The Temptation of Performative Allyship

From TVLine.com. Pepsi did not ‘si’ it coming…

We’ve all done it at some point or another. From changing our Facebook DPs for a grand total of five days and 200 likes, to discussing the wearing of safety pins in the aftermath of Trump’s America, to the recent wake-up call from Kendall Jenner’s disastrous appropriation of the struggle of PoCs for the, uh…, epitome of mainstream capitalism gone horrendously wrong when it comes to the fight for social justice (and bad PR tactics at that, too) — we’re no aliens to the Butlerian process of performing, constructing, and iterating whilst reiterating the violent differential processes that develop our understanding of Allyship.

And it’s too easy to blame Performative Allyship on the voluntary actions and choices of individuals. A lot of existing critiques of PA quite rightly point out why it’s shite, and then turn to characterising individuals who engage in them as fake ‘wokeness’ and filled with bad intentions of consuming and instrumentalising particular experiences of victimisation for their own benefit. I think this critique is correct — but partially. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t it is the burden of victimised minorities to confront this double bind of oppression by taking up the burden of re-educating people to turn them ‘woke’. That being said, I’d like to suggest that the issue of Performative Allyship extends far deeper than mere voluntary, individual-centric action. In a post-post-structuralist turn, we must look towards an expanded definition of structural forces that shape and guide our actions — not only amongst concrete, present structures of contention and contestation; but the abstract, performed, and fluid structures of identity and meaning generation.

I posit that Performative Allyship is the culmination of various intersecting structures within mass society:

  1. The white, cisheternormativity of the progressive Episteme. The Overton Window in mainstream ‘progressivism’ is far more narrow than we thought, and is plagued by the issue that what is conceptualised as ‘progressive’ and ‘benefiting towards the progressive cause’ is often fundamentally couched through the lenses of an Episteme that is implicitly white, cis-oriented, and hetero-geared. Now you may think this is commonsense — something along the lines of reading ABC and pretending that one has discovered a new alphabet (w00t). But I’d say that the problem extends on a meta-level: we are told that Performative Allyship is acceptable because it ‘engages the moderates’; because it is ‘instrumentally valuable as a means of empowering laymen’; because ‘calling out PA’ causes unnecessary fragmentation within the progressive cause. But the implicit policing embedded within this is unmistakable: it is the view that PoCs must be tone-policed for being outraged at an individual who appropriates the black struggle and posits that Pepsi solves all; it is the view that if you’re born into a certain disadvantage embedded within society, you are burdened with the further, double binding responsibility of transforming yourself into an item of consumption that is deemed palatable and acceptable within mainstream standards. Pragmatism is cool and all that, don’t get me wrong, but the fundamental issue of Respectability Politics is that beyond a certain point of 0 marginal utility, the ‘reconciliatory’ value of playing the Respectability Card drops beneath 0 — we’ve seen, for far too long, movements trying to play the niceball approach; the question now becomes, what next?
  2. The social media Hyperreality — I have a nagging suspicion that a vast majority of individuals who changed their DPs in the wake of terrorist attacks (myself potentially included — to an extent) wouldn’t be substantially bothered by the attacks in their day-to-day interactions and activities. In her poem ‘War Photographer’, Duffy’s
“reader’s eyeballs prick with tears between the bath and pre-lunch beers. From the aeroplane he [ironic but clever masculinisation of the subject in emphasising the typicality of the male performative ally? Or a mere general pronoun? I’ll leave it to feminist literary theorists to find out…] stares impassively at where he earns his living and they do not care.”

In their work ‘#AllyFail’, I quote J Mase III:

“You are the ally that thinks fucking me is the same as fighting for me.
You are the kind of ally that thinks you are hilarious when you rap.
You are the ally that writes depressing poems in my honor but never fully gets my complexities.
You are the ally that has enough time to google celebrity sex tapes but not rules on allyship.”

The perceived proximity and intimacy of social media allow individuals to emphasise and particularise deeply constructed dimensions (simulacra of their ‘off-line identities’) through keeping a sense of realism whilst absolving their emotional burdens and guilt at a very low cost. By changing one’s FB DP, or posting an intriguing status of solidarity, or — heck — even writing this very hot take, possibly? — one contributes towards a hyperreality of online ‘wokeness’.

And to be very frank here? I don’t think the hyperreality itself is inherently bad. I think there should be an element of solidarity on display after terrorism that matters; I think checking oneself into the Dakota Access Pipelines conflict has limited but apparent instrumentality; I think terrorism does — to an extent — become ‘set back’ from the absence of fear amongst individuals as we stand allegedly in Kumbaya solidarity and collective mourning. But I don’t think such episodes of momentary Allyship absolves us of the fear that embeds our deepest consciousness; nor does it healthily dissolve our guilt in a way that is socially conducive.

When we say we don’t fear terrorism, I think that’s the expressed message, but not the latent claim. When we claim that we are allies to a particular disadvantaged group, we are discharging our moral responsibilities past the imaginary ‘threshold of acceptability’ online, and allowing our cyber-personalities to fulfil our ‘off-line obligations’ in a cost-efficient and ultimately cheap, virtue-signalling way — but I doubt that those who ‘self-identify as Allies’ are actually Allies. And these norms of interaction between ourselves and the social media reproduce themselves; they play themselves out through the comments, the subthreads, the likes and ‘reacts’ of cyber discourse. In some way or another, these discourses write the history and frame the discussion through their terms.

Allyship is earned, not identified. Allyship is granted, not requested and demanded in an asymmetrical negotiation between privileged ‘allies’ and disprivileged ‘allied’.

3. Expectations Policing — PoCs in America are expected to feel ‘grateful’ towards allies who showed remorse towards police brutality, whilst comfortably tucked away in their physical and social security of not getting shot when walking down the streets of New York. Queers are socialised to feel ‘in solidarity’ when people switch their DPs to commemorate the passing of one of the most basic and yet long-strived-for rights of marriage in 2015. Women are told to feel ‘supported’ and ‘not alone’ when ‘allies’ transform the Women’s March into the progress of their own progressive bingo card. Tick, cha-chink, boom! I think there’s something deeply fucked up when disempowered individuals are taught, told, socialised, negotiated into changing their feelings and emotions in response to largely tokenistic and often minimal efforts from mainstream society to address their concerns. The double bind of contemporary activism-influenced/negotiated oppression is that victims of oppression are secondarily oppressed when they’re asked to react to people who are perceived to be fighting for them on behalf of their oppression.

Whilst I don’t think the above is an exhaustive list, I think it summarily captures the root causes of Performative Allyship as it stands today. A Performative Ally is not an evil person — to say so would be to erase the true extents of the problem; nor is the Ally necessarily bad to have — there may be pragmatic, instrumental reasons where allowing people to be the ‘low-energy periphery’ helps and matters (although I, for one, doubt the extent of the efficacy and utility); nor is the Ally disruptive and as easy to spot as a canary. Bashing Kendall Jenner is one thing, but there’s more to that — when we bash Kendall, we ought to be *really* bashing the forces and structures that constitute Kendall, as opposed to her ‘voluntary self’. Yes, there is apparent commercialisation and self-aggrandisement, but Kendall is merely the tip of an iceberg, the manifest of something latent that is far more pernicious.

I end this piece with the ending of J Mase III’s poem:

You are the ally that will fuck up my pronouns but think it’s okay, cause we’re friends
You are the kind of ally that will need to appropriate some yoga after this poem
You are the kind of ally that will only remember that last line about yoga in this poem
You are the ally that never has to progress, because you have already proclaimed yourself to be 
my ally”
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