I spent years asking myself, why is it that some of us who aspire to be allies for social justice are effective in working against oppression, while others ultimately serve to perpetuate systems of oppression despite our best intentions? Then I began asking myself, why is it that I am sometimes effective and at other times perpetuate systems of oppression despite my own good intentions? This led to a conceptual framework of Aspiring Ally Identity Development which was published in the NASPA Journal in 2007. This work on aspiring allyship is widely recognized and referenced the Southern Poverty Law Center and Teaching Tolerance and has been integrated as a cornerstone for the leadership and diversity training programs implemented by corporations including Microsoft and Price Waterhouse Cooper. This post includes a brief description of aspiring ally identity development (AAID) from this article with my own experiences operating from each status related specifically to issues of men’s gender based violence.
Although not everyone uses the same definition, for the the purposes here, I use “allies” as members of social groups who experience privilege (e. g., men, Whites, and heterosexuals), who work toward a more just and equitable society by working against systems of oppression such as racism, classism, sexism, gendersim, heterosexism, and religious oppression. The way some of us who aspire to be allies inadvertently and often unconsciously reinforce oppressive systems illustrates why self-identifying as an ally can be problematic and why the most credible naming of allies is done by those who experience oppression.
Those of us interested in fostering social justice may be able to develop ourselves and others into more effective, consistent, and sustainable aspiring allies if we understand the associated underlying motivations that form our aspiring ally identity. These identities fall along a developmental continuum, from self-interest to altruism to a blended underlying motivation, associated with an increasing complexity of understanding of what it means to be an ally.
Aspiring Ally for Self-Interest
Some aspiring allies are primarily motivated out of concern for individuals they personally know and care about. Although they may not identify with the term “ally,” they often view themselves in relational terms such as being a good sister or friend. A person functioning from this status may feel powerful and self-actualized when coming to the aid of someone they care about personally. Because the aspiring ally is motivated by specific personal relationships, one’s ally behavior can be inconsistent. The aspiring ally may not consistently confront oppressive behaviors and may even participate in these behaviors if the person one cares about will not be directly affected. Because one does not recognize systemic aspects of oppression, other’s efforts to address more institutional aspects of oppression may be met with resistance and labeled by the aspiring ally as discrimination such as “reverse racism” or the “homosexual agenda.” Aspiring Allies for Self-Interest generally see the world as fair and just and are often shocked when they notice overt acts of oppression still taking place in contemporary society. These aspiring allies generally work over members of the oppressed group they care about by telling them what to do, taking away their agency, in an effort not only to help keep those they care about be safe but to maintain, often unconsciously, the aspiring ally’s own status as a powerful protector or hero.
I exemplified the Aspiring Ally for Self-Interest status when I first was exposed to the issue of men’s gender based violence out of concern for Amy, the woman I had been dating during the summer before my sophomore year of college. I had just finished resident assistant training which included a session focused on men’s role and responsibility in ending sexual violence. At the time, I thought the message was offensive and “sexist” in the way it had the audacity to place responsibility for rape and sexual assault on men as a group. I wasn’t willing to hear that men’s sexual violence was supported by sexism in many aspects of the culture or how I might even be contributing to the sexism in the culture through my own unacknowledged sexist attitudes and behaviors.
Nevertheless, the message about the realities of sexual violence on campus stuck with me after that training session. I was terribly concerned about Amy, who was about to leave for her first year of college at another school. As Amy and I sat at her parents’ kitchen table, I told her just how dangerous college could be for her. In an effort to protect Amy, I told her she shouldn’t walk alone or jog at night and suggested she get some mace or take a self-defense class. Although I refused to see men’s responsibility for addressing the roots of sexual violence, I was very clear about how I could protect Amy and what she should do. My underlying motivation was self-interest in that I was only motivated to protect individuals I knew and cared about from harm. I was not a consistent or effective ally because when Amy or others I cared about were not around I wouldn’t confront the sexist or objectifying behavior of my male peers and even joined in at times, because I did not see how it impacted her directly. Telling Amy what to do without acknowledging the responsibility men have for the roots of sexual violence illustrates how I worked over those who experience sexism (women, trans*, and gender non-conforming folks).
