Several lifetimes ago I went through voluntary training to become a white ally to people of color. Although much of the information was instructive and eye-opening, I never shook the feeling that something about the entire proceeding was off. For one thing, the only admissible structure of oppression was race. All of the other familiar sea creatures that inevitably crawled out of the personal-encounter dragnet–class, gender, sexual orientation, and religion, among others–were declared, prima facie, irrelevant to the overwhelming problem of racism, a declaration that made race itself abstract, strangely disembodied, and reductively binary. But there were bigger problems. The biggest was that any dissent from the politically correct perspective, no matter how tentatively offered, was immediately, reflexively interpreted as evidence of the dissenter’s privilege. The ally induction, like the classical psychoanalysis and communism of old, was a realm in which there could be no legitimate critique. This is a tale we moderns know well.
Lately I’ve seen a lot of discussion about allies in the Mormon feminist world, and I’m not a fan. The language of allies is thin, too thin to sustain meaningful human interaction. If you are my ally and bear no other relationship to me, countering or undoing your privilege becomes the entire basis of our relationship, and that, paradoxically, dooms it. Asking someone to identify as an ally or identifying oneself as an ally is an immediately flattening move, reducing a human encounter to a single dichotomy of privilege. Inevitably some allies tote their ally(ship? hood?) to enhance their own status and credibility, and some usurp the voices of those they ostensibly champion. Just as inevitably some of the allied tell their allies that their only role is to shut up and listen, to demand nothing, not even explanations that might cultivate deeper understanding. This is, to put it mildly, bad strategy, and far worse, it’s bad ethics. But the very model of allyship, every time I’ve seen it enacted, makes reasonable disagreement impossible. Precisely because the countering or reversal of privilege is the whole basis of the interaction, any disagreement from the ally about any issue is immediately attributed to the ally’s privilege. Who then is the ally? What can he or she say but what the allied has already said? And precisely because the countering of privilege is the whole basis of the interaction, I’ve seen the emphatically allied revolt against their token status, tired of being sought out and impersonally championed by overeager allies for whom they are finally nothing but their marginalization.
These failures aren’t simply the failures of human nature, though they are that. They are failures of allyship itself, which founders because it’s subsumed entirely in abstractions about privilege. Allies are the cousins of citizens and comrades, their whole mutual being and understanding exhausted by a concept.
In recent years I’ve been unsettled to see how often Mormon feminism roots itself more deeply in in various secular feminisms than it does in Mormonism or in Christianity. I’m unsettled because I suspect these secular formulations of justice are indebted to abstraction in an ultimate sense and thus utterly inadequate to who we are. If we are nothing but our relations of power, then we can hope to be nothing better than allies to one another. I hope it hardly needs saying that this is grotesquely inhuman. No one serves, sacrifices for, or loves a mere ally. No one gives her life for, or to, an ally. For these deeper, truer levels of our being together we require other terms: sister, brother, wife, husband, father, mother, lover, friend. I like to hope that Mormon theology, with its embodied God who shares crucial aspects of our being, might be uniquely situated to help us think beyond the limitations of an allied-comrade model, in which our relationships to each other are completely exhausted in an abstract ideal. Abstractions are unavoidable, essential, and always potentially cruel. For that reason, and many others, let’s all strive to make our feminism a little more Mormon.
*Actually, in real life if you, a man, were to approach me and offer your allyship because I’m a woman, I hope I would be gracious, just as I strive to be gracious when a man opens the door for me, again, presumably because I’m a woman. I believe in being gracious and offering generous interpretations of motive whenever possible. So if you prefer to identify as a feminist ally, please, whatever you do, don’t take this as another indication that you’re doing it wrong. I’ll probably just try to take our relationship to the next level–acquaintances, friends if we’re both lucky–but to absolutely no level beyond that, because I’m Mormon, married, and deeply, happily, constitutively bound by covenants of chastity. Just so we’re crystal clear.
**Actually, in real life no man has ever approached me and offered his allyship, and I expect that no man ever will. I am immensely relieved in that expectation. Even in a context of, say, a feminist gathering to discuss allyship strategies, I would be alarmed and put off if a man I did not otherwise know stuck his hand out in greeting and genially proposed himself as my ally. Precisely because allyship is such an impersonal posture–orienting to structures of privilege rather than to more usual modes of relationship (acquaintances, fellow Mormons, fellow Christians, fellow religious people, fellow investigators of religion, fellow conference attendees, fellow speakers of English)–it would come off deeply wrong, weirdly instrumental and intrusive. I hope this post has begun to show why.