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Cluster of Excellence EXC 2052 - "Africa Multiple: reconfiguring African Studies"

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A Requiem to Allyship


Each year on 17 May, the International Day against Homophopbia, Transphobia and Biphobia is observed. In the following text, Dr. Serawit Debele, the leader of the Cluster's Junior Research Group "Sexualities, Political Orders and Revolutions in Africa: into the heart of Tunisia, Ethiopia and Sudan", shares her thoughts on the topic.

by Dr. Serawit Debele

The coalition unites us in the recognition that we must change things or die. All of us. We must all change the things that are fucked up.

- Jack Halberstam

To say we must abandon allyship is counterintuitive and outrageous a proposition. But that is what I suggest in this short piece, in favour of coalition that acknowledges the need for a more profound change. When I was asked to write something on the occasion of the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHTB),1 my first reaction was “what do I have to say on this?” What extraordinary things can be said other than condemning homophobia, transphobia, biphobia or any other phobia that is not yet recognised by the liberal establishment and accorded a scientific name? But in the ‘spirit of allyship’, I fell back to my friend Bahi asking what he would like me to write. He said, “let us brainstorm and see what we could come up with for a start”.2 I proposed, to exchange views on the notion and practice of allyship. We started thinking-together about it, of course from our different (dis)locations. He said there is always a “limit” to allyship meaning that our commitment to a cause is conditional. When the going gets tough, we allies have the luxury to pull out. My reflections are informed by our discussions on what he means by “limit”.

A little bit of virtue signalling …

Ally is the person most of us progressive folk think we are. We congratulate ourselves for supporting others’ struggles for justice and equality. As a proud ally of the queer community in Ethiopia and elsewhere on the continent, I own my status as one. I am always happy to say that I am magnifying the stories of those victimised by various structures and systems of power. I take it for granted that I am playing my part fighting against injustice. To check how much my notion is in congruence with conventions of allyship, I look at online resources that give various definitions and guidelines on how to be a good ally. My commitments tally well with the descriptions I read. The main tenet of allyship is that we have to collaborate with oppressed and marginalised groups in their struggle for a better life.3 Clearly positive change is the drive for being an ally, there is an aspiration to change the world for the betterment of those subordinated.

The notion suggests that allies are generally in a better place and they should uplift the underprivileged using their privilege as a resource in the fight for social justice. All allies agree that we want the world to be a better place. We play our part to contribute to the change. We are all committed to support groups subjected to different forms of oppression. Most of us are proud allies of LGBTQI+ communities, support equal rights of women, we are devoted to the cause of social justice for those racially discriminated and disenfranchised by centuries of economic exploitation. Needless to say the list of causes is endless and people from all walks of life join hands to support the fight against any ground for discrimination. We commend ourselves for trying. It is easy to have a sense of fulfilment for doing the bare minimum for those we believe need it. There is a sense that allyship always depends on one’s good will. The risk is that one can always get bored or be disappointed or tired or fear the risk of being associated with the undesired,4 or indeed the mundane vicissitudes of  life catching up can make one walk away or be less committed to a cause.

Pushing Back …

I suggest that we ditch allyship and endorse coalition. Unlike allyship, coalition is predicated on realising that change is something we partake in for our own sake. The difference between allyship and coalition emanates from the foundation on which each stands; the former stands on “let us help the other” the latter on “we worry about ourselves”. The radical Black Intellectual tradition teaches us something useful about thinking change and what coalition could do. Drawing on the struggles of African Americans for equality, Fred Moten says “coalition isn’t something that emerges so that you can come help me, a maneuver that always gets traced back to your own interests. The coalition emerges out of your recognition that it’s fucked up for you, in the same way that we’ve already recognized that it’s fucked up for us. I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?"5 Coalition is possible not as a practice of helping others but doing it for ourselves and it starts, as Moten emphasises, the moment people with privileges gain “the capacity to worry about themselves”. Similarly, Jack Halberstam makes a case for coalition by saying that: 

