Perhaps “check your privilege” is just a form of in-group signalling, a move that distributes discursive power between people who see themselves as belonging to the same social and political community. It functions as a kind of progressive Robert’s Rules of Order, a relatively impersonal way to nudge or remind someone to stop dominating conversation or leadership.
The rhetorical use of “ally” operates very similarly. It comes out of a deep history of critical attention to the way in which whites, men, straights, abled or white straight abled men consistently grab the reins of political and social struggles for racial, gender or sexual equality and justice. Often unintentionally or unconsciously. The ways that space and power are ceded to dominant actors are often equally unconscious, evidence of the persistent power of stereotypes and discrimination. The reminder to be an ally is meant as a kind of habitual reminder against those tendencies, a sort of struggle checklist. Who is speaking to represent what a group or movement wants or is doing? How was it decided that they should speak? Who is claiming to represent what a group or constituency want or think? Those are always valid questions, and if a movement concerned with what’s being done to people of color or to women or to queers, etc., always finds that the answers are “somebody else”, then that’s a problem.
Uncomfortably, however, ally is sometimes used more expansively, in several ways. For one, it seems to me that sometimes the people who are most likely to police a debate or movement by asking some participants to recede into ally status are themselves people who ought to be “allies” in that circumstance. It’s very likely that in regular reading of progressive conversations in social media you will come across many examples of white straight men or women telling other white straight men or women what it means to be an ally and what the content and appearance of proper ally behavior in the conversation at hand ought to be. This is at least an intervention that begs for a self-reflexivity that it often lacks.
For another, without a fairly careful and historically self-conscious use of the idea, talk of allyship sometimes seems to function as a kind of in-group manipulation of eager outsiders who want to hang out with the in-group. A sort of progressive rushing of potential pledges, with some being sent off to the equivalent of a social justice Delta House. The point of reminding people about being allies is to not speak on behalf of groups or causes, to not anoint themselves as representative speakers without a representative structure for making decisions. The objective is not to produce a state of fawning dependency in someone who is essentially seeking a merit badge or other acknowledgement of their personal virtue.
More importantly, however, is that there is another meaning to “ally” that is strategically important to any group pursuing political or social change. The question in this case is not the distribution of power or authority within a group, but about what groups, institutions or causes require to make strategic gains, to achieve their goals.
“Ally” even in the sense of trying to be mindful of authority within a loosely progressive coalition or group is also a move that insists on at least the necessity and vitality of organizing struggles in terms of identities. Even if you invoke intersectionality, those identities tend to resolve into discrete, structured forms. There is a huge body of scholarly and political writing on identity politics, essentialism (strategic or otherwise), new social movements and so on, and I won’t try to laboriously navigate my way through it all. I don’t quite agree with the sort of left critique that Walter Benn Michaels and others have offered that puts class or economic inequality out there as the important and “real” issue. It should be apparent that I have my doubts about the wisdom of many forms of identity politics, but I would hope in some sense to be enough of an ally of sorts to say that their pursuit is not for me to say yes or no to: the strategic decisions involved are properly vested elsewhere, in other people and other communities.
The point where I and many others enter the picture, with whatever sympathies and knowledge we may have, is when groups, communities or institutions are not by themselves and of themselves sufficient to achieve their goals, protect their practices, or satisfy their needs. Some political and cultural projects don’t need allies or have very parsimonious requirements largely aimed at securing or protecting otherwise sufficient existing practices. Even in this case, the important thing to understand is that “ally” necessarily means someone who is not part of the group and does not share its direct interests or outlook.
Whether political and social actors need few allies or many, they have to think clearly about three things: 1) the instrumental goals that require allies; 2) which allies and why; 3) and what those allies need or want as the price of their support. If there’s no difference between supposed allies–same struggle, same fight–then they’re not your ally. They are you. If they are an ally, they’re not you, and don’t have the same interests and goals that you do.
If I can accomplish an important goal of mine entirely on my own, I will. Of course I will. Who wouldn’t? If it’s a goal that others seek in exactly the same fashion, again, why wouldn’t we just accomplish it if we could? If you can mobilize enough power to overwhelm or ignore any divergent or opposing interests, why not do so?
If we need allies, what we’re doing is recognizing first that there are people who do not share our goals entirely but who may support some of our goals. Second we’re recognizing a limit to our capacity or to our power, that we can’t do it on our own. It may be that one of our goals is to live in a world where there are other groups with other goals, of course. In fact, that’s almost necessarily true if we expect anyone to be our allies except in the most brutally cynical sort of Molotov-Ribbentrop sense: if we look for allies and don’t expect to betray or dispose of them at the first opportunity, we believe that our own goals are compatible with other goals, and our goals are thus limited or constrained in their scope. So third, you are recognizing that other groups and other people have different goals and needs that are at least tolerably distinct or divergent from your own, and that you can not only live with but support the difference between you and your ally.
That’s of course why talking as if you don’t need allies, as if you’re already sufficiently empowered, when this is absolutely not true, is such a bad strategic move. There’s very little reason for allies to join your cause if you’ve preemptively dismissed the need for such allies, or displayed contempt for the ways in which their priorities and needs may diverge from your own.
Perhaps many movements don’t think very clearly about alliances because doing so sometimes means that they come to discover that their own group is not the hero of the story or the prime mover of change. Sometimes thinking clearly about alliances means they discover that they are the ally to some more powerful or coherent institution or cause. Sometimes thinking clearly means they have to recognize that they don’t even know what they want or how they’re going to get it, or what the minimum necessary costs of an alliance might be. Sometimes, at least for progressives, they end up recognizing that a lot of muddled assumptions about the social coherence of the left are unwarranted. That’s precisely why many progressive coalitions have the half-life of Rutherfordium. Too many people want to just demand alliance and not enough people want to think about the ways that successful alliance requires suppressing or deferring or modifying some aspect of their own goals and needs.
Another part of Grasping the Nettle.