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A micro history of allyship and the future of solidarity

My ally is not the one who goes to war for me, but the one who sees that the war is ours, a fiction, a story that we create together, and in seeing that, we ourselves are its authors. My ally holds me with admiration and care as I see the war is to be won inside as much as in a bellowing battle cry. For power is a gift I give to myself with ferocity. My ally asks not for my blood or my money — easy come, easy go — but for my dedication in being, doing, and seeing their fallibility as my own and their strength as my own. For my ally is me, and I them.

Allyship is not new, though our current use of the word in reference to social justice is new-ish. The concept of allyship comes from war, and war was around long before today’s discussions about colonialism, slavery, and policy. Allyship was an action that a region at war asked another region for out of sheer terror of bloody annihilation. Being an ally meant giving some form of aid, like money, food, animals, land, weapons, and warriors. Being an ally might have meant dying for the same cause, or watching your mate or child die for the cause, even if the cause was a pet interest of the ruler/monarch and not particularly dear to your family. Allyship was about territory and survival.

Certainly there are many specifics absent here. But all we need at the moment is a juxtaposition with contemporary allyship…

Today, allyship has come to mean someone who has your back, not only in rhetoric, but in practice. Sounds simple. Yet the desire to be an ally does not make it so. The ability to be an ally takes practice; there is no on/off switch. We can’t just declare, “I’m an ally!” because allyship is about relationships and relationships aren’t built overnight. Building a relationship is about trust and thus about learning to be in solidarity rather than to be in charge.

“In other words, an ally walks beside, not in front” which means that to be an ally I have to pay attention to my own gait as well as the pace of the people I claim to ally with (Indigenous Allyship). So to be an ally I must assume the position — physical, material, rhetorical, financial, spiritual position — of being in relationship. Allyship today isn’t so transactional as it was in times of war. Allyship now ”creates accountability and responsibility for sustained action, and is fundamental to meaningful coexistence” (same piece).

A dancer doesn’t stop dancing the day after their performance and a researcher doesn’t stop researching the day after their presentation. Dancers move because that’s who they are and researchers investigate because they can’t not. If you do retire the day after, it’s because you were just doing it for the external payoff.

Professionals train so they are always ready. Professionals assume the position. Allyship requires that we assume the position.

Um… how do I do that? I feel like I’m an ally… I want to be an ally… but I’m not sure what to do, how to be.

Before we get into practical steps, let’s take a brief detour into a politically incorrect sentiment. We know that shame and guilt get in the way of growth. Shame and guilt are emotionally constipating. Growth requires change, which requires movement.

Consider: being good at something requires that we train for a “distinctive set of skills” so if you spend most of your time watching movies, you’ll get good at that. Or going hiking, you’ll get good at that. It also means that you won’t get good at being an ally. That’s not weird, it’s normal. Any competence requires “gaps of incompetence around peaks of virtuoso ability” (On Ineptness).

But compared to consuming media and walking outdoors, becoming an ally is harder to track. So forgive yourself for struggling to understand your progress or difficulties in being an ally.

OK, sounds good… now, what do I do?

First step

Take a breath and let go of the desire to perform allyship. There’s no need to virtue signal if we’re actually doing the work. Because being an ally is about being relational, it doesn’t ask us for perfection. It requires, instead, that we consistently practice honest awareness about where we’re at.

Feel whatever you’ve accumulated, even if it’s lousy. Throw yourself a mini pity party for a day or write an angry letter and burn it if you need to. The only rule is to process and release rather than bottle it up or fling it at others. Then, once you’ve forgiven yourself, get to work.

More practical steps: Make friends with not needing constant validation. Allies don’t go around declaring they are allies. Professionals don’t need to be congratulated for being pros because their competency is obvious. Yes, we all need to celebrate our little wins and be appreciated. But we don’t require constant validation that we’re “good.”

>> Measure: Do colleagues or friends who are different from you occasionally mention — completely and totally unsolicited from you — that they feel that you hear them, that it’s refreshing to talk to someone who gets it? Not all the time, but here and there. If this isn’t happening because you don’t have conversations with people who aren’t like you, then start with opening your circle to include people who are markedly different.

More practical steps: Look around you, inside and out. What’s in your heart, your mind, your home, your neighborhood, your region? What you value is what you spend your time and money on. Where do you, your family, and your neighborhood allocate resources, focus, action? Whatever you find at the center of your focus, try repositioning it to the side. Try something different at the center of your universe. Get Copernican. What can you learn from re-orienting?

>> Mesure: Notice your physiological responses when re-orienting. How does your body feel when something new is at the center of your frame? Do you sweat, does your heart rate increase, temperature rise or fall, breathing quicken, stomach feel unusual, or neck tighten? If you experience a heightened physiological state, you may be responding with acute stress or minor panic.

More practical steps: Learn history from multiple perspectives. There’s a chance that most of the history you’ve encountered is from just a handful of sources. What you were taught in school was probably limited. My mom was a teacher for 40 years and I’ve taught college for over a decade, so this is not an indictment of teachers, it’s commentary about most curricula mandated by institutions. No books (or other media) are bad, including those written in hatred. What’s bad is teaching those voices out of context and discussing them for what they are; for example, showing the grandeur and delusions of people who enslaved and killed other people for their own economic edification is helpful to understanding fear and power.

>> Measure: Pick a book, article, podcast, documentary… whatever format gets you going… that goes against your worldview. How do you react in your mind and in your body? Do you call the author names or the people depicted mean things? Do you laugh at it and say that you pity anyone stupid enough to do x, y, and z? The question isn’t whether you like the content or approve of the message. This is an exercise to understand yourself. Can you get really curious about what others have done or experienced?

I’ll leave you with one last practical step… Visualize a better tomorrow and the micro-habits you need to enact to make that vision a reality.

Do I sound like one of those billionaire habit people? So be it. Allyship is servant leadership — we’re not marching out in front of the group and saying we know what’s best. Allyship requires tenacity, resiliency, grit, and a lot of humble pie. Habits come from doing differently, which comes from being differently, and being differently comes from assuming the position of a different person. Leave your habituated position and assume the position of ally.

So dream… who do you want to be for the world? Then you’d better become that person.

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