… the mission then for the denizens of the undercommons is to recognize that when you seek to make things better, you are not just doing it for the Other, you must also be doing it for yourself. While men may think they are being “sensitive” by turning to feminism, while white people may think they are being right on by opposing racism, no one will really be able to embrace the mission of tearing “this shit down” until they realize that the structures they oppose are not only bad for some of us, they are bad for all of us.6

Both Moten’s and Halberstam’s insights on coalition are helpful in thinking change more radically, to go beyond what at times sounds like a lip service to the oppressed. A recognition that the world is “fucked up” for all of us and that we have to change this for our own sake is the crucial point of meeting. It is a reminder that the world is messy for us just as much as it is for the group to which we offer ourselves as allies. So to fight for change is not a favour we do for others, it is a favour we do for ourselves because it is a problem for all of us not just the subordinated. That is what Fred Moten is telling us when he says “I don’t need your help” but a recognition of the problems as shared because that recognition is a point at which we build coalition. Along similar lines of thought, the late Binyavanga Wainaina stresses that a freed imagination is a necessary condition for the thriving of humanity, the ecosystem can sustain us only if we accommodate diversity. There is  a need for a radical change that acknowledges our interdependence and the need for a wider room in the ecosystem because our own very existence and wellbeing depends on it. We must not agree with each other on everything, as he says, but we agree the ecosystem needs all of us in order to thrive. He says “the idea that you are allowing our ecosystem to thrive [should be] at the heart of our politics and at the heart of our future." 7

We are supposed to be against homophobia not only because we sympathise with the victims. We should be against it because a homophobic world is uninhabitable for all of us. If it is a homophobic world, yes the first ones to live the consequences are the ones with non normative gender and sexual orientations. But the mess in the world hurts, albeit “softly”, even those who seemingly benefit from it. If it is a bad place for women because of gender hierarchies, it is just as bad for those who seem to benefit from the condition that created the hierarchy. Coalition fosters a shared struggle to change the conditions that created a  society that accepts it as a sensible thing to attack humans for not adhering to what is established as a norm regardless of its obvious tyranny. My point then is that: allyship does not cut it, joining to support other people’s struggle does not cut it, the gesture of “tearing “this shit down”” on behalf of others does not cut it. We need to fight homophobia to create a better world for ourselves. But above all, we need to change the world in which homophobia makes sense, it is the conditions of homophobia’s possibility that we need to fight. This calls for coalition and as Moten teaches us, the coalition is possible only when we recognise that the world is “fucked up” for all of us not only just the minoritised who we claim to support. The commitment to fight for what might become possible, a changed world a changed society is the way forward.

[1] I want to recognise and pay tribute to Louis-Georges Tin, the person behind the foundation of International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. Tin (2008:15) indicates that the “first IDAHO was celebrated for the first time on May 17, 2005, fifteen years to the day after the World Health Organization decided to remove homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses; it was launched simultaneously in over forty countries, from Brazil to Russia, by way of Kenya, Canada, Portugal, and Lebanon. It was an impetus for lively debates, film screenings, radio and television broadcasts, concerts, street festivals, and school events”. Louis-Georges Tin, LG. (2008). The Dictionary of Homophobia: A Global History of Gay and Lesbian Experience. Translated by Redburn, M. Michaud, A. and Mathers, K. Mabanckou, A. Arsenal Pulp Press: Vancouver.

[2] Bahi (Bahiru Shewaye) is a UK based Ethiopian queer person who co-founded the House of Guramayle (https://houseofguramayle.org/our-story/). I am always grateful to him for guiding and thinking with me. 

[3] https://guidetoallyship.com

[4] This concern makes sense in some places where associating with certain groups like LGBTQI+ can be dangerous. Because one’s commitment as an ally has its limits, some withdraw to avoid the risk of being counted as the problem.

[5] Harney, S. and Moten, F. (2013). The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Minor Compositions: New York, 140.

[6] Halberstam, J. (2013). “Introduction” in Harney, S. and Moten, F. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Minor Compositions: New York, 10.

[7] The short videoclip can be found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8uMwppw5AgU

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