There’s a tendency, which I have observed over many years, for lots of white people to want to frame anti-racist struggle in ways that highlight and foreground their own agency and capacity to contribute. No doubt, this tendency is rooted in good, commendable intentions. Many white people quite rightly want to contribute, and so they look for guidance about how they might contribute as usefully and effectively as possible. The result is that the capacity for white people, as white people, to contribute to anti-racism gets surprisingly extensive levels of attention within activist circles, much more so than would have been the case in the heyday of North American anti-racism (if that’s what it was), in the days of Malcolm X, the Black Power movement, the Black Panther Party, and the Combahee River Collective. Well-intentioned or not, we should stop, I think, to reflect on the possibility that all this attention to white people’s agency in the struggle against racism might create a certain imbalance, at least, in our analysis and discussion of the aims and methods of anti-racist organizing.
This habit of highlighting the role of white people in anti-racism can find expression in a number of different ways. Traditionally, white liberals in the USA foregrounded their own role by imagining that the courts and the official political process (or, in the most preposterous version, FBI agents!) were the spearheads of anti-racist social change. More recently, some activists whose discourse is motivated by political radicalism rather than liberalism have adopted a different way of foregrounding the agency of white people. They do so by conceptualizing anti-racist struggle, at least to some substantial extent, in terms of what they call “allyship.” In this discourse, a central reference point (although certainly not the only reference point) in anti-racist politics is the figure of the “anti-racist ally,” which is understood to be a type of white person.
The concept of allyship in general, and the anti-racist ally in particular, did not first emerge from within the domain of social-movement strategy. Instead, it was imported into social movement activism from the outside, from the social work profession, e.g., from the work of people like Anne Bishop, whose 1994 book, Becoming an Ally, played a role in popularizing the term (in its current meaning). Allyship, in this context, should not be confused with a similar-sounding word, “alliance,” which has a very different meaning, and which is an irreducibly strategic concept. This other word, “alliance,” refers to the confluence in struggle of large-scale social forces, like social classes or social movements, that take up one another’s demands in the context of a joint commitment to reciprocal solidarity and mutual aid. By contrast, “allyship” is undertaken by individuals, not by entire movements. Allyship is a sincere commitment on the part of a privileged person (and, in the context of anti-racism, that means a white person) to offer ongoing support to individuals, groups, or organizations that are excluded from that kind of privilege, and to take direction from them about the form that support should take.
To advocates of the allyship model of anti-racism (like Anne Bishop, Tim Wise, and others), anti-racist struggle is, if not mainly, at least crucially a matter of white people (1) recognizing their privilege (the benefits that racial hierarchies confer on them); (2) identifying ways in which they are complicit in practices that maintain and reproduce those hierarchies; (3) working to withdraw from or interrupt such practices; and (4) taking direction from people of colour, mostly on an individual basis, about how the would-be ally may be contributing to racial hierarchies, and how they might act differently, to oppose instead of perpetuating those hierarchies.
I do not propose to offer any criticisms of this model of anti-racist struggle, either with respect to its effectiveness at weakening the grip of racism in capitalist societies, or with respect to its capacity to broaden and deepen social movements devoted to destroying racism. For the most part, my intention here is only to highlight the fact that the allyship model is directly in tension with an older, competing model of anti-racism, which does not in fact foreground the agency of white people, but on the contrary treats the struggle against racism as an activity wholly led and largely carried out by racialized people (people of colour) themselves. The most influential advocate of this competing model, which is sometimes called the “self-emancipation” model of anti-racist struggle, is Malcolm X. But it has had other important advocates, including CLR James, and organizations like the BPP, SNCC, and many others.
One might suppose that this “self-emancipation” model is in fact consistent with the “allyship” model. According to this optimistic thought, these two views are not in tension, because while it is true that anti-racism is a self-emancipation struggle, it is also true that anti-racist allyship on the part of white people plays a secondary, but also important role. This sounds plausible, in the abstract. It would be a neat resolution of the tension between these models if they could be parcelled out in this way: self-emancipation for people of colour, supported in a secondary way by the allyship role for white people. Unfortunately, Malcolm’s self-emancipation model of anti-racist struggle differs from the allyship model of anti-racism not just in terms of whose anti-racism it addresses, but in terms of how it positions both racialized people and white people who oppose racism. So, apparently, there can be no tidy accommodation between these models (which doesn’t mean that they have to be mutually antagonistic).
Let’s take a closer look at the points of divergence, where these two models seem to be enduringly in tension with each other. Four points of divergence stand out.
1. Whose Agency is Foregrounded? First, as already suggested above, whereas the allyship model emphasizes the importance of white people in acting to oppose racism, to unlearn it and repudiate the advantages they derive from it, and so gives white anti-racists a crucial role in anti-racist politics, the self-emancipation model relentlessly foregrounds the agency of people of colour in liberating themselves through their own self-activity and self-organization. Anti-racist struggle, according to the self-emancipation view, is something that racialized people, people of colour, undertake in order to free themselves from oppression and subordination. White people, in this conception, are neither expected nor invited to contribute, as white people, any more than labour unions invite supportive participation from employers as a class.
