On the Fixed State Ally Model vs. Process Model Ally Work

There are two ways that people with privilege tend to view ally work.

In the Fixed State Ally Model, the privileged person views hirself as an ally and claims the mantle for hirself. Zie may also acknowledge that zie is always learning and trying to do better, but states that zie is an ally to one or more marginalized populations.

In the Process Model, the privileged person views hirself as someone engaged in ally work, but does not identify as an ally, rather viewing ally work as an ongoing process. Zie views being an ally as a fluid state, externally defined by individual members of the one or more marginalized populations on behalf zie leverages hir privilege.

For various reasons, embracing the Fixed State Ally Model is actually antithetical to effective ally work.

1. Being an ally cannot be a fixed state. It is an ongoing process, not a permanent status that a privileged person can claim. I am going to quote my friend Jess, in her interview with Nicole Clark about being an ally:
[To me, being an ally] means listening. It means checking my privilege. It means recognizing constantly that my experience is not THE experience. It means always trying to be as inclusive as possible. It means apologizing when I fail to do any of these things. It means learning and doing better as I go. @FeministGriote says often that being an ally is not an identity, it is a process. And that has affected me deeply. I try to remember that it is not something I can claim but rather something I can live through my choices and actions.
Rather than imagining myself as A Good Ally, full-stop, I try to assess whether I have been an effective ally in specific instances and in specific ways. Did I speak up when I should have? Do I equally set off-limits any "debate" of intrinsic humanity for all populations? Am I giving enough support to writers whose life experiences are fundamentally different than my own? Am I listening? That is not a comprehensive list.

That approach is helpful to me, because it subverts any instinct to defend myself on the basis that I am A Good Ally and instead challenges me continually to behave like one. I'm not invested in a fixed reputation as an ally, which would undermine the vigilance I need to have, especially around the ways in which my privileges benefit me in ways that aren't always obvious to me.

It also encourages me not to get stuck in failure.

[CN: Disablism.] Many years ago (I have been doing this a long time), a reader asked me to stop using "crazy" and "insane" to mean things other than mental illness. And I responded with some cringingly embarrassing bullshit about how I have a mental illness and it doesn't bother me and blah blah fart.

Straight-up, I knew I was wrong, even at the time, but I was: 1. Deeply conflicted (for lack of a better word) about my own mental illness; and 2. Not yet as effective at or confident with managing (and internally processing) charges of oversensitivity and thought-policing, which are leveled every time I draw a new boundary. So I acted like an asshole.

When the issue came up again, I responded better. The way I should have in the first place. Disablist language was set off-limits.

If I viewed myself in some sort of fixed state as ally/not ally, I would have gotten stuck defending an indefensible position in order to maintain my idea of self, instead of the actual person I was being to other people who were challenging me to do better.

If I viewed myself as an ally, rather than as someone who wants to engage in ally work as a process, I would not be leaving room to expect more of myself.

And I need to challenge myself, because I fuck up—which I say not in preemptive self-defense of the next time I do, but because there are people who remember that I have fucked up, people my fuck-ups hurt, and the very least (literally) that I can do is remember that I have fucked up, too. Owning it is part of ally work, not least of which because internalizing your failures helps prevent more of them.

2. Asserting that you are an ally to a marginalized population in defense of failing to behave as an ally to an individual within that population is bullshit. It's bullshit for a lot of reasons, but chief among them is the fact that it isn't really our role, nor our right, along our axes of privilege, to define ourselves as allies.

There are some people from populations who don't share my privileges who may consider me a reliable ally, and some people who don't. If I were using the Fixed State Ally Model, what would that make me? An ally or not an ally? Because in the fixed state model, you can't be both—you view yourself as an ally or not one.

Which is why we end up seeing so many privileged people, when challenged on an expression of privilege or some other ally fail, defending themselves by saying, "But I'm an ally!" even in the middle of a huge failure to be an ally to one or some or many people from the population to whom they consider themselves an ally.

