Solidarity: Out of Guilt or Desire for Change?

Travis Green, global education magazineTravis Green 

Independent Researcher interested in Peacebuilding, Conflict Studies and International Development.


Abstract: This is a reflection on the concept of solidarity. In particular it looks at three cases and problematizes how solidarity is expressed in regards to each situation It links these thoughts with several definitions of solidarity that follow the case studies. This especially seeks to look at these situations critically. While the article is written with the author’s own perspective and identity in mind, it is applicable to all who enter into solidarity with a struggle or a cause that is not initially their own. It is the position of the author that solidary acts are often done uncritically and in turn distracts and harms the cause more than helps it.

Keywords: solidarity, reflection, racism, feminism, oppression.


Solidarity is an ideal; it connects one human to another, in full recognition of the other’s humanity and in full empathy for that person’s situation with a desire to join the other in their struggle. While solidarity has many facets, conceptually it is helpful to divide it into two general expressions. One is primarily from those facing a similar plight or within the same group. The other is by those who are in a different group and choose to enter into another’s situation to contribute to improving it. The second kind begs many questions: privilege, power, ethics, ideals, group efficiency must all be re-examined. This is particularly true in regards to someone from a dominant/oppressor class stepping alongside a struggle for those in the subordinate/oppressed class. An action of this sort necessitates self-reflection that is rarely found. In tandem with this, it involves a deeper understanding of the ongoing struggle or movement and an understanding of the implications of symbols, emotions, and actions.

The following paper is a reflection on three instances when solidarity was contentious or questionable. One is a personal example. While there are many examples to choose from as well as many issues, these were chosen to show subtleness of certain issues of solidarity. There is a great deal to say and this only seeks to inspire additional reflection in the spirit of critical studies.


Solidarity involves knowing; there is a deep understanding of someone in a position other than that possessed by oneself. “Solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is solidary. . . true solidarity with the oppressed means fighting at their side to transform the objective reality which has made them these ‘beings for another’,” (Freire, 1994:49). Freire continues to claim that solidarity is only possible when ‘the other’ ceases to be an “abstract category” and their humanity becomes the primary factor in the relationship. This is similar to an understanding of solidarity as a reciprocal act (Hoelzl, 2005). For reciprocity to occur, there must be a recognition that the other person is able to give something. Popular conceptions of solidarity involve joining in with mass action public demonstrations of frustration for a limited amount of time and then to simply return to a situation of comfort or to remain in a state of internet activism. Three examples come to my mind: feminism, race, and oppression.

Now, being who I am and who I identify as, the issues of gender, race, and political oppression can be pretty sore spots. Typically, I end up hearing about these issues and simply ask, how is it that I can ever hope to come alongside people and stand with them in their opposition to a status quo that does not question the way it treats people and is in my benefit to leave untouched? One of the mistakes of efforts towards solidarity is emphasizing inclusion as the solution, as if creating enough space in the political, social, economic, or cultural sphere will solve the problem. This then becomes expressed by people marching for minority rights so that minorities may have the same rights within the current system as the majority. However, the issue is not to change the status of those within the system but that these protests serve to draw attention to the historical processes that have become the current situation of injustice. From the new awareness, it is then to contribute to the creation of a new structure that does not implicitly dehumanize.

Feminism: Distracting Debates

In regards to feminism, two examples instantly stand out to me in how, first, the injustice suffered is misrecognized by those not suffering it, and, secondly, how the idea of showing solidarity with the cause still falls to pieces when done uncritically. While the following examples do not do justice to the complexities that the feminist movement includes, it highlights the way that many of the conversations with those both outside and within the movement are had.

Not too long ago, the #YesAllWomen caused a flurry of activity on social media. It began as a reaction to the shooting of six women by a man who was angry for being rejected by several women. The flurry of reactions by many people strove to either demonstrate that harassment and objectification and violence based on the resulting judgments is a very real issue that women in particular struggle with on a daily basis. At the risk of oversimplifying a massive movement, this is the heart of feminism: exposing the ‘misrecognized violence’ (to use terminology from Bourdieu) in everyday life that perpetuates a system that accepts, and furthers, these wrongs.

