Allyship is a committment to a cause that does not affect one.
After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, “allyship” was in vogue. But I noticed one concerning trend. It appeared the concept of allyship became associated with a specific group of people. In most cases people who outwardly sought to or declared themselves allies were mostly, if not exclusively, liberal and white. But that was my observation based solely on my examination of what I saw around me, in my personal life, at work, on television and on social media. Perhaps it was because of the work I do, but I couldn’t help notice that the majority of my white friends and work colleagues approached me about allyship. They started with declaring how deplorable it was that people like me (black) seemed to not enjoy the same advantages as them. They wanted to be part of the solution. And they wanted to know how they could become good allies.
Although I was unease about allyship being construed as something for white people to do, as a white people’s responsibility and perhaps guilt, I acquiesced and offered advice and even wrote articles and facilitated seminars to teach (mostly white) people how they could become good allies.
But the gnawing feeling that something was not quite right never left me. I began to wonder if the term was being misunderstood and misappropriated. I came down on the former. I too was guilty of perpetuating the misunderstanding that framed allyship not only as a white people’s responsibility, but as something all good white people needed to do to atone for the centuries of pain and suffering racism has inflicted on black and brown people.
I also detected from the general discourse around the issue that some black people construed the idea of white people as allies as another manifestation of the “white survivor” syndrome, meaning that only good white people could help and rescue the victimised downtrodden blacks. Understandably, that did not sit well with some black people. There was probably truth in both perspectives. But the continuation of such variance in how allyship was viewed could only render it ineffective. And I believe we need a rethink in how we define allyship.
So, what is and what is not allyship? Let’s start with what it’s not – something for white people to do or to be. Allyship is not about befriending or supporting black people or other vulnerable or discriminated groups or individuals. Instead, allyship is a commitment to advocate and speak for a cause that does not directly affect one.
Allyship is a commitment to advocate and speak for a cause that does not directly affect one.
For example, as a heterosexual man, the harm caused by homophobia is not directed at me. But as an ally of the LGBTQ+ community, I commit myself to advocate and speak for LGBTQ+ rights. But it will not be enough or even necessary for me to call myself an ally if I only have friends in the LGBTQ+ community or join LGBTQ+ marches here and there. True allyship means I make their cause my cause and speak for that cause whether it’s convenient for me or not. And I must do so without expecting a thank you or some sort of acknowledgement or reward. That’s what true allyship is about. It’s what you do when no one is watching. It’s standing up to your racist uncle when they make an unacceptable comment at the family Christmas dinner and not giving him a pass because “he is like that” or “he is of a different generation”.
I will give an example of something that happened to me only a few weeks ago. I was added to a WhatsApp group chat of my 6th form class. Whilst on the chat someone started sneaking in vile comments and opinions about LGBQT+ people. No one said anything and it appeared the silence was construed as implicit agreement with and support for those sentiments. When I pointed out the issue and insisted on addressing it, the person who had made those remarks, an old friend from school (now a company director) accused me of making a fuss out of nothing and showed no desire to engage constructively on the topic. I approached him outside the group chat and he still showed no desire to engage constructively. Realising there was little I could do to engage him constructively on the topic; I had no choice but to leave the group and dissociate myself from him. That decision was highly inconvenient for me personally and professionally. From a personal point of view, I felt my insisting on addressing the homophobia brought about disharmony in the group, especially given other on the chat seemed content to just ignore the matter. And from a professional perspective, losing him as a friend and connection meant losing and giving up the value I had accrued from the connection with his business. But I was certain my allyship was bigger than those factors. Being an ally means commitment to a cause. And commitment means having to do what’s necessary and not only what is comfortable or easy.
If you want to be a true ally, it is not necessary that you become best friends with the people in the group for which you are an ally. If you are a white person who wants to be an ally in the fight against racism, you don’t need to befriend or pity black people. If you are a man who wants to be ally in fighting for women’s rights, you don’t need to be best friends with all women. If you are a heterosexual man or woman who wants to be an ally in support of LGBTQ+ rights, you don’t need to be best friends with a member of that community to prove your allyships. Of course, friendships and personal relationships with others, especially those different to you as in the examples above will go a long way and is highly encouraged. But to be a good ally, you must commit to advocate and speak for a cause at all times and in all situations and all places – at work, at home, when it’s convenient, when it’s not. That’s what true allyship is about.
That also means we should move away from a belief that allyship is something for white people to do when it comes to racism, or for men to do when it comes to women’s rights etc. Anyone can become an ally. A black or brown person can become an ally against racism. That is because it not a given that all people who fit a certain category will be strong advocates for speaking for a cause. There are many black people who support racist organisations and causes. There are many women who are anti-feminist.
Being a good ally is easy. It’s about supporting and speaking up and actively engaging in a cause whose effects my not impact you directly. It’s about commitment to that cause as if it impacted you. It’s speaking for and always supporting a cause, even when it’s inconvenient for you, especially when it’s inconvenient for you.
If you consider yourself an ally, ask yourself this question right now and from time to time – what do I do (and what have I done lately) for this cause when no one is watching?
What do I do (and what have I done lately) for this cause when no one is watching?
If you can’t come up with any concrete examples, it’s time to re-examine your allyship. And remember, allyship has no gender, colour, sex, or particular characteristic. It’s simply about advocating and fighting for a cause that align with your values.