But in the ongoing process model, I can be both, or neither. It isn't for me to decide or define. I listen to what people say they need from an ally, and I try to do it. Because no group is a monolith, different people are going to have different ideas of what constitutes a trustworthy and effective ally, but there are common themes and needs, and the more listening one does, the more one hears the harmony, instead of what at first may seem like a cacophony of discordant expectations.

There's also this: Declaring oneself an ally, as opposed to viewing oneself as someone who engages in ally work, is distancing. (There are people from marginalized populations who don't even like the word "ally" for this reason.) The inherent othering is evidenced in the invocation of a fixed status as ally in defense to criticism, which effectively conveys, "But I am good to people like you." The Fixed State Ally Model generally serves to undermine the practice of empathy and listening that is crucial to effective ally work. If being A Good Ally has already been achieved, there is less impetus to engage with marginalized people who don't agree with that assessment.

Indeed, privileged people who subscribe to the Fixed State Ally Model frequently use their status as ally as a deflection, by asserting that anyone who doesn't acknowledge their status as ally obviously isn't A Serious Person with Concerns Worth Addressing.

This leads to all manner of silencing and tone-policing and filtering marginalized people's lived experiences and perceptions and feelings through a validity prism.

Good faith matters. Approaching someone who has been engaged in ally work with the explicit expectation that they are receptive to criticism is constructive and decent. It's not cool to approach someone who has expressed a desire to be an ally and has been publicly engaged in ally work with explicit or embedded accusations that they don't give a fuck.

But extending good faith does not require acknowledging that someone is your ally. Extending good faith is an invitation to be an ally.

3. Ally work is both abstract and practical. The Fixed State Ally Model tends to elide that there are various spheres of ally work, and how the scope of that work necessarily changes in unique spaces.

Doing ally work as a public blogger is different than doing ally work on a stage which is different still from doing it on social media which is different yet from being an ally to individual people on a one-to-one basis when they need it.

It is one thing to write an exploratory post (ha ha like this one!) about ally work; it is another thing entirely for me to spend time with another human being and find the best way to support hir, which might be, for real, being anything but a goddamn Professional Ally—which is condescending, pandering, othering, icky, when what someone really needs is just a friend.

The Process Model encourages and facilitates fluidity among allied roles, which creates space to forge bonds beyond the role of ally. People who subscribe to the Fixed State Ally Model tend to interact with new people from marginalized populations more rigidly, more awkwardly, more self-consciously.

All of us in any marginalized population know these people—the ones who think they're totally down with you, because they're YOUR ALLY, and very quickly it becomes obvious they imagine they know more about your life than you know yourself, and at the first hint of your challenging that obnoxious bullshit, out comes the "BUT I'M YOUR ALLY GEEZ I DIDN'T THINK I'D HAVE TO WALK ON EGGSHELLS AROUND YOU SHEESH" refrain.


The confidence, the certitude, with which the Fixed State Ally Model infuses privileged people, the belief that they are experts on the lives of marginalized people, is comprehensively incompatible with effective ally work. It's hostile, and it's destructive.

4. You can't be an ally just to the people you like. Whenever there's a dust-up about, say, a progressive dude who purports to be A Good Ally going after a conservative female politician in a nasty, misogynist way, it always comes down to a fight between the Fixed State Ally Modelers and the Process Modelers.

The Fixed State Ally Modelers go on endlessly about how Progressive Dude "is no misogynist" and point to all the work he's done as A Good Ally, while simultaneously cataloging all the ways in which the conservative female politician is actually a terrible ally, not an ally at all, to other women.

But that's not how feminism works. That's not how any kind of social justice work works. The process is about defending women from misogyny, et. al., about having a zero tolerance policy for oppression no matter at whom it's directed.

The Process Model of Ally Work doesn't afford one the lazy, reflexive deflection of: "I'm an ally. I'm allowed to pick on [ideologically odious person inside marginalized group] because I'm a better ally than zie is."

The Process Model doesn't abet ally-ranking in defense of ally fail. It exhorts us to consistency and diligence, because it centers the idea that trust has to be earned, over and over, forever.

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