Challenging the Discourse of the “Ally”

By Cheanna Gavin

Snapchat-6863880461254982180As I got ready this morning, I struggled to wrap my head around the fact that our time in Berlin would be coming to an end in the next few days. However, I was excited for the upcoming day, which would be busy and filled with exciting encounters. Our day started off at ADNB des TBB, where we discussed the work they do in counselling and empowering people of color facing discrimination. Through reflection of our time in Berlin thus far, I see that there have been common themes among almost all the groups we have met, and that the communities we have been in are all webbed together in one way or another. These common themes include colonialism, empowerment, and community building/networking. After our morning session, we grabbed a quick bite to eat before heading to the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin for our convergence class with Dr. Jule Bönkost and Josphine “Josy” Apraku, who we met on Tuesday during our “Africa in Wedding” tour. Accompanying us to the course entitled “Bündnisarbeit Intersektional Gedacht” was also Dr. Derrais Carter, Assistant Professor of Black studies at Portland State University.

On Tuesday, Apraku told us that we would be discussing “allyship,” so I was eager to learn how they believed allyship has developed in Berlin and how it relates to our ideas of allyship in the U.S. During class, we started with an introduction of the course. It was an undergraduate Gender Studies class studying a German discourse of discrimination, how many forms of discrimination work together and the terms of allyship in relation to discrimination. They then opened up the floor for the German students to ask us questions and vice versa. Early on, the German students mentioned that they are not allowed to mainly or only study Gender Studies. For their undergraduate studies, they must have a trans/interdisciplinary approach, and need other focuses in addition to Gender Studies. For their graduate studies, they are able to focus on Gender Studies, but it is very difficult to enroll in graduate programs. This was the first of many examples that arose in the class demonstrating the inaccessibility of different feminist discourses not only in academia but in society in general. I believe this inaccessibility contributes greatly to the blissful and intentional ignorance around colonialism and racism in Berlin.

Snapchat-9062728769128009395After several minutes of dialogue, we split into smaller groups to get better acquainted with one another, as well as to have more intimate and inclusive conversations. In my group, the topic of how we got introduced to feminism came up. Something common among the German students was that this course introduced them to many of the aspects and terms of discrimination, racism, and colonialism in Germany. Along these lines, in Winter Shorts, Clementine Burnley and Sharon Dodua Otoo theorize,

“People invest more effort into denying racism than in dealing with it because facing the purpose for which institutional racism is constructed, is painful. Racism is a rationale to distribute social benefits by ethnicity. So, resisting racism brings members of socially dominant groups into a situation of discomfort for no immediate benefit” (13).

I believe this exemplifies the importance of courses like these to provide knowledge of these discourses to populations who normally do not have access to them.

However, we must keep in mind that we are privileged to even have access to these spaces in academia. One student spoke of how she had not heard of and had no knowledge of Farbe Bekennen: Afro-deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte (Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out) until this class. Through different sentiments, it was clear that the available scholarship and discourses on feminism that they had been exposed to was very white. We also discussed how they had engaged in little to no discourse of colonialism or racism, because it is believed that racism ended after the Nazi regime, and there is “conscious amnesia” of anything that happened before. In “Troubling Categories I Can’t Think Without: Reflections on Women in the Holocaust,” R. Ruth Linden discusses how such a narrow framework “privileges the experiences of one group […] while turning our gaze away from other groups” (24). Privileging one narrative over another or generalizing one narrative for entire groups is extremely problematic. Not only are voices being silenced, but they are being erased completely.

Snapchat-4249857101675199255This is not only a problem in scholarship, but in aspects of allyship, too. People in dominant groups tend to talk for and replace the narratives of the oppressed groups, even when trying to help. This is apparent when dominant groups become the spokesperson of movements that are not for them. Allies need to realize that the members of oppressed groups are capable of examining and addressing their oppression. In addition, if someone calls themselves an ally, there needs to be a trust that is built that demonstrates that allies will show up if and when oppressed groups need them. Students from both the U.S. and Germany discussed how silencing narratives is one of the many difficulties/challenges faced through allyship.

Allyship, when looked at from a U.S. and German perspective, tends to have negative connotations. The discussion around allyship was supposed to start with possibilities and opportunities that may come from allyship. Yet, in the large group, as well as in my own smaller group, we struggled to find “benefits” of allyship. In addition, there was confusion between the term allyship and the German translation which is bündnisarbeit. As understood by the students from the U.S., allyship was seen as an individual practice. The German students, on the other hand have a more institutional understanding of allyship. Personally, I don’t like the word ally. I feel it has become sterile and fosters superficial support. For example, in “Accomplices, Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally Industrial Complex,” Indigenous Action Media writes,

“[Non-profit capitalists] build organizational or individual power, establishing themselves comfortably among the top ranks in their hierarchy of oppression as they strive to become the ally ‘champions’ of the most oppressed. […] Where struggle is commodity, allyship is currency. Ally has also become an identity, disembodied from any real mutual understanding of support. The term ally has been rendered ineffective and meaningless.”

When fighting these struggles, it is imperative that actions speak louder than words. Even as people or women of color, we must acknowledge the power we have and what we can do with that power. If we focus solely on our oppression, we face becoming what we are fighting against.

Snapchat-3150015239727894670Through our discussions of allyship, the conversation integrated into one about community and relationships. Instead of calling oneself an ally, the communities we are working with should decide to call us allies from the work we do and the trust we build. To take it a step further, instead of focusing on allyship, we should focus on our relationships with people. Along these lines, Dr. Carter discussed how we need to be in community with the people we care about and want to thrive. This is similar to the foreword to Farbe Bekennen, in which Audre Lorde writes,

“This book serves to remind African-American women that we are not alone in our world situation. In the face of new international alignments, vital connections and differences exist that need to be examined between African-European, African-Asian, African-American women, as well as between us and our African sisters. The first steps in examining these connections are to identify ourselves, to recognize each other, and to listen carefully to each other’s stories” (xiii-xiv).

Not only do we need to be in community with each other as women of color, but we need to be in community with various oppressed communities. By being in community with each other, we are able to build relationships and trust among one another.

As the class finished and final thoughts were shared, I realized how empowerment plays a huge role in allyship and fighting discrimination and forming and maintaining communities with others to strengthen each other. As Dr. Cater said, “There is no right way to survive. Sometimes we need to sit and take it in. We need to remind ourselves that the world doesn’t exist on our terms.” We need to share the knowledge we gain in these spaces with those who do not have the privilege to be in these spaces and/or have access to these terms and scholarship. We need to empower ourselves and each other by challenging and deconstructing the idea that others hold the power instead of one’s self.


GavinCheanna Gavin is a rising Junior at Colorado College from Denver, Colorado. She is majoring in Feminist and Gender Studies and potentially minoring in Human Biology and Kinesiology. She is on the Pre-Health track and planning to attend Physical Therapy School. Cheanna loves playing sports and is ecstatic to be a FemGenius in Berlin, as she can’t wait to explore and learn about different German cultures.

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