Re-Conceptualizing Allyhood: Adapting our Definitions to Match the Growing Complexity of Identity by: robbie routenberg

With a strong theoretical foundation now in place, social justice education has grown in complexity and impact. As it evolves, we are coming to understand the growing complexity of identity as it relates to intersectionality. In literature (Broido, 2000; Edwards, 2006; Reason, Broido, Davis, & Evans, 2005) and practice, an ally is commonly defined as someone from a privileged identity group who acts to support the rights and freedoms of an oppressed group of people. The notion of allyhood has invited opportunities for transformative personal exploration and real-time change-making of privileged groups of people.  Identifying this term makes critical discourse and reflection on how to effectively act in support of other people more accessible, and increases the likelihood of intentional and productive action on the part of these privileged ‘allies’. Without minimizing the numerous positive implications of this term and definition, it is important to note there are ways in which this approach is both limited and marginalizing.

 In my years as a social justice educator, I have engaged many participant groups in conversations related to allyhood.  I do this in ways that connect intellectual, emotional and physical selves so that participants are able to practice and get feedback on various approaches to allyhood in incubated workshop time. I do believe that ally development is a lifelong process and takes continual self-work and a community that will challenge you. Before I reconceptualized my own understanding of allyhood, I was constantly challenged by participants who were of multiple oppressed identity groups. They were uncomfortable with the idea that allyhood was reserved for people of privileged identity groups and that their allyhood was limited to supporting the few marginalized groups they did belong to. Under this construct of allyhood, program participants found themselves needing to compartmentalize themselves so deeply, focusing on only one or two of their multiple identities as a means to develop themselves as allies. As I began to empathize with their experience, I committed to questioning the way that I conceptualized allyhood in order to increase access to the conversation and increase nuance and complexity in some needed ways:

Multiple Intersecting Identities: Every individual is a composite of many singular and intersecting identities – (dis)ability, nationality, nation of origin, social class, first language, race, gender, sex, religion/faith, sexual orientation/attractionality, age, body size, relationship status, political affiliation and many more.  Embedded in the current definition of allyhood is the assumption of singularity in the ways that oppression affects people.  The definition suggests there is always a clearly-definable oppressed group and privileged group – while sometimes the case, this is not definite. I believe that many times oppression affects people at the intersection of multiple identities.  For example, I believe that there is a specific form of oppression that negatively marginalized Asian men in U.S. American society.  Broken falsely into pieces, the ‘Asian’ aspect of identity could be considered an oppressed one and the ‘man’ aspect of identity could be considered a privileged one; as a composition of intersecting identities, I believe Asian men are an oppressed group in U.S. American society. So, the question then, based on the literature definition, is who can be an ally?  I am white and not a man; can I be an ally for the rights and justices of this group?  Based on the literature definition, the answer is unclear.

Multifaceted Identities: There are also many identities that are so multifaceted that one can identify as both privileged and oppressed within the same category. For example, I identify as both disabled (related to my mental self) and non-disabled (as it relates to my physical self). Others may identify as both religious and non-religious; a person of color and also white…  So, the question then, based on the literature definition, is who can be an ally?  If I am both disabled and non-disabled, can I be an ally for the rights and justices of disabled people?  Based on the literature definition, the answer is unclear.

Global Context of Identity: Regardless of where you have lived, our identities operate in a global context. By that, I mean the experience of a particular identity group in one area of the world may be remarkably different than in another area; and, when we consider the experience of that identity group in a global context, all varying experiences are part of that identity group’s reality.  Let’s be specific. I identify as a Jewish person, was born into a Jewish family and grew up in the activities and messaging of a Jewish community. Having been born in the U.S.A., I have always considered the Jewish people to be oppressed.  When I consider the same identity in the context of the Middle East, particularly Israel/Palestine, I believe the Jewish people to be privileged. Therefore, in a global context, the Jewish people are both an oppressed and privileged group. From the lens of allyhood as defined by the literature, it remains unclear if one can be both Jewish and an ally; whether it be to other Jews or for the rights and justices of other religiously oppressed groups.

I highlight the limitations of our definition of allyhood, not in an effort to reduce its credibility or to inhibit its impact, but because the tenets of social justice require continued reflection and critical analysis. As social justice educators, our approach to allyhood and ally identity can foster or minimize participation in others working for equity and justice. We must ask ourselves “Who has been unintentionally marginalized by the ways that we have introduced and facilitated these conversations?”  “How can we honor the complexity of identity by building upon the existing conceptualization of allyhood?”  For me, allyhood is a process and not an identity one can claim.  At its root, allyhood is about being committed to social justice and social change. We need to recognize that everyone’s liberations are tied together and only through considering opportunities for solidarity and cross-movement coalitions can true change occur. Is it incredibly important to recognize the many ways that we each may experience oppression and privilege as related to our multiple identities and to consider how that unique composition affects our capacities as change agents. As educators, we have the responsibility to assist others in seeing these intersections as well, and in helping participants to recognize their role in working for positive social change.

About the author, robbie routenberg: A commitment to social justice and interculturalism grounds robbie’s personal and professional involvements. For 10 years, robbie has been serving as a social justice educator, aiming to illuminate the many ways that systems of inequity affect us as individuals and groups. Through highly interactive and reflective pedagogy, robbie facilitates the development of awareness, knowledge and skills in students and practitioners, and assists them in applying this knowledge to multiple roles and contexts. robbie attained a Master’s Degree from the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education program at the University of Michigan in 2007 and a Bachelor’s of Sociology from State University of New York at Geneseo in 2005. Currently, robbie serves as the Associate Director of the Global Scholars Program at the University of Michigan. robbie’s professional portfolio includes appointments as the Program Manager of the Program on Intergroup Relations and as a lecturer and consultant for the Center for Global and Intercultural Studies, roles held at the University of Michigan. Acting as a Coordinator of ACPA’s Institute on Social Justice in 2010 and 2012 and serving on the directorate body for ACPA’s Commission for Social Justice Educators, robbie’s service to the student affairs profession has contributed to a body of social justice scholarship. A lead facilitator for Leadershape, robbie works with student leaders committed to social change. As a frequent consultant, presenter and author, robbie has helped individuals and organizations achieve their goals related to intercultural communication, reflective practice and engaging across identity differences.
Contact robbie at:


Broido, E. M. “The Development of Social Justice Allies During College: A Phenomenological Investigation.” Journal of College Student Development, 2000, 41, 3–18.

Edwards, K. E. (2006). Aspiring social justice ally identity development. NASPA Journal, 43 (4), 39-60.

Reason, R. D., Broido, E. M., Davis, T. L., & Evans, N. J. (Eds.). (2005). Developing social justice allies (New Directions for Student Services, No. 110). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

2 thoughts on “Re-Conceptualizing Allyhood: Adapting our Definitions to Match the Growing Complexity of Identity by: robbie routenberg

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  1. Thanks so much for this…in a quick lecture about allyship from a professor, I was accused of having “antiquated” and “harmful” attitudes when I challenged the foundation of which allyship stood. Your message clearly articulated what I felt, but couldn’t explain. Thanks again!


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