As we enter this new year of 2018, after a politically and spiritually challenging 2017 for the United States and the rest of the world, many around me are reflecting on promises we made to ourselves and communities at this time last year.
When considering the commitments I made last year and those that I will make to myself and my communities this year, I’ve reflected often on an interview with the brilliant and badass Alicia Garza, who spoke a few months ago on one of my favorite podcasts--Politically Reactive, with W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu.
Garza, one of the Black Lives Matter co-founders and the Special Projects Director at National Domestic Workers Alliance, shared incredible insight and power throughout the interview. This came as no surprise as I echo W. Kamau Bell’s opening of the interview, when he told Garza, “Reading your Facebook page is helping me get through this era of America.” ****Note: if you don’t follow Garza on Facebook yet, get there!****
The interview touched on so many important aspects of our world’s past, present, and future: how to move beyond Hillary vs. Bernie debates and into world-building, the crisis in Puerto Rico and the impending era of climate refugees, the importance of calling white racism for what it is and acknowledging who 45 is really here for (hint, a very tiny number of individuals!), the vital role of identity politics in our society, South Asian appropriation of black culture and simultaneous quest for proximity to whiteness, the horror of respectability politics, our society’s failure to value domestic work, and need to fight for domestic workers’ rights.
But the part that resonated with me most deeply, the point that has found its way to the forefront of my mind again and again in the weeks since hearing the interview, and something that I’ve heard from Garza and others previously, has to do with the word ally.
In the world of social and racial justice, activism, and resistance to the white supremacist hetero-partriarchy, ally is often undefined or defined in different ways by different individuals or groups. One example offered by Suffolk University defines an ally as: “a person who is a member of an advantaged social group who takes a stand against oppression, works to eliminate oppressive attitudes and beliefs in themselves and their communities, and works to interrogate and understand their privilege.”
Many folks have acknowledged for some time that the ways in which self-identified ‘allies’ operate and define this title are not helpful or accurate characterizations of the work that is needed from people with privilege to dismantle the systems that perpetuate oppression. Multiple articles and videos give tips for how to be a “good ally,” with titles like, “So You Call Yourself an Ally: 10 Things All ‘Allies’ Need to Know,” “Being A Good Ally Means Not Expecting A Reward,” “ALLY 101: FUNDAMENTALS EVERYONE SHOULD KNOW,” “Is Your Allyship Proactive? How to Be an Ally in Training,” “HEY, WHITE ALLIES? IT’S GAME TIME,” “How to be an ACTIVE Trans Ally,” and more.
These articles offer important tools and rightly acknowledge that allyship is much more than claiming that title. Yet, they still all continue to use that word as the unquestioned term to characterize the justice work of folks with privilege.
One article, written in 2013 by Mia McKenzie, founder of Black Girl Dangerous (BGD), is titled “No More Allies” and with its title suggests an abandonment of that term altogether. Illustrating the mess that is folks who claim to be allies, McKenzie writes, “Allyship is not supposed to look like this, folks. It’s not supposed to be about you. It’s not supposed to be about your feelings. It’s not supposed to be a way of glorifying yourself at the expense of the folks you claim to be an ally to. It’s not supposed to be a performance. It’s supposed to be a way of living your life that doesn’t reinforce the same oppressive behaviors you’re claiming to be against.”
In contrast to many of the previously noted articles that explain how folks can be better allies, McKenzie ends the article by asserting that they will no longer use the term ally at all, in favor of terms that actually implicate action, a constant state of growth and change, rather than an identity to be achieved.
When writing this, I found it deeply frustrating that McKenzie wrote their piece back in 2013 and almost all of the articles I linked to above were written between then and now. McKenzie’s BGD is often credited as being one of the first online sites to produce content centered on BIPOC and QTBIPOC (learn about these words through the AFO glossary), and yet articles published precisely about this issue on sites that were created and made possible in the space that BGD opened for us (AFO is absolutely an example of this) continue to use a term that McKenzie clearly illustrated as outdated and harmful.
One article published on Everyday Feminism, “So You Call Yourself an Ally: 10 Things All ‘Allies’ Need to Know,” even references McKenzie’s article in the first paragraph and uses it as the premise for its recommendations. Yet the article still uses the term ALLY, when McKenzie’s explicit conclusion was that we need to eradicate this term from our justice work vocabulary and move to something that implicates action.
As I and many of the folks I am in community with say over and over again: Language Matters. The fact that multiple articles have been written about how to be a GOOD ally and about how often self-identified allies don’t do allyship well illustrates that this word is no longer serving us and our movements. Could it be that the reason we cannot bring ourselves to retire this word is that doing so actually requires us to DO the work and hold others accountable to the same?
Shared definitions also matter.
As Garza says in the Politically Reactive interview, “first and foremost...I hate the word ally. It means absolutely nothing to me. Honestly I hate it because...it doesn’t mean anything. You know, I could say, ‘I’m an ally to children who are making Nike shoes in Bangladesh,’ but that doesn’t mean anything if I’m wearing Nikes, you know what I’m saying?”
She goes on to (re)-suggest a term that I believe serves as an answer to McKenzie’s call. A call for a new word with a shared definition of what we need from folks with privilege; and, acknowledging that every individual is privileged over another in some way, what we need to be as folks with privilege. Garza says,
"I actually prefer to think about co-conspirators as a framework that makes more sense."
