‘I’m on your side’. As comforting as it can be to hear these words from someone in the majority group, this declaration comes with responsibilities to the group you are giving your allegiance to. Words are not enough. Actions must be well thought out. It is no good becoming the face of the movement, over-shadowing an over-powering already vulnerable and marginalised groups, which allies have a tendency to do. The ‘I know what’s best for you approach’ that is adopted by some, no matter how well-meaning, is destructive. In this post, Ruth Taiwo explains why allyship means partnership, learning, and unlearning, and why every ally must be humble and focused on service without ego, ready to listen to the group they wish to support.
It would seem that alongside terms such as ‘privilege’, ‘misogyny’, ‘heteronormative’ and a basketful of others, ‘allyship’ has also joined the club of buzz words being used and thrown around in society – be it online or elsewhere. In this journey for justice and change, I have come to understand that an ally is fundamentally a supporter, someone who collaborates and offers their voice and resources in solidarity towards justice for a group of oppressed people. In the glossary of Diversity and Social Justice, Oregon State University note that an ally is:
A person of one social identity group who stands up in support of members of another group; typically a member of a dominant group standing beside member(s) of targeted group, e.g. a man arguing for equal pay for women.
I suppose in theory, allyship is an aesthetically pleasing phrase that sounds as inviting as it looks. In theory, if allyship, a concept that warrants solidarity and sacrifice was genuinely practiced, we’d be much further along in progress than we are at present. And as of recently, it seems to be a phrase that has become increasingly irksome and irritating to see and hear, at least for me. A phrase that I have witnessed being waved about, often met with expectations of golden stickers, milk chocolate cookies and exuberant praise.
I believe a basic but essential tool in being a good ally and practicing effective allyship is listening, listening and listening some more. Listening to the experiences, struggles and stories of targeted groups in order to gain a more holistic perspective. Being an ally means being honest in acknowledging the limit of your understanding about the experiences of others, but by no means using this as a reason to bask in ignorance or not engage critically in conversation.
So for example, being a white ally would mean speaking up and confronting racism as it occurs daily, but also seeking to deconstruct it at an institutional level and living in a way that defies and challenges systemic racist oppression. It would be admitting the privilege one is afforded by the system, and also using that to combat oppression. Being an able bodied ally would require building relationships with people who identify as being disabled, as well as other able bodied people in order to facilitate difficult conversations in how we think about ableism. Being an ally to whichever person or group does not mean you are the source of all knowledge and have all oppressions mastered and figured out, but that more importantly you are unwaveringly committed to non-apathetic life.
Allyship this week for me meant continuing to raise the profile of the Chapel Hill executions in North Carolina, though I do not identify as a Muslim. It meant applying pressure through social media to make the story known, reframing the language of how the story was being reported, calling out the evident propaganda of mainstream media who continue to fuel Islamophobia and dehumanise Muslims by erasing and ignoring their experiences, catering to white supremacy. It meant bringing the shootings up in conversation with colleagues, in predominantly white spaces and institutions, in church, and facilitating dialogues surrounding it.
A noteworthy example of allyship was making Mike Brown an unforgettable name and Ferguson an unforgettable movement, where initially throughout the world there was an outpour of solidarity and love responding to the injustice of his death. It was a powerful statement to witness communities of all social groups come together globally in protests to highlight the atrocity and show support to the black community in the United States.
One of the most prominent issues I’ve observed and encountered concerning allies and allyship is people not grasping the sensitivities between speaking up vs speaking over. So when allies dominate spaces or negate to amplify voices of targeted groups, tensions occur. Shout out the all the fake deep ‘male feminist’ allies who still believe telling women how to practice feminism is feminism. Shout out to the white people who end up talking over, profiting from sharing the racist experiences that people of colour face without including them (*cough cough* Tim Wise). Shout out to those who believe in co-opting movements is allyship, i.e. #ALLLIVESMATTER. Shout out to the allies who draw attention to an issue with the ill intention that you should receive applause and exaltation for it. No one should expect a pat on the back or be given esteemed attention for being a human and acknowledging that other human beings should also be treated as humans. Allyship is about checking our egos at the door and being centred on service.
I remember sharing my thoughts on the unsurprising hypocrisy concerning the media coverage on the Baga attack by Boko Haram in Nigeria a few weeks back on Twitter. I addressed the #ALLLIVESMATTER crowd but also the Black American community, making queries into where their support was for the black lives in Nigeria. The posts were not cries for the ‘West to save Africa’ as some proposed, but rather to open up dialogues about the nuances of privilege in allyship, even withinin groups. I thought it was telling that black African lives seemed to be excluded in the #BLACKLIVESMATTER conversation which was demonstrated by the lack of support seen from the Black American community at the time.
I’ve often had to check myself in my allyship towards other communities, especially when talking on matters concerning the LGBTQ community. Asking myself whether I am saying too much, whether I am being condescending and ignorant, whether I am using my voice to support and amplify or whether I am overshadowing. I am constantly checking the language and rhetoric I use when discussing disabilities as an able bodied person and being conscious of my position. As allies to a multitude of communities, it is important to do this but to know we won’t always get everything right. Be vulnerable. We need to continue to cultivate the ability to listen and take criticism from the group(s) we’re supporting. Learn to apologise when in error and move forward. Being a good ally in my opinion is not screaming from the mountain tops that you’re a good ally. Being a good ally is not about trying to be a saviour, like some activists working in many International Development organisations, or some well-intentioned white teachers working in “inner city schools”, or some Christians venturing on missionary trips to Africa and Asia.
Poet and educator Joshua Bennett spoke beautifully on allyship, asking questions I believe are necessary:
What are the stakes of being an ally? When we use the term, are we talking about a willingness to lay one’s life down for another? If not, why? What resemblance does allyship bear to fellowship, to becoming a spy, or traitor, for the sake of the flourishing of human life? And what might it look like for folks that occupy historically dominant social positions to become traitors? To actively give away that which is ill-gotten in the first place, or betray their own best interests that a different, freer world might emerge?
Bennett attempts to rattle our understanding at an existential level. What are truly the stakes of allyship? We must continue to ask ourselves how far are we willing to go in this pursuit of a liberated and free world for all people.
Ultimately, allyship is a process and everyone has more to (un) learning to do.