Julie Pagano

Ally Smells: Appropriation

I recently covered a bunch of “bad ally” behaviors. Some of the items on that list are downright awful, and some of them are more akin to the ally equivalent of a “code smell”. They’re not that awful in isolation, but they are often a sign of deeper problems. The more they occur, the worse those problems probably are.

I want to explore some of these “ally smells” a bit more. Let’s start by talking about appropriation.

What is appropriation?

Let’s start at the beginning. We need a shared working definition of “appropriation” to continue this discussion.

1. take (something) for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission.

Above is a dictionary definition of appropriate that is relevant to this discussion. The “somethings” in this conversation are the lived experiences and struggles of members of oppressed groups. The people doing the “taking” are privileged allies that are not members of those oppressed groups.

The issue of ownership gets a bit tricky here. Can one person give you permission to use the struggles of the group? What about a dozen? Or a hundred? Do you have to ask every individual member of that group for permission? Individuals can choose to give you permission to use their specific personal experiences. However, no one person or even a collection of people can give you the rights to the lived experiences and struggles of the group as a whole.

Appropriation of platform

Do you frequently speak/write/present about the oppressed group without first suggesting that a program/publication/event/etc. speak to members of that group instead?

Privileged people who are known for being allied to an oppressed group will often be offered a platform to speak about the group’s experiences and issues that impact them. Platforms like an interview on a tv show or podcast. Platforms like writing for a blog or publication. Platforms like presenting at conferences or other events.

Why are allies being offered a platform to speak about these issues instead of people who are actually members of the group being discussed? People who know the issues more intimately because they have lived them. People who care about them more passionately because it directly impacts them. People who cannot put it aside when it gets too hard because it is their life, and they must experience it daily whether they want to or not.

More importantly, why are allies accepting these offers? If you are a good ally, surely you know at least a handful of talented members of the group being discussed that would love to have access to a platform to share their insights. These are their lives, not yours, and they should get priority in speaking about them. If you insist on appropriating their experiences, you should at least demand that they be given a platform too.

Good allies focus on listening and support. Regularly speaking on behalf of those you are allied with is doing neither. Pushing for them to be given a platform supports them and provides you with yet another avenue to listen and learn.

Like most things, these are not absolutes, and there are exceptions. Spaces focused on allies helping each other learn is a reasonable place to take a platform. It can also be useful for an ally to speak up in cases where it is unsafe for members of the group to do so. Err on the side of promoting those you are allied with over promoting yourself on these topics. If you do promote yourself, do so in moderation. Making a career out of speaking on behalf of the group you are allied with is problematic because it eschews such moderation.

Appropriation of work

Do you take credit for the work of members of the group you are allied with? Without also giving them credit? While claiming they did not do the work?

Some privileged people not only appropriate the experiences of those they are allied with, but also their work. There are a lot of different variations on this, so I am going to focus on the ones I see most frequently.

First off, again with the definitions. What do I mean by “work” here? I am talking about physical or mental effort done in order to achieve something specific for or related to the oppressed group. This work includes creating safer spaces, empowering members of the group, improving representation of the group in specific areas, educating people about issues relevant to the group, and much, much more.

One form of appropriating work is using the work of people you are allied with and taking all or most of the credit for it. This makes me think of the trope where a woman presents an idea in a meeting, is ignored, and then a man presents it as his own and is praised for his great idea. I hope I do not have to explain why this is a problem. A great way to turn this behavior on its head is to provide full credit to the original creators and call out the people who only listened when you presented it as your own.

Another common situation is when an ally attempts to take over work that members of the group are focusing on. They insist they know best about how to address the systemic inequalities that impact oppressed people. They are frequently wrong and respond poorly when told this. They might create their own modified version of the work that ignores feedback about why their approach is problematic. They might reuse the work and not credit the original creators. Or worst of all, they might claim the original creators did no work at all. This is harmful.

Members of oppressed groups often have to work twice as hard to receive half the credit and traction that privileged people do. When privileged allies use their position to dismiss that work or try to take credit for it as their own, they are making the situation worse. A good ally should use their position to support and promote the work of those they are allied with while ensuring that those who did the work receive credit for it.

Some forms of work have existed long enough that one could argue they have entered the public domain and no longer belong to the people who did the groundwork. I still urge you to be careful about appropriating that work, particularly without a great deal of self-education and understanding of the context it was created in.

What now?

I have been writing a lot lately about allies for two main reasons: to improve the quality of allies I interact with as a woman and to work on improving myself as an ally to groups where I have the position of privilege. We all fuck up, and that is ok as long as we respond well to being called on those mistakes and work on improving. I’ve definitely made the mistakes of appropriating the platforms and work of others. I am trying to be better about this because it is important. I hope you will do the same.