Basically I’m like, look, are you putting in the work or not? Because I don’t want to hear from “allies” who I hear from all the time, saying “I really want to support your movement, but….” I’m like, yo, you just found one pebble in a huge beach, which means you didn’t really wanna be on the beach in the first place.
So, co-conspirators are people who are actively fighting against the system of white supremacy, and in particular, the benefits that they receive from it. And allies are folks who are kind of standing by, right, “let me know what I need to be doing!” But that’s not active, and it also requires people of color to lead and guide you.”
I used the term re-suggest above because the concept of co-conspirators is one Garza has spoken about before. It’s something that we need to be talking and thinking about in all activist, organizing, resistance, and movement building spaces. It’s something I don’t hear or say enough.
It’s very different from ALLY, which is a passive and static identity, in that the term co-conspirator is derived from conspire, which is a verb--an action. Because of this derivation, it is implicitly less static, and it acknowledges that one could be a co-conspirator in one moment and decidedly not in the next. When thinking about a situation of injustice, you can ask yourself if you are being an ALLY and very easily assure yourself that you are, even if just by agreeing silently. When you ask yourself if you are being a Co-Conspirator, on the other hand, you very easily reach the conclusion that agreeing silently is not enough. You are not really doing anything to conspire against the forces of oppression.
And again, as we know, LANGUAGE MATTERS. Just as derogatory words have weight, carry, and inflict hurt, other words have the power to influence, even determine, action. By actively changing our vocabulary from ALLY to CO-CONSPIRATOR, we have the power to influence the ways in which we and others act.
Garza’s argument for the ally to co-conspirator language shift on Politically Reactive is especially salient because she provides multiple examples of how to be a co-conspirator -- specifically directed towards white people in the fight against white supremacy.
She says, "Where I’ve seen good examples of that, right, are, for example, I have a crew of folks that I go to when white folks ask me a bunch of dumb questions. Questions that I’m like, I’m not spending any more time explaining this to you.
I had someone send me a four page email not too long ago, that went so many places. It went to inner-city violence in Chicago (where I was like you guys, your talking points are so wack), then it went to how they treated their Nicaraguan staff, and then it went to education is really the key, and then it went to if we just stopped talking about race…I mean it was all the excuses of things in one email. And I was like you know, somebody should do some work with this person.
But it’s not me. If I have finite time on this earth, I wanna use it in a way where I am bringing the best of what I have to bare and it is not dealing with basic ass questions about life in general.
But I don’t have a squad of white folks that are like, I’m happy to take that on, you know what I’m saying? And I’m with that."
Here is a concrete example of what a CO-CONSPIRATOR can do. By having the black or brown person establish with a group of white people that they can be called on to deal with these conversations, this strategy relieves the black or brown person of the burden to use their precious energy, time, and spirit; it maintains their agency and power to ask, while avoiding an experience with a white savior, who swoops in without permission; and it ensures those crucial conversations around race are happening.
A few important notes: this doesn’t have to be every black or brown person’s strategy, now or ever. Personally, I do not feel completely confident yet with having these conversations on my own and it’s important to me that I am able to have them. Having that goal for myself means that I don’t feel my energy is always mis-spent on these conversations at this point in my life. However, I see and understand completely why Alicia Garza and others have many many many better, more energizing, world-building, and life-giving places to be directing their work.
At the same time, I do believe that every white person should offer this act of co-conspiracy to every black and brown person in their life. I also believe that every white person should ask themselves daily, how they are being a co-conspirator in the quest to dismantle white supremacy. I believe that every non-black person of color should ask themselves daily, how they are being a co-conspirator in the quest to dismantle anti-blackness. And, in the vain of Garza’s example about children making Nikes, I believe that every person residing in the United States should ask themselves daily, how are they being a co-conspirator in the quest against US hegemony.
I believe that every person who has any form of privilege (straight privilege, US citizen privilege, geographical privilege, white privilege, cis privilege, able-bodied privilege, etc.) can be a better movement and just-world builder if they use co-conspirator as the framework for evaluating their work and the work of others.
If you are with Mia McKenzie, Alicia Garza, now Art for Ourselves and others in the call to dismantle the word ALLY and replace it with the framework of CO-CONSPIRATOR, here are some questions to guide you into this new year:
If you are a white person, have you told your black and brown friends that they can send white folks to you for conversations about their dumb-ass questions? Have you asked them if they trust you to have those conversations? Are you willing to hear their feedback if they say no?
If you are a nonblack person of color, have you told your black friends that they can send non-black people of color to you for these conversations? Have you asked them if they trust you to have those conversations? Are you willing to hear their feedback if they say no?
If you are a human, how are you being or have you been a co-conspirator in the fight for justice? What are examples of moments in which you were NOT acting as a co-conspirator? What could you have done in those moments to become one? How will you have conversations with your communities about shifting language away from ALLY and towards CO-CONSPIRATOR? How will you become a CO-CONSPIRATOR at every individual moment you experience, witness, and perpetuate injustice?
*****If you’re feeling energized, overwhelmed, or just ready to get to work, consider using this month’s Gathering to Get Organized framework to get a group of folks together and discuss!*****