The response of #notallmen, with the intent to explain the already known and accepted fact that not all men act like a serial killer or rapist, soon entered the conversation as a reaction to the original statements. While originally well intended, taking the conversation in this direction does not exemplify standing alongside women who suffer from violence. Instead, as one article sought to clarify, it derails the conversation and does nothing to question societal norms and expectations in regards to how violence against women is normalized (Plait, 2014). In this struggle for justice, if the social systems in place are not re-examined and questioned, then there will be no change for the better.

Another similar point is the #solidarityisforwhitewomen, which began circulating about a year ago. This was a critique that within feminism there is also an exclusionary element which favors a privileged background. In this case, solidarity is accused of repressing and seeking conformity. This is not a new critique (and indeed is a problem in many causes). Amy Allen ascribes this to basing solidarity on an appeal to a shared identity (1999). The issue then becomes one of a dominating identity, which historically in the United States has been white. Similarly to the #allwomen conversations, this one became became a back-and-forth. The main issue underlying it all is the same that Audre Lorde commented on when stating,

Advocating the mere tolerance of difference between women is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening. Only within that interdependency of difference strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters. (Lorde, 1984:26).

This critique (the context of which was a conference that did not affirm the differences underlying the feminist movement but one that emphasized white, middle-class identity and only showed token acceptance to others) is the same one alive in #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen as well as one that is evident in all expressions of solidarity between the dominant/oppressor group and the subordinate/oppressed group.

While Twitter rants may not be the most striking examples of the feminist struggle, they at least portray the exchange between (would-be) sympathizers and solidarists as well as those who do not see how an uncritical approach to the situation magnifies the issue at hand. Similarly, an example in race relations also illuminates this point.

Racism – Posing Solidarity

The most recent case to raise the issue of racial discrimination in the United States has been the Ferguson, Missouri shooting of an unarmed young black man, Mike Brown, by a white police officer. In the (justifiable) demonstrations and fury that followed, there has been a constant demonstration in Ferguson, St. Louis, and many other cities across the US. Amongst these, there have been expressions of solidarity by the white population who wish to contribute their voices to decrying this injustice and latent racism that persists in society and becomes explicit in confrontations of power. A symbolic gesture of the protests has been the ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ pose, to call attention to the fact that even when Brown adopted this pose, he was still shot; a position of surrender was not enough to save Mike Brown. However, as one reflection on some of these demonstration makes clear, presence and participation by the white population does not equal solidarity:

Look, I understand wanting to show up and support, but white people need to understand that this symbolic act of raising your hands in a position of surrender is meant to illustrate how black people are violently targeted by police because of their race. If you don’t experience that, you should not mimic the gesture in an attempt at “solidarity”. It is centering yourself in a narrative that you cannot tell because of the protection your white privilege gives you. It shows a lack of understanding about the nature of systemic state sanctioned violence against black bodies. In fact, the day after the rally I was talking to a white male neighbor who had attended the rally (and marched with his hands up chanting ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’) who expressed that he thought the gesture was “too passive”. I had to literally break it down for him that the point of the gesture was so show that a non-aggressive surrender wasn’t enough to save Mike Brown because his blackness made him a threat, disposable, or both. In adopting this pose, Black people aren’t demonstrating passive surrender to oppression, they are communicating that they can make all attempts to appear non-threatening, but the historic and contemporary vilification of blackness in America has made the real danger the perception of their blackness as inherently threatening. (FreeQuency, 2014)

This insightful reflection raises the point and points to privilege as a hurdle that must be overcome in showing solidarity. Privilege must be a part of any conversation in relation to solidarity particularly because people from privilege bring with them their particular worldviews that influence how they see those who they are joining (Freire, 1993). There must be an element of self criticism and reflection involved that shows an understanding and awareness of why solidarity is necessary. In this case, by adopting the pose of protest, white demonstrators insensitively, though hopefully well-intentioned, in fact did more to distract from the issue that racism is pervasive in the structures of power than contribute to it. This is because this pose is particular to a certain identity that may suffer from this identity.

