In my work as a POC somatic therapist that works with white people, I model allyship as a relationship, rather than a set of obligations.
This work necessarily brings me to a question that could be quite discomforting but also vital: “how do allies deserve to be treated?”
This question is not just about how I relate to white people as a POC.
It is also about the other relationships where I am in the ally role.
- As a post-war immigrant East-Asian person with a middle-class background relating to impoverished black people whose ancestors came to Turtle Island through slavery.
- As a masculine person with male privilege relating to people who don’t have that experience.
Setting an ethical standard for how allies deserved to be treated by me is also about setting an ethical standard of how I deserve to be treated as an ally in these relationships.
Establishing a sense of what feels good in allyship is incredibly important because real life is multi-axis. In many of my relationships, I occupy the roles of ally and allied, simultaneously.
- As a masculine POC, I am both ally and allied in relation to white femmes.
Having a firm internal understanding of how allies deserve to be treated can help us effectively navigate challenging moments in contexts like the above.
Knowing how allies deserve to be treated can help us:
- Check-in with ourselves about whether we are weaponizing hierarchies of oppression and being relationally invasive. (You can lean into learning more about this behavior through poplar rose’s article on power-under abuse)
- Check-in with ourselves about whether someone is weaponizing hierarchies of oppression and being relationally invasive in how they are treating us.
With all this said, here is a non-exhaustive list of how (I believe) allies deserve to be treated.
1 . Allies deserve that we recognize our influence over them
By default, allies come to allyship with shame, even disgust for themselves and the people they represent.
This is because allies come to allyship through surrender.
They are in a tender place where they feel like their ideas about equity in the world have been shattered and whatever they do cannot make up for the historical atrocities that have been committed in their name (which is true).
It is not in the spirit of healthy relationship to treat this surrender as submission that is worthy of domination.
Within the intimate container of allyship, we hold the seat of influence.
Of course, in the larger context of our culture, our allies will always be the ones who hold more privilege and influence.
The reality that our allies are power-full and power-less is a deep paradox of allyship as a relationship.
2. Allies deserve to be not manipulated
Following the above, our allies deserve that we respect their surrender and do not manipulate them.
This is not an opportunity for us to project and inflict them with emotions that they cannot possibly individually responsible for.
Allies are not here to satisfy our wounds from the past including our ancestral and childhood wounds. They are here to serve liberation with our guidance, not to be abused in turn for what their people have done.
The wounds we carry are ours. We can be witnessed, supported, and held in healing these wounds. But no one can grieve and heal them for us.
3. Allies deserve to be not indoctrinated
As I have said before, we have tremendous influence over our allies.
When we force allies to see or do things our way and threaten them with punishment for not complying, we cross the line between education and indoctrination.
There are many approaches toward social change which all have their validity based on context.
Our way is only one of many.
When we indoctrinate, we not only silence our allies but each other.
4. Allies deserve to have their autonomy respected, even upheld
The above three points all boil down to one thing: respecting the autonomy of allies as whole beings with needs, desires, and experiences.
Allies deserve to be seen as capable of making their own choices with appropriate guidance.
I would even go as far to say that upholding this is our reciprocal work in allyship.
Allies often come to allyship with a sense of self that is completely collapsed from shame. They tend to be extremely out of touch or misaligned with what their true needs and desires are.
You might say that this is not true. That they often come with hostile fragility.
I would actually say that is a sign that their sense of self is threatened and collapsed. And so when they feel threatened, they can leverage the privilege and influence they have in the large context of our culture to address the pain they are experiencing in the container of allyship where they are vulnerable.
Focusing on fragility sometimes misses the larger point: that allies come to allyship with an incredible amount of approval-seeking behavior.
This approval-seeking is a Trojan Horse.
Underneath the approval-seeking is the terror of being wrong, which can quickly turn to anger for not being accepted.
Sometimes this anger will burst out into fragility. Other times it might implode into burn out.
Either way, we lose our allies for a long time when this happens. Sometimes forever.
Because of this, I would say that it’s a sign of danger if your allies are never keeping you in check by telling you something feels bad to them.
Being more oppressed doesn’t exempt us from being inherently imperfect. If our allies are treating us as if we are not, then we are heading towards serious disillusionment.
To be in healthy allyship, it is vital for us to uphold the ability of our allies to give us feedback.
Bursting the myth of the ‘good ally’
Talking about all of this brings us to an edge that is filled with paradox: one of the most valuable skills that an ally can show up with is a resilient sense of self that does not rely on our approval.
That is they have both their privilege and co-dependency firmly checked.
One of the best indicators of this is whether they can balance respect and dissent.
This also means that the ability to dissent when needed is a must for allies to be in healthy allyship.
In turn, if our expectation of allyship is obedience, we likely have some deeper introspection to do for ourselves about where our behaviors are coming from.
Boundaries and alignment
Speaking nakedly about how allies deserve to be treated brings up another related issue of how allies can ethically respond to situations that don’t feel good to them.
One of the things that makes this challenging is our cultural tendency to use the term ‘boundaries’ when we speak about relationships.
The problem I find with the term boundaries is that it can focus us on something that is actually impossible by definition: to maintain a pristine space around us that is ours and ours only.
The human condition is a contradictory one. We’re built to share space yet neurologically setup to be terrified of it. To be able to navigate relationships in a healthy way, it is important for us to know how to navigate this paradox.
Furthermore, the action of setting boundaries can become confused when we begin to draw lines in the emotional spaces of others, replicating an invasive colonial process.
This can make it highly conflictual for example if you’re a white person ‘drawing a boundary’ with a POC as it begins to tap into narratives that speak to centuries of racialized trauma.
I think a helpful way to approach this problem is to look more at ‘realignment’, as in realigning ourselves and our relationships with our deepest values.
This also feels more natural to me as a de-Westernized and decolonized way of navigating relationships. It has an affinity to some of my ancestral traditions, such as martial arts, that focuses on maintaining integrity to flexibly manage an incoming attack.
Of course, realigning does have energetic spatial consequences like setting boundaries. Realignment almost always means reworking relationships including removing some from our immediate lives. And because of this, it will still likely cause pain and discomfort for all involved, especially when we are first learning to realign ourselves.
That said, I feel much safer about upholding the power of allies to realign themselves as it has inherent checks for unnecessary suffering or even compulsive retaliation.
Are you a therapist, facilitator, organizer or healer called to a deeper exploration of subjects discussed in this post?
I provide coaching and consulting services for individual practitioners, enterprises, and organizations that are committed to intersectional cultural healing. You can find more information here.