Lessons in allyship

Last year, when the country’s university campuses were in the thick of the 2017 wave of #FeesMustFall protests, I attended a reflection workshop hosted by the programme for which I was teaching at the time. Reader, it was not my finest hour. I was ostensibly meant to be co-facilitating the session, but ended up participating, vociferously, vocally, venting my frustrations and confusions. I didn’t understand the extended shutdown as a political tactic and was frustrated with what I saw as the movement’s failure to engage constructively with systems that would not be destroyed so easily.

At best, I could be described as a terrible ally; at worst, an arrogant neoliberal.

Since the #MenAreTrash debate blew up South African corners of the internet, I’ve spent a lot of time considering allyship, and privilege, and the complex waters those who hold privilege must tread. I have felt sorely let down by many of the men who proclaim themselves to be allies of women, only to turn around and wag their online fingers at us over a hashtag that hurt their feelings. I just don’t understand why my experience and expression of rage has to be made palatable for it to be ‘acceptable’ to people who claim to be on my side.

I am, of course, aware that my own identity is a complicated intersection of privilege and marginality. I am a black woman in a world that is not especially kind to black women. However, I am also middle-class and university-educated and these two things afford me some of the comforts and protections I need to navigate this unkind world with relative ease. Consequently, I have never known what it is like to struggle to pay for my education. I have never experienced the acute pressure of having to support myself and my family whilst trying to complete my studies. Plainly put, in the context of #MenAreTrash, I exist in the margins; in the context of #FessMustFall, I am in the centre.

Of course, the lines between one’s margins and centres are never so clear. If they were many of the (t)wars we wage about discourse would not exist. Privilege is at its most dangerous when it is invisible. Occasionally, it achieves this invisibility by cloaking itself in those parts of your identity that are marginal.

And so it has been for me with #FeesMustFall. I can’t honestly say I fully understand what happened on campuses across the country between 2015 and 2017. I also can’t say that I agree. But I think what I am learning about my role as an ally, as someone who is committed to social justice, is that it doesn’t matter. In the same way that I don’t really care if male ‘allies’ are upset by a truth-telling hashtag, young, black students don’t care whether or not I understand their movement. My role as an ally is not to find my place in their movement. My place in the movement is beside the point.

What I am learning in reflecting (more quietly, with my mouth shut) on #FeesMustFall is that sometimes, maybe most of the time, allyship isn’t about being a part of a movement. It’s not about making your voice heard within a movement. Sometimes, maybe all of the time, allyship is about accepting the very real gaps in your knowledge that exist because of your unearned privilege, and doing your best not to use those gaps to remarginalise, re-silence already marginal voices. If ally is a verb and not a noun, it is about committing to the work of shutting up.

The thought leader Sisonke Msimang put it thus:

#menaretrash is a great example of how the Fallist women have taught us the importance of burning all the symbols of respectability. For many years feminists avoided the fights that come when you say ‘men are a problem, they are trash.’ So the response is wholly unsurprising and has lead to important confrontations and conflicts. When you talk about and fight for justice you can’t only use sanitised language and tactics. I respect those who work with men as much as I respect those who refuse to work with men. There’s room for many strategies in all movements for justice.

Of course, shutting up is only where the hard work begins. But to my mind – and in my experience, as both a failed ally and as someone who has been failed by allies – it is the crucial first step. Privilege has a way of amplifying those voices that are already the loudest anyway.

And muting them takes commitment and creativity.