allyship is not an identity category. It is not called allyhood because it cannot not exist intrinsically by nature of the way that you are or the way you’ve been raised.
Legitimate solidarity isn’t used to distinguish you from ‘other white people’ or ‘other cis folk’ and, quite frankly, as soon as someone tells me they’re an ally to my oppressions, I’m immediately skeptical. Rule number one of any good essay: show don’t tell.