Aspiring Ally for Altruism
Other aspiring allies are motivated by an altruistic motivation to help all who experience oppression. Their increasing intellectual understanding of the systemic nature of oppression and the unearned privilege one experiences as a consequence can often result in guilt and shame. An underlying, often unconscious, motivator for the individual to help members of the oppressed group can be rooted in the desire to manage this guilt and to be seen as “one of the good ones.” This altruistic motivation often results in positive work in the short term, but the paternalistic nature of this altruism ultimately reinforces the system of oppression and the dominance of the aspiring ally as they play the role of exceptional helper to those who experience oppression. In an effort to maintain this exceptional status, this person may react defensively when those who experience oppression point out how the aspiring ally is unknowingly contributing to the system of oppression. In this way, the aspiring ally is working for but not with members of the oppressed group. Burnout is common among Aspiring Allies for Altruism because they are dependent on the praise and approval of members of the oppressed group.
My own altruism grew as I continued to hear about the sexual assault experiences of several of my closest friends. By the time I was in graduate school, my underlying motivation had shifted to a desire to work against sexism as a way to help women (with a lack of awareness of trans* issues, violence, and oppression). My increasing awareness of my unearned privilege, particularly male privilege and White privilege, left me feeling guilt and shame. In an attempt to manage my guilt and because of the stories I continued to hear from women on campus about sexual assault, I was motivated to help women. I invited the same speaker who had led the resident assistant training session that had made me so mad a few years earlier to come speak on my new campus. Soon I was working with him, giving similar presentations across the country.
My underlying motivation was altruistic in that I sought to help women by encouraging other men to recognize the responsibility they had for confronting the root causes of violence against women. Although I did a lot of good work during this time, the paternalism of the rescuer role I was drawn to resulted in actions that ultimately perpetuated the system of patriarchy I aspired to work against. Because I was there to help women, I became dependent on their approval and appreciation. Although I intellectually acknowledged the inevitability of my own sexism, my shame had prevented me from really internalizing the reality of that awareness. If I were criticized for saying or doing something sexist, I would often respond defensively and list my credentials and experience doing anti-sexist work as explanation. I was not only minimizing and dismissing women’s experiences of sexism, clearly a sexist thing to do, but in doing so I was missing critical opportunities to raise my consciousness of my own internalized sexism. In this way, I was working for women, but not with them.
Ally for Social Justice
Still other aspiring allies actively cultivate a blended motivation which combines altruism with a new version of self-interest – enlightened self-interest. An aspiring ally motivated by this blended awareness recognizes that in addition to the harm that comes to members of the oppressed group, members of the privileged group face diminished relationships, well-being, and perceived and real humanity. Allies for Social Justice are consistent and sustainable because they realize that their efforts to escape, impede, amend, or dismantle oppressive systems will help liberate not only those who experience oppression but also those who experience privilege, including themselves. This consciousness helps allies establish systems of accountability and work with those who experience oppression in collaboration and partnership rather than from a position of defensiveness. A clear understanding of the complexity and interconnectedness of systems of oppression leads the individual to recognize the flaws of strategies addressing any one form of oppression in isolation.
A key shift occurred for me when I began to recognize how sexism and patriarchy were not only systemically harming women and granting men concrete and real benefits of unearned privilege, but these same systems were also diminishing my own well-being, relationships, and humanity as a man. This realization helped me to recognize that my anti-sexist efforts were not only about liberating women from sexism but also about liberating myself from patriarchy. Although I often fall short, I find that I am a much better aspiring ally when I am able to cultivate a blended underlying motivation which combines the altruism of working to benefit those who experience sexism but also recognize my own enlightened self-interest as a reason to work against sexism to benefit men as well. When women or more conscious men point out my own unintentional sexism and unacknowledged privilege, I am less defensive and more open to exploring my internalized sexism when I am able see such criticism as a gift towards my own liberation.