There's a conversation that crops up regularly in social justice circles on the role of allies in how we build our movements. In a sense, they are necessary: our rights, like it or not, rely on others seeing us as deserving of them. At the same time, insincere allies co-opt struggles or force oppressed people to constantly explain themselves. Sometimes ally-free spaces are necessary for exploring the dark sides of our realities – the ones that are complicated and murky and don't fit well onto a PR brochure. And some argue, controversially, that ally-only spaces are needed (white anti-racist groups come to mind) for allies to work through their privilege without further burdening people of colour.

I come to activism with enormous privilege. In fact, the very fact that I can choose whether to be an activist or not is an expression of privilege. I often tell people that I'm an activist because I can't possibly imagine what else to do with this privilege than to try and share it. It's true; I deeply believe that it is my responsibility as a person with privilege – and as a decent human being – to oppose any affronts to the basic humanity and dignity of any person(s). I'm a white, USian, native-born, English-speaking, (upper) middle-class, highly educated, thin, currently non-disabled, apparently cis-gendered girl-shaped person who's often read as het. I grew up within a supportive family in an urban, literate, relatively progressive milieu. So I am politicized out of a sense of fairness, not the circumstances of my life.

This complicates my activism. In many of the struggles with which I am involved, I have hardly been oppressed. My knowledge of homophobia is passive, based more on life in an obnoxiously heteronormative society than on a daily fear of gay-bashing or losing my job. I can't remember ever having been the target of intentional homophobia (biphobia, yes. But even that I could probably count on one hand). Even as a feminist, where by virtue of my perceived gender I am undeniably in a disadvantaged position, my privilege in other areas allows me a certain buffer. I can, for the most part, choose with whom I associate, for example, and I'm less bound to a particular job or setting than many others. I have to deal with objectification and casual sexism and people disbelieving my abilities or wanting to fit me into prescribed gender roles all the time. But in a lot of ways, I still have it lucky.

As a feminine, female-bodied person, as a queer person, as a gender non-conformist, I have a genuine stake in the outcomes of certain trans, queer, and feminist struggles. But I can hardly pretend that having a claim to a certain label means my interests should be allowed to dominate that struggle. The best example for me is the immigrant rights movement. I am a second-generation immigrant, and an immigrant myself, which I suppose give me some legitimacy to talk about immigrant rights. But I'm the “good” kind of immigrant: legal, educated, linguistically and culturally assimilated, healthy, and so on. I have to come to the struggle as an ally to the folks for whom immigration is a true hardship. It is possible that making the system work for them will mean improvements for me, but that is not my primary goal. My immigrant identity is only a source of some empathy and 101-level knowledge, not a driving factor in my understanding of the movement's goals.

I want to suggest that we have to accept a blurring of the lines between allies and “genuine” oppressed folks. In fact, I think we need a new language that can talk about the important difference between the oppressions we face and the identities we hold. We've had some productive conversations in this space on queer heterosexuality. I'd argue that, in that case, claiming a queer identity (however justified) does not reduce one's straight privilege, just as a pre/non-op trans man's personal identification as male does not stop him from experiencing sexism based on society's perception of his presentation. In short, anti-oppression work is not the same as identity politics, and to conflate them is to obscure the effects of intersectionality and the extremely varied experiences and struggles that we each face.

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