In his monumental book “How To Be An Anti-Racist”, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi made a powerful distinction of language around the topic of racism when he asserted:
“What’s the problem with being ‘not racist’? It is a claim that signifies neutrality: ‘I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.’ But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘antiracist.’”
Going on to brilliantly unpack this concept throughout the book, Kendi transformed my understanding of racism and my role as someone who seeks to embody allyship. As the white father of a black son, this has been an important part of my ongoing education and formation. The removal of the pseudo-neutral “not racist” shifted the responsibility in me from ideological abstraction to active anti-racism. And, wow, do I have my work cut out for me!
As a queer Christian, I began to consider what these critical lessons might mean for our LGBTQ2S+ affirmations and inclusion in the church (and in the world). Having long since learned that race and sexuality injustices cannot and should not be viewed as identical parallels, I knew it wasn’t simply a matter of changing the language. “Homophobe” and “anti-homophobe”, for example, are poor and problematic terms that fail to have the meaning and traction needed in this case.
However, I wonder if the concepts of “affirming” and “allyship” might not offer a better entry to this conversation, at least for Christians (and other religious groups where such language is used). Withi religious circles, being “fully affirming” means being inclusive of all LGBTQ2S+ people in the life and ministry of the church. In other words, their relationships can be celebrated, they can be married in the church, they can serve in any capacity of church ministry and/or leadership.
While being fully affirming, either as an individual or a church/institution, is a significant step out of the exclusionary and oppressive policies and practices of much of the wider global church culture(s), it is becoming increasingly clear that being affirming is not enough. For example, it is not uncommon for churches to adopt affirming policy while failing to deconstruct the cisnormative/heteronormative dynamics deeply rooted in the lives of its members, practices, and biases.
It is similar to what women experience in a culture that claims to affirm (and even legally protect) gender equality. Ask most women if these claims match their lived reality and you will soon find yourself hearing story after story of ongoing sexism and misogyny that they face daily. And they won’t simply be examples of “unfairness” but rather dynamics that can go so far as to put their health, safety, and lives at stake.
In contrast, then, I have come to see allyship as a more helpful focal point than affirming. Being affirming is still important, but often slips into being another form of neutrality, one where everyone is “welcomed equally” but systemic injustice and oppression are not intentionally and consistently addressed. Allyship, by contrast, is an active, ongoing commitment to the work of deconstructing and repenting of oppressive beliefs, ideas, practices, policies, assumptions, etc., towards ends centrally defined by the oppressed.
Note that I am using “allyship” instead of “ally”. Many people committed to anti-oppression work often identify as being an ally (or at least aspiring to be an ally). While this is commendable, a title like “ally” in noun form can easily become static. What does it take to earn the right of such a title? Or to keep it? Instead, the idea of allyship is rooted in an understanding of “ally” as verb- to ally with someone. This usage helps us focus on the on-going and changing nature of the work of allyship. It is something we do, not something we are.
If you are a cisgender, heterosexual Christian or part of a church that identifies as “fully affirming”, please know that too many LGBTQ2S+ Christians, this claim is losing credibility. Not because it is unimportant but because all too often it is detached from the ongoing, self-sacrificial work, both within the lives of those aspiring to allyship and the institutions which they occupy. A claim of affirming is akin to a declaration of love. It is only as authentic as it is in consistent, costly proven action which centers the experience, priorities, and wisdom of the oppressed.
So while being affirming can be held as a static, fixed identity that requires relatively little of us, dedicating ourselves to the work of allyship requires a continued, proactive intention and the humility uncenter ourselves to do better every single day. That is a pursuit worthy of our time and energy if we dare.