2. Allyship versus Alliances. Second, the self-emancipation model assigns a very different role to white people in the process of anti-racist struggle. While white people are not foregrounded in the self-emancipation model, neither are they excluded entirely from it. Their role, however, is understood in terms of alliances between large-scale social forces or social movements, in which white individuals figure alongside others. In Malcolm’s conception, once racialized people have organized themselves, autonomously, to fight for their own emancipation, they may indeed find it advantageous, from the point of view of maximizing the potency of their struggles, to seek out alliances with other movements or organizations. For example, organizations pursuing the self-directed struggle of African-American people to free themselves from racial oppression may decide, once their own capacity to self-organize and lead their own movement has been secured, that an alliance with (multi-racial) labour unions could assist the movement in its struggle. In that case, the African-American liberation movement could work to develop an alliance, for mutual advantage, between these two movements. Were the terms of such an alliance to be worked out in practice, formally or informally, white people would then have a clear way to participate in the self-emancipation struggle of African Americans: they would be participants in an alliance, such that their organizations (unions, in this case) were committed to making a priority of the demands and aspirations specific to the African-American anti-racist struggle (and vice versa). In such alliances, “an injury to one” is supposed to be treated as “an injury to all.” Therefore, injuries to African-Americans would be treated as if they were injuries to union members generally, including non-racialized (white) union members. In practice, such an alliance might work well sometimes, and badly at other times. In this context, I only want to point out that, in principle, the self-emancipation model of anti-racism also offers a role for white people, as participants in (macro-level) alliances with the self-emancipation struggles of people of colour. But it does not foreground white people, and their agency, as central to anti-racism.
3. Should Whites Oppose Racism as White People, or as Participants in Allied Movements? This brings up the third difference between the two models, which is that, whereas in the allyship model white people participate in anti-racist struggle as white people, that is, in their capacity as a group that is privileged by racism, in the self-emancipation model their participation is not rooted in their own whiteness. Rather, it is rooted in their participation in social movements and social-movement organizations that are aligned with (in the example I have been using) the Black self-liberation movement. Thus, they participate, not as people with white privilege invited to sacrifice their own privileges on the basis of a moral duty, but in their capacity as people pursuing their own struggles (union struggles, environmental struggles, feminist struggles, and so on), but fighting alongside alliance-partners who perhaps share a common enemy, or overlapping strategic objectives, and so lend support to each other’s struggles on that basis. The spirit in which solidarity and support from allied groups (including white anti-racists) is understood within the self-emancipation model is well-captured by the principle promoted by Indigenous activist groups in the South Pacific region (namely, what is now called Queensland, Australia): “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
4. Where Does the Power to Contest Racism Reside? Finally, the self-emancipation model proposes an understanding of where the power to contest racism lies which is starkly different from the understanding implicit in the allyship model. The starting point of the allyship model is that “privileged” groups are powerful, because of their many advantages, and therefore bear a special responsibility to offer aid to weaker groups. By contrast, the starting point of the self-emancipation model is that the oppressed themselves have the capacity, the potential power, to liberate themselves by their own self-activity, using the tools of collective struggle and self-organization (and making such cross-movement alliances as they deem to be necessary and appropriate). This is not just a difference of emphasis, but a wholly different way of framing the struggles of the exploited and oppressed and thinking about how others can or can’t offer support and solidarity.
Now, it might seem that an obvious weakness of the self-emancipation model is that it “lets white people off the hook,” so that they do not have to work in any way to support anti-racist struggle. “How convenient for them!,” some might say. In fact, however, this is a misunderstanding of the model. The point is not that white people don’t have to contribute. It is that their contribution is not grounded in their whiteness or their status a privileged group, but in their participation in struggles and organizations that should, and often (at least on paper) do bear a commitment to working in alliance with anti-racist self-emancipation struggles. White people should actively support anti-racist demands and struggles as environmentalists, as feminists, as union members, as anti-capitalists, and so on, since these movements and the (best) organizations that make them up are committed to aims and struggles that are “bound up with the liberation of” racially oppressed people, who are struggling for their own liberation alongside allies that they have chosen to take on as partners in linked and overlapping (“intersecting”) struggles.
Importantly, there is no reason whatsoever to imagine that the allyship model is more demanding toward white people than the self-emancipation model. Rather, the difference is that the self-emancipation model grounds those demands in the responsibilities created by participation in cross-movement alliances, rather than grounding them in obligations that stem from the injustice of differentiated access to privilege. There should be no doubt, however, that the self-emancipation model gives us ample reason to denounce white environmentalists, union activists, feminists and others who fail to take fighting racism seriously, or refuse to make it a priority in their political activities and personal lives.
Although the self-emancipation model seems to stand out as the more sophisticated and politically astute model, it may not be necessary to reject the allyship view as wholly incorrect. Perhaps in practice there could be a productive tension between these two approaches, so that each model enriches the other by generating insights to which its counterpart would otherwise remain oblivious. That possibility can’t be discounted. But, at the very least, we need to acknowledge that the tension here is real. In particular, we should be alert to the price we pay when we allow the allyship model to take up so much space in activist discourse that it threatens to overshadow and obscure from view the insights of the self-emancipation model.