Political Oppression – Misguided expression?

The conflict in Israel/Palestine has been ongoing for sixty years, is incredibly complex and divisive, and has had a defining impact on the region, and indeed the world. Today the conflict essentially revolves around Israel claiming needs of security and historical promise, while Palestinians claim needs of freedom and injustice. In recent years, Israel’s settler policy has made the situation more difficult by laying claim to land owned by Palestinians and then relying on the protection of the state of Israel.

Interestingly enough, it also happens to be a very popular conflict for people to become involved in on university campuses and online.

 In August I participated in a march in London against the then-ongoing Israeli offensive into Gaza. I was struck by both the sheer size of the movement (it was mirrored in many cities) and also how convenient it was made for people. Streets were blocked off, it was a Saturday, and (surprisingly) it was sunny. There was propaganda, chants, flags and a general camaraderie of shared convictions and participation. Through it all I had a distinct feeling of unease. While there were many among the crowd who were Palestinian (my friend who I accompanied was), it still felt too bleached. One of the chants in particular (‘In our hundreds in our millions, we are all Palestinians’) especially made me feel trepidation, because, similarly to the previous case, claiming that identity white-washes the issue and makes it too easy to participate but also too simple to approach.

My difficulty involving myself in chants and propaganda was this: I am a white male from the US who has had a very privileged and comfortable life. I have never felt the fear and the anxiety that comes from being faced by an opponent who does not see my humanity and is willing to kill me for it. I have never felt the despair that comes of an identity whose quintessential mark is that of lack (of homeland, of power, of agency, of freedom). How can I make the claim that I am Palestinian? Frankly, I was more bothered by the fact that more people were not bothered. These acts of solidarity do not require sacrifice, other than a couple of hours on a weekend. While the good intentions of the participants was no doubt heartfelt, my question is whether there are other additional ways that would more willingly show solidarity1.


These case studies set the stage for a more critical approach to solidarity. Essentially these issues bring to bear a focus on the binary between oppressed/oppressor and, implicitly, the role and impact that an apathetic or uncritical person from the dominant group can have on an issue. Particularly, it raises the question of what is it that those from a privileged background can offer those who feel themselves excluded or discriminated against. What these examples also point to is how easy it is for those who feel convicted to show solidarity with a struggle to accidentally do more harm than good by not processing the full extent of our actions2.

The first case points to how a lack of understanding of another’s struggles in turn allows for the struggle to be derailed and the issue of the dominant class to be imposed. The second case demonstrates the importance of understanding another’s perspective and identities before using symbols that may be particular to a certain group, particularly when these can be misused or used disrespectfully. The third case shows how solidarity requires meaningful action that is in line with a challenge to the status quo and an aspect of sacrifice.

As mentioned earlier, solidarity is an act of knowing, of entering the situation of another (Freire, 1993); of standing in for another and viewing the other as able to contribute (Hoelzl, 2005); and of finding common purpose and power beyond identity (Allen,1999); and can be seen as a symptom of a broken or lacking social relation resulting in exclusion (Silver, 1994). These definitions point to a goal that is neither solely justice nor equality, though both of these lie close to the heart of the issue. Following closely with the concept of exclusion, solidarity seeks to restore a broken relationship and diminish the distance, whether social, political, economic, or identity-based, that lies between people. Inherently this will involve questions of justice and equality, though the focus must include both and indeed go beyond3. If an act of solidarity does not question the layered aspect of structures and agency that lie upon each other in any situation and does not seek to challenge the status quo, then it is dubious whether this act can be seen as true solidarity and not simply a conscience-soothing, guilt-justifying act of charity. This is why the idea of sacrifice is so key, as explored by Hoelzl (2005).

