It’s no secret that among skeptics there is a reluctance to throw support behind social justice causes. Like most things, there are a variety of reasons from person to person why allyship isn’t expressed. I could give unsympathetic reasons for some of these so-called skeptics, but I will instead address the ones who are charitable and likely are holding back for well-meaning reasons.
There’s no “rulebook” or absolute guide to supporting a cause that doesn’t personally affect you. However, two common guidelines pop up time and time again:
- You need to listen to what those people are saying.
- You need to work to elevate the affected voices, without speaking over them or on behalf of them.
The general attitudes behind these rules have been skewed and distorted by the anti-social justice crowd and propped up as anti-skeptical behaviors. When these rules are spouted from an uncharitable source, the first is portrayed as, “You have to take everything we say uncritically.” The second is presented as, “You have to shut up, and it’s only people in our cause that can possibly contribute.” Both miss the actual point of what these guidelines are trying to say. These are general behaviors that demonstrate both a sincere desire to improve the well-being of others, as well as actions that usually lead to a net positive outcome. You’re welcome to change the world in your own way, but realize that you aren’t exactly the first to do so and you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to find effective methods. That road has been traveled long before you started.
I think the problem with these guidelines is not that they are bad, but because they have been portrayed in an unsympathetic light. Because of this, the best way to clarify their meaning may be to present allyship with some positive analogies that illustrate the substance behind the rules. If you understand the following roles, then you will have a better understanding of why these guidelines are helpful.
Allyship as being a student in a college classroom
The only person who runs the show in a classroom is the professor. The professor’s job is to communicate the relevant information in a digestible way, and at an appropriate level to the students. The best professors are able to engage students by encouraging dialogue, participation, and questions throughout their lectures, but it is understood that this is not a place for students to challenge everything that the professor says. Unless this is a philosophy classroom, a given lecture is probably not a debate between the student and the professor. Even if that were the case, a prescient student would probably recognize that anything they would say is likely something the teacher has heard multiple times over. Any student expecting to change the mind of the professor is wildly mistaken, as learning is the relevant goal.
This is why even though you may be “just asking questions”, asking question at every possible instance rings hollow in terms of earnest truth-seeking. If a student taking an introductory biology course kept asking questions like, “Why are there still monkeys?” or, “Why are there still missing links?” or, “Isn’t evolution just a theory?” it’s pretty apparent that the student isn’t really interested in answers. No reasonable observer would characterize that “student” as someone who really wants to learn things, they would characterize them as a person there to waste everyone’s time and halt productive learning. For the same reasons, asking, “If you’re not certain there isn’t a god, why don’t you call yourself an agnostic?” or, “Why don’t you focus on black-on-black crime?” and similar questions don’t really sound like they’re coming from people who genuinely care about the well-being of atheists or black persons, they come across as tone policing.
Of course, students and allies should both be encouraged to think critically about what they are being taught. But just because you aren’t able to wrap your head around an idea, or even have a disagreement about a point, doesn’t mean the presenter is wrong or a poor communicator. Social issues can be just as complex as a college class, often even more so, so there’s no way any one listener should be supposed to “get it” all at once. Any good student who doesn’t “get” a subject right away should not assume that they automatically know better than the professor. A responsible student would shoot the teacher an email or go to office hours to have a one-on-one dialogue about whatever they don’t understand. The reasonable assumption is that they aren’t getting the big picture or are having a misunderstanding, not that the teacher is completely wrong.
As an example, I consider myself a cis ally to the trans community, and there have been a scarce few times where I thought there was a disagreement between me and my dear friend about Callie Wright about trans issues. One time I asked her why we should consider someone who has “completed their transition” (a problematic statement) and someone who no longer experiences dysphoria as trans, since they are able to function in society the same as someone who has always identified with what was on their birth certificate. It turns out that our “disagreement” was not a disagreement at all since it rested on my faulty assumptions that dysphoria defines what a trans person is, and that I hadn’t been informed that passing should not be the ultimate goal. Far from giving backlash, Callie explained in a following episode some of the problems behind my assumptions, and that even my understanding of what a trans person is was flawed (all that defines a trans person is that their identity doesn’t align with what they were assigned at birth). Another time, I was very uncomfortable at making a particular argument within the context of the “bathroom debates”. At the time of writing this, there has never been an instance of a man “pretending to be trans” in order to invade a women’s-only private space. This conflicts with multiple news sources claiming that a man in Toronto has done just that. Callie has stated over and over in multiple settings that there has never been a confirmed case of it happening, and when she opened a blog post by reiterating that, I felt compelled to shoot her an email asking her about this incident. I felt stupid after reading the rest of the blog post, when she detailed exactly that case, and noted that there were conflicting accounts on whether or not the person in question was “a true trans person”. Any statements that stated that the perpetrator was faking it can easily be mere accusations of deceptive behavior, and at best it is unconfirmed that the person was pretending. In both instances where I “disagreed” with Callie on how she should spread her message, she had done the research or had the relevant background, and I had not.
This makes sense, and it is an entirely reasonable position to treat an affected person as the “expert”. A person’s lived experiences are probably going to outweigh what you know if you are not similarly affected. Likewise, you are probably not going to outsmart an expert in a field like a professor. I have previously touched on how scientists and faculty have to invest a large amount of time and energy into their work to become “experts”. Any “argument” you can come up with is almost certainly something they have encountered before. Compare this to someone who has experienced bigotry their whole life, particularly someone engaged in activism. Any argument you bring up isn’t going to be anything new they haven’t seen, and will likely be as fruitless as asking how asking an environmental engineering professor how climate change still exists even though it’s snowing outside.
