We live in a society of institutions: social, political, economic and oftentimes a varying blend of them. From birth to death and in the development of our lives, we are in many ways both products of institutions and components of them. Institutions are human-powered, and yet they become something separate from us. What I mean by this is that although an institution is a sum of the individuals who exist within it and power it, an institution by its own structure becomes its own entity separate from those individual parts.
We are all individuals, and we operate on certain moral beliefs, and naturally we wish our behaviors and outputs to resemble those moral beliefs. However, it is growing ever more apparent that to attempt to do so effectively in a larger institutional framework is hugely difficult, maybe impossible in some cases. Our individual intentions become infinitesimal and irrelevant to the larger framework, and the whole independent operation of the institutions we belong to. Now, I know we’re quite a long way into this to switch gears, but I’m going to do so, because I want to talk about allyship.
Our society’s institutions are mostly eroded and at their basis unjust. Racism, patriarchal structures, gender-binaries: all things codified by our institutions. As we become more educated and aware of these unjust things, many people feel a desire to help those oppressed. The term “ally” is extremely popular nowadays; it’s an honestly admirable sentiment to want to be one, and it may be a sign of hope that so many people express their allyship. However, one of the prerequisites for being an ally is that you are not part of the group you wish to ally with, and often that means you have a certain privilege which they do not. And frankly, it’s very easy for people to slip away from their allyship back into their privilege. And our crisis of the individual in the institution demonstrates this very strongly.
Please do not think that I am going to attempt to describe “how to be an ally,” because quite simply, that’s not my place. The terms of allyship are never the same for every person; not everyone can be an ally in the same way to the same people for the same reasons. The only continuity is that the terms of allyship always need to be determined by those who are seeking or in need of allies. They get to dictate what they need from you, what helps and what doesn’t.
Perhaps the most difficult part of being an ally is that allies need to be aware and critical of how their own institutional placement perpetuates any kind of systemic oppression. Whatever your individual intentions may be, they are irrelevant if you use them as a way to avoid stepping up in ways that matter. If you go about your institutionally determined routines and behaviors like always, but promise in your heart that you’re not such a bad person, you are retreating back to the position which is contrary to your expressed alliance. As we said before, the individual intentions of a human are alienated and separate from the whole product of the institutions to which they belong.
It is very typical of our modern cynicism to acknowledge our hugely broken society on a scale larger than we can imagine, and then to express frustration that we cannot have the power to change these huge things. But it’s also true that you can only control the way in which you behave and influence others. Intentions are not enough, we need delivered promises. Good words are nothing in the face of behemoth injustice, and a good ally seeks to change their own role, one of many which make up the sum of their society.