I’ve been uncomfortable for sometime with the left’s two most common terms for the “good kind” of privileged people: Woke (usually used for white people who aren’t shitty), and Ally (used in all sort of contexts, but my first exposure to the term was in high school in reference to “straight allies” who supported gay rights). It has taken me some time to really put my finger on why I don’t like the way these terms are used.
After all, the language of alliance is deep and descriptive, and the metaphor of wokeness is evocative and powerful. Who can argue that mainstream white culture’s inability to perceive black humanity and all but the most stylized black pain isn’t in some ways like being asleep, and that those who break free from that slumber don’t come out shocked and disoriented? Who would disagree that if we’re on the same team, we’re therefore allies?
Well, first let’s talk about “woke.” To my mind, the term implies that those of us who are woke see what’s going on, but how can anyone ever really see and understand what’s up without being there? Hell, some people aren’t “woke,” don’t get it, even though they ARE there. To accept the term “woke” feels like accepting the idea that a white person can truly, deeply understand all the ins and outs of white supremacy and oppression without having experienced them on the receiving end.
Okay then, but what’s my problem with the language of “allyhood?” I think again it’s the notion that you can be an ally as a noun and retain it as part of your identity, as opposed to the more accurate notion that alliances are things we construct that frequently fall apart. The US and USSR were allies. Then they weren’t. Alliance is something you do toward some shared goal. If your goals aren’t shared, you’re not an ally anymore. I’ve seen white people claim to be allies of people of color in the same breath that they demand that members of that community abandon their goals. That is, frankly, not an alliance by any means.
I like ally better as a verb. White liberals can ally with people of color to elect certain officials, pass certain legislation, effect certain cultural changes etc. Jews have in the past allied with black Christian church leaders and Muslim leaders to combat white supremacy (hopefully we can keep that going). When you and I ally with each other, that relationship is inherently one of action, and is assumed to be temporary unless proven otherwise. Sometimes such an alliance can also lead to friendships. Great! But you’re only an ally to my cause, and I’m only an ally in yours, if we’re working TOGETHER. If I go ignoring your needs or prioritizing my wants over them, I can no longer consider myself your ally. Our alliance is over.