Ultimately, both the classroom and allyship are there for you to learn. You will start with some of the basics, and work your way towards better and better expertise. Don’t expect to get it all at once. There are some inherent inaccuracies that will be involved in learning a new subject. After taking a general chemistry course you will still think of basic SPDF bonds without hybridized bonds that you learn about later in organic chemistry, or you will think of chemical reactions using up 100% of the reactants without the thorough knowledge of chemical equilibrium that states it will never happen. You will, however, get better and better over time. As with all things, we can recognize that nobody will ever have perfect knowledge of anything. It is only when you’ve spent enough time that you can be considered knowledgeable about a subject enough to speak up in an effective manner. This is where the second analogy comes in.
Allyship as a hype man*
The most important aspect of being a hype man is that the show isn’t about you. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have your own voice or say in the matter, you can’t have influence, and that your critical input shouldn’t play a factor in the people you are trying to help out. In Icons of Hip Hop: An Encyclopedia of the Movement, Music, and Culture, Mickey Hess states, “A hype man is a figure who plays a central but supporting role within a group, making his own interventions, generally aimed at hyping up the crowd while also drawing attention to the words of an MC.” I really think this illustrates many of the points in helping raise the voice of affected persons.
Allyship is important, and many movements wouldn’t be successful without them. I hope I don’t have to make this case. But ultimately, it’s the affected persons who need to be heard. The hype man can get people pumped up for the message, and similarly, allies are important for emphasizing certain issues that don’t necessarily affect them. A hype man doesn’t speak on behalf of someone, but they do shout in support of that person. If an ally sees a societal problem and wants to see it corrected, the ally shouldn’t speak on the issue as if they are an expert right off the bat. If they have a platform or an access to a platform, they draw attention to people affected by the problem.
This also emphasizes that an ally doesn’t merely parrot what another activist will say. An ally is a unique individual, and they have their own voice, and they are able to spread their message in the way that they think is most effective. It’s important to note, though, that “whatever is most effective” should be within the context of what they have learned from the people they are trying to help. It wouldn’t make sense to hype up a rapper whose message you weren’t familiar with, or that doesn’t really align with what you’re trying to say. That being said, there certainly appear to be hype men who have a unique message and a unique voice, such as Flavor Flav for Public Enemy or Yo-Landi Vi$$er of Die Antwoord. They are able to get across their message in their own way, while successfully contributing positively to the success of the group.
Those critical of social justice issues have a warped view of allyship such that they think you aren’t allowed to be critical if you are an ally. The previous analogy covered reasons why this can be attributed to lack of expertise, but let’s assume that you are educated enough on the message. If you really, truly think something is wrong, perhaps you are capable of talking to the star of the show. Perhaps it will help. If an artist truly wants to put on the best show, they will value your input, especially if they are a friend and you have made it clear that you want the best presentation possible. But if one rapper told another rapper exactly why they should change “word X” into “word Y”, or that they should say something “like this instead”, the star of the show would be entirely in the right of calling that person out for word or tone policing. If something is egregiously wrong, like if an artist is too drunk to function before a performance, of course something should be done. But this perspective is entirely focused on the exception to the rule instead of the rule itself. The stage is not the place for criticism or debate; it’s about getting out the message. If something’s truly wrong and of genuine concern, approach it the way most conversations should take place: in a private, comfortable setting with the understanding of mutual respect.
Again, though, the emphasis is not on you. This also goes for drawing attention to how good of a job you are at supporting the cause. This is why things like #notallmen are hardly reassuring, or that a Christian group titled Not All Like That misses the point. We know that there are Christians that are not only non-homophobic or non-transphobic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t recognize that religious attitudes are at the heart of those bigotries. Even if a hype man is doing a fantastic job of riling up the audience and engaging the crowd in callbacks, the hype man would be completely out of place drawing attention to himself once the person they support is on a roll. When a religious ally hears of the damage that Christians have given to LGBTQ youth and their first instinct is to emphasize that, “It’s not me who is doing that”, they pull the spotlight towards them and away from where the problem is. It shifts the conversation away from where it needs to be held. And that is harmful.
Neither of these analogies are perfect. No analogy will be perfect. There are terrible professors who don’t do their job well, and are occasionally forced to teach things that they aren’t well-versed in. I also don’t think most hip-hop artists need hype men, and I’m certain that I got something wrong about hype men due to my lack of rap knowledge. Perhaps I should take my own advice and some commenters will be able to give me feedback where I am misplaced about hip-hop culture. But the point is there are positive, helpful reasons behind two of the biggest guidelines for allyship. Skeptics sometimes are uncomfortable with staying quiet or taking a back seat when needed, but both of them are there for many reasons. They help you both grow as a person and to help a cause. It also emphasizes that there is a time and place for many types of dialogue and behavior. With proper education and experience, we can take what we hear and use it to change the world in the best way possible.
*I really wish there was a more gender-neutral variant of this term. For the sake of an otherwise good analogy that emphasizes some important points about allyship, I have elected to use the original term “hype man”, with the emphasis that this shouldn’t imply any elevated importance to masculinity or gender essentialism.