“Allyship” and other weirdness

A favourite Critical Race Theory term is “Allyship”, a word that embodies a lot of what is problematic about these theorists’ approach. 

To start with, it is a neologism, so new, in fact, that my edition of Word is still underlining it in red, as an error. We should ask ourselves who coined the term, and to what end, because those who define the terms of a debate control it. 

Who has the authority to coin new words? Many of them seem to originate in Social Science departments of universities. “Micro-aggressions”, the most unhelpful, or misused term in the race debate, was coined by a Harvard University psychiatrist[1]. Professor DiAngelo is keen to state the academic position of the commentators she quotes. White Fragilityis full of phrases that begin, “Scholar Marilyn Frye uses the metaphor…”, “Reflecting on the social and economic advantages of being classified as white, critical race scholar Cheryl Harris coined the phrase…”, “Ruth Frankenberg, a premier white scholar in the field of whiteness studies, describes whiteness as…”, “Critical race scholar Zeus Leonardo[2] critiques the concept…” (my italics)

Commentators who feel they are part of the same campaign, can reinforce each other’s authority, and give credence to their spanking new coinages. Diangelo always foregrounds her comrades’ academic credentials. This is, of course, a mark of respect for their achievements, their industry and their great knowledge and wisdom. However, it also emphasises their authority, their superior social position. 

But such authority relies on hierarchical power structures and hegemonies that are just as anti-egalitarian as any others in our societies. Academics can mint neologisms to their hearts’ content, and have them taken seriously, a privilege denied to guttersnipes like you and I[3].

And, of course, the most prestigious universities are mired in exactly the same iniquitous histories of subjugation and tyranny as any other of society’s structures. Who are the alumni of these bodies? Who endowed them and where did this wealth come from? Was it blood money? Arms? Slavery? Exploitation of the developing world? Eco-system-destroying, climate-change-causing consumer capitalism?

Prosperity breeds prosperity; wealth allows investment and attracts talent, which attracts investment and further endowment, which attracts further talent. Surely, anyone who has benefitted from these, by education and opportunity and prestige is just as privileged as anyone else, irrespective of their racial background. Two of Britain’s most prominent racial activists, Afua Hirsch and Otegha Uwagba are graduates of Oxford university[4], an institution infamously endowed by the uber-imperialist Cecil Rhodes[5]

We all have blood in our hands, just by living in a morally compromised society, with a dubious past, merely by benefitting from what it has to offer in political stability or healthcare or infrastructure because all of that has been under-written by the head-start a prosperous past has given it. And that’s before we get into who was exploited in making your jeans or how much CO2 you’ve helped produce by your holidays and your commute and your Peruvian coffee, or how much rubbish you produce, and how many people died to get you your cocaine. So perhaps the idea of anyone’s guilt or conscious complicity is unhelpful. We should focus on thoughtful alterations to our society and to our own behaviours and attitudes without getting all self-righteous and blamey and judgey. 


[1] Charles M. Pierce, in 1970, According to Wiki. It would be nice to think we’d moved on a little, since then, so that the word has less relevance. 

[2] Fantastic name!

[3] Nobody is going to write, “Serial Complainer Xan Nichols has coined the phrase ‘Grumblebunkum’ to describe the collective texts of critical race theory and its opponents.” 

[4] Which may explain their fury. Oxford University, in my limited experience, is horribly retrograde and classist. The Postgraduate common room of one of their colleges remains the only place I have heard the terms “oiks” and “plebs” used in anger. (Admittedly that was in the late 90s. it may have changed.)

[5] Figures like David Olosuga (respect) and David Lammy (oodles of respect) also have highly respectable academic pedigrees, but they occupy different, even more institutionalised positions and are thus, perhaps, compromised in the eyes of social scientists. And they may have benefitted from “Male Privilege” (if such a thing exists!)

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