The recent, aggressive fights over who is or isn’t an ally, and who can or cannot call themselves or others an ally made me really think about what the word means, and how it has been used.
Traditionally, “allies” are two (groups of) people aligned for one common cause. Such allies are, in theory if not always in practice, equals in terms of investment in the common cause and power/privilege at least in regards to the issue at the core of the alliance. It is a word that designated collaboration, the co-working of different and maybe even otherwise opposed groups and individuals on a particular common cause. There’s however a newer use of the word now. I don’t know where that particular usage originated, but personally I blame the naming of the Gay Straight Alliance for its propagation. In any case, such an alliance is completely different from the traditional one. An alliance of gay and straight folks on the issue of gay rights, to stick with that example, is not an alliance of equals. It’s an alliance of, on the one hand, people for are the cause, i.e. people who are directly affected and oppressed by the axis of oppression being allied against; and, on the other hand, people who have privilege on that axis and thus aren’t directly affected. This new “alliance” contains a power-imbalance as well as what I’d call a salience-imbalance, which doesn’t exist in the traditional meaning of “ally” and “alliance”. This is a significant difference, and I think that the non-differentiation between these two meanings can even make the difference worse, because it erases the imbalance and the completely different dynamics that are a consequence thereof. And, it gives the privileged “half” of such an alliance more power without acknowledging that it does so (by using a word that implies equality).
A word that would more accurately describe the Gay Straight Alliance kind of ally is actually “supporter”. “Supporter” acknowledges the difference in salience: I can support someone in their fight for their rights, but it’s obviously wrong to say they support me in my fight for their rights; allies, on the other hand, support each other in the fight for a common cause. “Supporter” also addresses the issues of power imbalance, because it relegates the privileged groups/individuals to a supporting role by definition, reserving the center stage for those whose issues are actually at stake. Without that, you end up with “allies” who feel that, because of the nature of alliances, they get to speak for their allies, and that they have the same rights to leadership positions in the movement as all the other members of such an alliance. Which is a nice, liberal idea right up there with being “colorblind”, and with the same effect: pretending equality when an obvious power imbalance is present hands more power within such an alliance to the already privileged. “Supporter” is also a word that’s more evaluative, and specifically evaluative of actions: someone who is “for” a particular social justice issue, but doesn’t do anything to make it happen is at best a cheerleader or bystander, or at worst a de facto supporter of the status quo. In order to gain the title of “supporter”, one actually has to be doing some supporting. Allying on the other hand is simply aligning onelself with a cause, which requires no further action. This part especially, I think, has been the cause for some of the drama recently: I can declare my alignment with a particular cause, issue, or movement freely, and being told that actually I’m not thusly aligned can feel like mind-reading and invalidating one’s feelings and agency. But it doesn’t make sense to declare oneself a supporter unilaterally, even when the people I claim I support are telling me that my actions are not supportive but counterproductive. Hence the blowups about the “you’re not my ally” type comments: they’re generally meant in the newer sense of supporter-ally, indicating that the person’s actions are less-than-supportive. but the privileged person to whom such a comment is generally addressed perceives it typically in the older, common-cause-ally meaning, and will thus assume that a counter-supportive intent or alignment is being implied, and their right to self-identify by naming their alignment is being trampled.
Now, I’m not asking for people to stop using the word “ally” in the newer meaning. I can’t, not being that kind of influence on social justice movements everywhere, and not being able to command other people’s use of words. That ship has sailed. But I do think it’s fair and reasonable to demand that people distinguish between common-cause-ally and supporter-ally when using and hearing/reading the words, to avoid pointless arguments. And it’s not like it’s difficult to know which of the two meanings is used at any given time, since the common-cause-ally is bidirectional (for example, a black gay dude and a black straight woman are both each other’s allies in the fight against racism) while supporter-ally is unidirectional (The same dude can be an ally of the woman in fighting for women’s rights, and the woman can be his ally in fighting for gay rights; but it’s incoherent to say that a gay person is an ally to a straight person in the fight for gay rights, or that a woman is an ally to a man in the fight for women’s rights). Making this distinction in conversation and argument, I think, is quite important. Because without it, you get things like this article from Stephanie Zvan, which is an excellent description and analysis of the traditional common-cause-alliance, but completely fails to note that the word now also means “supporter of someone else’s cause”. Her article is an excellent description of alliance if it were about how atheists of different backgrounds can work together for the atheist cause; or how liberal atheists, liberal Christians, and liberal Muslims can, despite their differences, ally to fight against environmental destruction or for better education in public schools. But when it’s about straight people being allies to LGBT people in fights for LGBT-rights; white people being allies to people of color in the fight against racism; etc., then the old model of alliance fails: if your support is conditional on not having your fee-fees hurt; if your support amounts to a libertarianish “I already see/treat all people as equal”; if your support, because it’s based in the ignorance that comes with privilege, actually ends up counter-productive; then the people you claim alliance with absolutely get to point out that you’re not being much of a supporter-ally to them.
And just to make this very clear: while I think it would do good if everyone were more careful and conscious of this dual meaning, it’s primarily the privileged halves of such alliances I want to see take greater care in seeing the distinction, so that we can avoid dealing with pointless flailing about hurt pride when someone points out that one’s behavior hasn’t been very ally-like (read: has not been supportive of the people one claimed such an alliance to).
EDIT: one more important point about the difference: when someone uses the “you’re not my ally” line when it’s clearly about supporter-allies, it also makes no sense to assume that this is a statement about all alliances of the common-cause-category the two people in question may be in. I’ve seen people make the much stronger statements that social justice movement X isn’t for them because it’s insufficiently intersectional; I’ve seen people make statements claiming that a particular individual can make potentially harm a movement by making it less appealing to people on other axes of oppression because of their behavior, political position or whatever; but both of those are distinctly different than pointing out that a person with whom one is common-cause-allied in fights about X, Y, and Z is not an ally in the fight for one’s own rights.