My time at Furman University has taught me the transformative power of true friendship. But, since the death of George Floyd last May, my classmates and I have repeatedly been told that if we want to “make a difference” in the fight against racism, then we should focus on being an “ally.” That is, we should recognize our privilege and leverage it to support underrepresented or marginalized groups on campus until we achieve equity. Animated by Ibram Kendi’s anti-racist movement, administrators, professors, and students at my school all invoke the language of allyship as a model for interracial relationships.
But what are we really being asked to do? How does the redistributive racial justice that lies at the heart of allyship ultimately lead us to approach our peers?
We might find an answer by comparing allyship to another approach to interracial relations that it often maligns: the “black friends” argument. Infamous for its shallowness, this argument suggests that having a black friend makes one essentially immune to racism.
From the anti-racist perspective, the core problem with this approach is the notion that interracial friendship relieves us from addressing questions of racial justice. Ironically, however, the “black friends” argument’s greatest critics fail to see that their own anti-racist allyship is the mere inverse of that oft-invoked “shorthand for weak denials of bigotry,” in the words of John Eligon.
To the same extent one argument suggests that interracial friendship relieves us from addressing questions of racial justice, the other indicates that addressing questions of racial justice relieves us from interracial friendship.
From this perspective, these approaches are two sides of the same coin. Both the “black friends” argument and allyship ultimately make people of color props, mere means to ends.
For the argument that holds “black friends” up as shields against accusations of racism, for example, it is clear that black people exist principally to absolve white guilt.
In its pursuit of perfect racial equity, allyship does something similarly dehumanizing. It encourages us to subjugate all our interpersonal relationships to systemic questions of power and privilege. Then, it defines power and privilege along the lines of racial categories and asks us to see all our interactions through that same essentializing lens. In other words, allyship is precisely the sort of thing that leads people such as House speaker Nancy Pelosi to thank George Floyd for “sacrificing [his] life for justice.” After all, it is only possible to see value in our allies insofar as they help us fight our common enemy: racial inequity.
Such cold comments make clear about allyship what is obvious about the “black friends” argument. Both perspectives sell human relations short in exchange for a flawed view of race that advances short-term political goals rather than contributing to the long-term project of reconciliation through justice.
But what would a better approach to W. E. B. Du Bois’s “color line” look like? The answer would seem to lie in something more important and much older than any modern conception of race.
In book eight of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes three kinds of friendly love: utility, pleasure, and virtue.
He explains that friends of utility only love each other “insofar as they come to have something good from the other.” These friends feel affection only for “the sake of their own good” and their friendships are “easily dissolved.”
This stands in stark contrast to friendship of virtue, which Aristotle calls “complete friendship.” These sorts of friends feel affection for “their friends’ sake,” and their friendships tend to endure because virtue, unlike utility, is a “stable thing.”
Both types of friendship are necessary for our common life. I might need an ally to give me a ride to class, for example.
But when it comes to confronting racism, friendship of utility falls short.
Ultimately, justice and reconciliation — the necessary objects of any movement truly against racism — can only be achieved through complete friendship. Though “rare” and “impossible for people … until they have eaten together the proverbial salt,” according to Aristotle, such friendships must guide our approach to interracial relations.
This lesson was not lost on Martin Luther King Jr., whose dream for his children was that they may be judged “not for the color of their skin, but the content of their character.” Some may scoff at this invocation of a line so frequently cited by conservatives. King’s legacy has been the subject of much political debate in recent years. But even at his most radical, King kept this focus on humanizing friendships of virtue at the center of his project. Amidst calls for systemic change in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech in 1967, for example, King also made the case for a “shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society” defined by “brotherhood.”
This reveals the real trouble with allyship and the anti-racist approach writ large. It is not that Kendi and his contemporaries are too radical, but rather that they are not radical enough. Unable to imagine a world beyond race, anti-racism abandons a humanitarian project that seeks to transform souls and instead reaches for the low but seemingly solid ground of material equity. In turn, it encourages us to see ourselves as allies rather than friends.
Today, in the wake of the Derek Chauvin verdict and the Ma’Khia Bryant shooting, students seeking to fight racism should stop performing sacraments of social justice on Instagram and reject allyship as it is currently understood. Making friends is far better — though admittedly far more difficult — than mere allyship. To eat the proverbial salt together, we must do more than distribute it fairly; we must also be able to gather around a common table and have a conversation.