Acts of solidarity, as illustrated here, can then be seen through two lenses: as a symbolic expression of approval and sympathy or as a grounded effort to enact change. However, if the symbolic never goes beyond into the actual, then it is wasted and only maintains the status quo. Nevertheless, solidarity cannot be shown through destruction, as this takes away the agency of those expressing discontent. While solidarity can be shown towareds violence or violent causes, inherently this works against restoring relationships. This is where a perspective similar to Frantz Fanon calling for a violent demonstration of agency, as a focus on justice and righting wrongs, does not lend itself to standing with others but instead divides. Additionally, in a Ghandian and Kingian mentality, action taken must be commensurate with the ends sought. Otherwise, as Freire warns, the end risks looking like the present with only the roles reversed between oppressor/dominant class and oppressed/dominated class.

However, it is not enough to simply make a symbolic statement in one instance and not to engage with struggles for justice at other times. What is necessary is a cohesive approach to the situations of injustice. Granted, not all struggles calling for solidarity will be just or align with the moral impetus of supporters. Additionally, as Zizek notes, it is the ‘existing political-economic order’ that must changed instead of simply being reproduced with a new group included to the spoils (2012: 14). This is what Lorde is advocating in her statement that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house (1984).

These principles are not only applicable to conflicts and controversial issues, but also have a direct relevance to any act that involves crossing boundaries between people. It is why development and humanitarian efforts must be, to a certain extent, scrutinized so heavily. Trying to solve poverty through means that caused poverty does not engage with the issue that there is a system which perpetuates poverty of a few. Also, humanitarian endeavours must face the question of whether their overtures truly involve an element of sacrifice. While for many, such as doctors contributing to the Ebola crisis, it does, for many others, such as in volunteer tourism, it does not.4

On a day that is supposed to evoke thoughts about how to show solidarity with those in unjust situations, we should also reflect on what that solidarity implies for those who are not in those situations. If it stops at a sympathetic thought, or even a charitable donation, then this day is wasted. Solidarity must demonstrate an attempt to know the humanity in others and then, from this relationship, challenge the situations of exploitation and oppression. In regards to exploitation and oppression of women, it is not enough to say that not all men are like that. In regards to racial prejudice and political oppression, it is not enough to chant an emblematic phrase. To show this solidarity, I must make it my fight, on the terms of those I am fighting for. If a cause is easy to carry, I would venture to guess that it is not being carried right.


Allen, A. (1999). Solidarity after identity politics: Hannah Arendt and the power of feminist theory. Philosophy and Social Criticism. 25(1). 97-118.

 Anderson, M. (1999). Do no harm. How aid can support peace or war. London: Lynne Rienner.

Cole, T. (2012, March). The White-Savior Industrial Complex. Available from: .

Duffield, M. (2001). Global Governance and the New Wars. London: Zed Books.

FreeQuency. (2014, August). On White People, Solidarity and (Not) Marching for Mike Brown. Available from:

Hoelzl, M. (2005). Recognizing the sacrificial victim: The problem of solidarity for critical social theory. Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory6(1), 45-64.

Lorde, A. (2003). The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. In Lewis, R and Mills, S. (eds). Feminist postcolonial theory: A reader. 25-28. New York: Routledge.

Lederach, JP. (1997). Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies. Washington, DC: USIP.

Plait, P. (2014, May). #NotAllMen: How Discussing Women’s Issues Gets Derailed. Available from:

Silver, H. (1994). Social exclusion and social solidarity: Three paradigms. International Labor Review. 133. 531-578.

Zizek, S. (2012). Year of Dreaming Dangerously. London: Verso.


1For example the Boycott, Divestments, Sanctions Movement attempts this through people’s consumption habits or the example of the Norwegian doctor, Mads Gilbert, who worked at a Gaza hospital during the bombing

2This is analogous to the concept of conflict sensitivity with the priority of doing no harm (Anderson, 1999).

3This is similar to John Paul Lederach’s (1997) focus on reconciling relationships as a primary means of conflict resolution.

4For a cultural critique of development see Cole (2012); academically see Duffield (2001)


This article was published on 20th December 2014, for the International Human Solidarity Day, in Global Education Magazine.

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