Did you know that when Black Lives Matter activist Bree Newsome climbed up the South Carolina capitol to remove the confederate flag, a white man named James Ian Tyson helped her do it? In this post, Kris Macomber explains the important role that ally activists can play in social movements, discusses some unintended consequence of ally activism, and offers tips for how allies can support social change movements without stepping on the toes of the movements’ rightful leaders.
When you picture the activists in the Black Lives Matter movement, do you picture the faces of Black women and men? When you imagine who is at the forefront of feminist activism, do you imagine a multi-cultural group of women?
If you answered “yes,” then you have guessed right. Social change movements are comprised mostly of minority group activists, or what sociologist David Myers (2008) calls beneficiary activists. The term “beneficiary” implies that they are the people directly impacted by the movement’s goals and efforts.
Social change movements aren’t comprised entirely of beneficiary activists, though. In fact, dominant group members often join social movements and advocate on behalf of minority group activists—just like James Ian Tyson. Last year, comedian and actor Aziz Ansari sat on David Letterman’s couch and called himself a feminist and then criticized the gender wage gap. Just this fall, after Jennifer Lawrence’s scathing indictment of sexism in Hollywood, Bradley Cooper demanded salary transparency. These kind of activists are what sociologists call social movement allies.
The Manifest & Latent Functions of Ally Activism
As sociologists, we often raise questions that examine both the manifest (obvious and intended) and latent (non-obvious and un-intended) consequences of social behavior and social organization. Regarding ally activism, we would ask: What are the intended consequences of ally activism? And, what are the un-intended consequences?
Let’s start by considering the manifest function of ally activism. First, social movements can benefit from the endorsement and involvement of dominant group allies because they are the ones who have social, economic, and political power. Allies serve as visible and powerful reminders that “minority issues” deserve widespread attention. White activists in the Black Lives Matter Movement and men in the feminist movement can elevate the importance of minority group issues. Ally activism, then, is strategic and beneficial for social movement organizing.
But, what about the latent functions of ally activism? What are some un-intended consequences of ally activism? Well, ironically, for the very same reason that ally activists are beneficial, they are simultaneously problematic. You might be wondering, “But, how can that be?”
Ally Activists Ride the Glass Escalator
You see, along with their dominant group status, allies bring with them the privileges and power their status affords them. In other words, the power differentials between beneficiary and ally activists that exist outside the movement get brought into the movement. This means that whites bring their white privilege and other aspects of dominant white culture into the Black Lives Matter movement, thus shaping interactions within the movement. Men bring their male privilege and other aspects of patriarchal culture into feminist activist circles, and, they too, end up transforming the mostly-women activist spaces.
Ally activists have been known to exert their social dominance and exercise their privilege by “taking up too much space” and overstepping beneficiary activists. Allies have been accused of trying to “take-over” the movement. A question beneficiary activists commonly ask ally activists is: “Are you here to support our cause, or are you here to take charge?”
In addition, ally activists can experience an elevated status in the movement. That is, since ally activists do not benefit directly from the movements’ goals (although there are strong arguments that we all benefit from equality), their participation is seen as unexpected and perhaps even exceptional or “special.” In turn, ally activists themselves are sometimes regarded as special or exceptional people. Put another way, they are helping simply by showing up. This ends up further perpetuating their social power and privileges. While many allies devote a lot of time and effort, many also get credit and recognition for doing very little. Case in point: Bradley Cooper made one public comment about pay discrepancies and he was immediately lauded as “helping fight Hollywood sexism.”
In my own research on male allies in the anti-violence against women movement (Macomber 2014), I found that men in the movement enjoyed an elevated status and were often placed on what women activists called “pedestals.” Men in the movement tended to receive more media attention and recognition than women activists and were pushed (or pulled) into visible leadership positions quickly. In this way, male allies ride what sociologist Christine Williams (1992) termed “the glass escalator,” which is a term used to explain how men in female-dominated professions are quickly promoted to top leadership positions. The glass escalator effect runs counter to the experiences of women working in male-dominated professions who hit a “glass ceiling” and are denied access to top managerial and leadership positions.
Consequently, ally activists—despite their best intentions—may end up reinforcing the very inequality these movements are working to end.
Without a doubt, this is a tangly situation.
Allies are Here to Stay : 7 Tips for Ally Activism
Despite the fact that allies may inevitably benefit from social hierarchies within social movements, that doesn’t mean that they should be booted out of the movement. Let’s not, as the popular saying goes, throw the baby out with the bathwater because social change requires the participation of everyone.
Here are some tips for how ally activists can effectively be involved in social movements without stepping on the toes of the movement’s rightful leaders:
- Remember that your role is to support beneficiary activists, not call the shots.
- Listen to beneficiary activists and learn from them about the key issues the movement is confronting.
- Ally activists should be reflective about the privilege and power that they bring to activist spaces.
- If you are interested in taking on a visible leadership role in the movement, ask beneficiary activists what they think it should look like and how you can best serve the movement (before you take a leadership role, make sure you have received sufficient education and training from beneficiary activists and their trusted sources).
- Create space to do “ally accountability” work. This can be a space where beneficiary activists can hold you accountable and tell you about how your privilege “shows up” in the movement.
- Be open and receptive to feedback and critique. Ally activists tend to get defensive and say things like, “That’s not what I meant.” Good ally involvement requires you to resist the impulse to get defensive.
- Although it is imperative for beneficiary activists to be able to tell allies how their privilege “shows up,” it is important that beneficiary activists do not shoulder ALL the responsibility for teaching allies about their privilege. Remember that beneficiary activists have important activist work to do and can’t be bogged down by teaching you about your privilege. In short, allies must be self-reflective about privilege.
- In your own words, explain why it is important that beneficiary activists are the primary leaders of social change movements?
- What are some of the social privileges that you currently have? List at least 3 and explain your choices.
- How can beneficiary activists secure their status as the movement leaders as they work alongside dominant group allies? Brainstorm some ways.
- Oftentimes, journalists and reporters will interview ally activists about the social movement rather than beneficiary activists. Why do you think this is the case? How might this tendency reflect allies’ elevated social status?
- Macomber, Kris. 2014. Integrating men as allies in anti-violence work: Accountability and beyond. XY: Men, Masculinities, and Gender Politics.
- Myers, David. 2008. “Ally identity: The Politically Gay.” Pp. 167–187 in Identity Work in Social Movements. Jo Reger, Daniel J. Myers & Rachel L. Einwohner, eds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Williams, Christine. 1992. “The Glass Escalator: Hidden Advantages for Men in the ‘Female’ Professions.” Social Problems 39(3): 253–267.