Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Problem with Badge-Allies

The abolitionist faction of the Nonhuman Animal rights movement is somewhat unique in the movement because it specifically values intersectionality. That is, abolitionist activists recognize that sexism, racism, heterosexism, etc. is as morally problematic as speciesism. Indeed, many abolitionists recognize that these systemic discriminations are actually entangled and mutually reinforcing.

But intersectionality is not only applicable to general society, it has relevance within social movement spaces as well. The Nonhuman Animal rights movement is male-dominated with a female majority and sexism has been heavily documented. It is a movement that is also white-dominated with few activists of color and is notoriously racist in both campaigning and claimsmaking. Acknowledging these connections in social justice efforts is so very important for counteracting oppression.

In a society where few openly admit to being bigoted, few people will openly admit to being sexist, racist, etc. Most like to think themselves "good" and "moral." In an era where diversity is theoretically embraced as a social good, most people are all for diversity. 

But theory and practice are two separate issues. Because discrimination is often made invisible through institutionalized practices and because it builds up through a million small behaviors and practices that appear every step of the way, it becomes more difficult to identify. With discrimination made invisible, and most valuing diversity, we have a bizarre disconnect between theory and practice. We all see ourselves as allies against oppression, but we don't see how we might be personally responsible for that oppression or how we might personally benefit from it. 

It gets even trickier in a social movement space where activists actively embrace intersectionality theory and diversity goals. More than the average citizen, a social justice activist is personally invested in an anti-oppression identity. For some, this means that allies in activist spaces will be consciously engaged in combating oppression and engaging self-reflection. For many others, however, the intersectionality identity simply becomes a badge to be worn. Anyone can wear the badge, whether or not they actually do anything to earn it. Even worse, the badge can become a form of authority. For those wearing the badge, it becomes more difficult to challenge them on their problematic actions. The badge also works as a psychological barrier for the wearer who becomes less willing to acknowledge challenges as valid.

Following many frustrating encounters with privileged persons in the abolitionist movement who wear the ally badge while they aggressively block intersectionality praxis, it is clear that intersectionality easily becomes a strategic weapon for privileged people to protect their privilege and protect themselves from criticism. Sarah K. Woodcock of The Abolitionist Vegan Society terms these persons "Badge-allies."  

Badge-allies are a problem because they exist as one more barrier to meaningful discourse and actual anti-oppression practice. For instance, we recently recorded a podcast on sexism in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, and white male leaders immediately swooped in to sealion and derail the conversation. In another example, Gary Francione and his supporters regularly accuse me of publishing on feminist issues in the movement due to a personal agenda or a desire to gossip. I have also seen Grumpy Old Vegans flash their badge to protect ageism and transgender discrimination in abolitionist spaces. The intense abolitionist backlash Woodcock experienced following her public support of the Black Lives Matter movement is another important indication that intersectionality theory does not align with practice.

These actions reflect an element of conscious discrimination, but they need not always be intentional. Microaggressions are also heavily used by Badge-allies. Again, few persons today see themselves as bigoted, but they can still engage discrimination in unintended or unconscious ways. Microaggressions can include interruption, cat-calling, tone-policing, misgendering someone, making or laughing at a sexist or racist joke, dismissing, downplaying or ignoring the experiences of a marginalized group, and denying the reality of sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression. Badge-allies are less likely to see microaggressions of this kind as aggressive because they have self-identified as intersectionally conscious.  "I'm not racist, but .  .  . "

Self-labeling, too, can become problematic. Woodcock explains: "The 'ally' title is really not something to be bestowed upon oneself. It is only something to be bestowed upon someone, for a given form of oppression, by someone in that corresponding oppressed class." In other words, we don't get to define ourselves. Instead, our actions define us, and those actions will be evaluated by the oppressed, not the oppressors. Woodcock continues, "If a person of color does not consider you to be an anti-racist ally or if someone is challenging you about your advocacy being racist, chances are you are a Badge­-ally. The same applies to other forms of oppression."

Being an ally means more than simply wearing it like a badge. True ally-ship requires action. Intersectionality should never be used as a means of protecting privilege and shutting down critical discussions. Badge-allies are a problem because they impede our efforts, harm fellow advocates, and contribute to ongoing oppression.