Ally Activism: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t?
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.