An organism’s cell’s main focus is to support the body. While its own life is important, it’s not the main priority; the main priority is the overarching life of the body. In retrospect, the life of an individual cell may seem insignificant. However, its efforts are not wasted, as they ultimately contribute toward a much greater goal: the success of the body.
This symbiotic pursuit of a greater good is one of the most basic ways to explain the underlying objective of today’s social justice movements. No matter the movement, all causes rooted in oppression—whether they are LGBTQ rights, the fight for racial equality, or striving to end gender imbalances—require the united commitment of its supporters to selflessly work toward one common goal: to end the structural imbalance of power.
Yet for many allies to these movements, the main focus is not building a better organism, but rather being better cells. While their sights are in the right direction, they fall short of the final destination. The purpose of allyship is not about being a good individual person in a corrupt society, but about actually helping dismantle the institutions that enable this corruption.
In a 2015 article for SocialistWorker.org, activists Khury Peterson-Smith and Brian Bean criticize this self-priority in their analysis of white allyship in Black Lives Matter. Smith and Bean encourage white allies to challenge racism beyond themselves and interpersonal interactions, and to focus more on eliminating the power structures that enable this racial hierarchy. Recognizing privilege isn’t enough to actually end privilege.
Of course, acknowledging individual privilege still plays a vital role in achieving social justice. It’s important to assess the personal impact of societal inequality, as intersectional oppression is unique to every human being. The limitations of allyship are different for everyone, and recognizing these boundaries is key to understanding the individual’s role in resisting systematic oppression.
Allies must be aware that recognizing privilege is not the end objective, however, and therefore should not distract from the true goal. Despite good intentions, the betterment of the individual can actually deter the success of the overall movement:it cannot succeed without the common determination of both activists and allies.
In the end, social justice can only go as far as people’s willingness to be selfless. It’s not that they do not care about structural inequality, it’s that people aren’t cells. They aren’t programmed to just throw away their own well-being for a greater good they don’t even understand.
But, unlike cells, people possess the ability to make their own decisions. Although they weren’t built to automatically see eye to eye, they do have the choice to attempt to do so. Only then, when allies are able to understand another perspective, another experience, will they be able to find commonality and be a little more cell-fless.