So, what do we mean by Allyship? – Let’s explore Episode 5

Written by Katja Rackin, Edited by Fisayo Fadahunsi

Allyship was arguably the most used word of Summer 2020. If you hadn’t heard the word before, it’s highly likely that you would have seen it all over your social media during the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM). Since then, it’s become commonplace for people to identify themselves as allies and simultaneously call others out for their lack of allyship. So, we felt it important to deconstruct the term – What does it mean? Who does it apply to? What does it involve? Amongst these questions, this episode of Untelevised also discusses issues surrounding performative allyship and looks closely at how ignorance can be transformed into self-reflection, education and growth.

First let’s look at the definition of the word allyship:

Allyship is the practice of emphasizing social justice, inclusion, and human rights by members of an ingroup, to advance the interests of an oppressed or marginalized outgroup (Source: Wikipedia)

This definition suggests that allyship is about showing solidarity with issues and injustices outside of your own realm of hardships. During our learn section, Mona clarifies allyship as something that, ‘I may not be directly suffering from myself, but I’m going to support it anyway.’ Being concerned with your own struggles or the struggles of your community is somewhat inevitable, but actively understanding and showing support for someone else’s fight requires a lot more empathy and even altruism. It is by no means a new concept, the word ‘ally’ has existed for centuries, but the more active form of the word ‘allyship’ has recently resurfaced in the midst of discussions around the BLM movement and now seems intrinsically rooted in political discussions surrounding race. In this episode, we looked at allyship in the context of support for refugees and anti-racism.

How active is Allyship?

The #BlackOutTuesday Hashtag was used over 25 millions times in June 2020

The first question that we are faced with when discussing the word is – how active is allyship? This is where the concept of performative allyship comes in. Let’s use Blackout Tuesday as an example. In June 2020, over 25 million people – including celebrities, multinational organisations as well as general users – posted a black square on their social media pages in place of their usual activity, as part of a collective action campaign to protest racism and police brutality. Whilst it is safe to presume that the intention of the majority of participants were good, the campaign faced a lot of backlash for its performative nature. It painted allyship in a passive nature. As a simple, temporary action that required no real commitment to or understanding of the causes that it claimed to be in aid of. Indeed some critics fear that many participants were merely ‘virtue signalling’ or posting to show that they too are a good person, rather than because it is something they’re particularly interested in or passionate about.

The danger of this is that allyship becomes about increasing your own social capital rather than contributing to a cause. This surface-level activism has become commonly known as ‘performative activism’ or ‘slacktivism.’

This said, mobilisation has to start somewhere. And although some of these people may not have paid any more attention to issues of racial inequality past the point of contributing to the sea of black squares that swallowed our phones that day, the fact that millions of people acknowledged what has previously been a dangerously overlooked movement, did raise popular awareness and prompt others to act beyond the limits of social media. Although we cannot quantify this, it is likely that a portion of the 25+ million may have been inspired to do some further reading into systemic racism, donated to an associated cause or some other, more substantial, form of support.

So, one thing that is important to note is that, to move from spectator to ally, one must have some form of active rather than just passive support. And, support is only sustainable when it comes from a personal belief, rather than a guilt or expectation from your peers. Ask yourself – am I still an ally when no one is watching?

‘As human beings we all have a responsibility to support other human beings’

Anti-Trump protest in London in June 2019 (Help Refugees/ Choose Love)

There are countless forms of active support, and in this episode we talk to two very different types of allies.

The first guest on the show is Josie Naughton, founder of Choose Love, who speaks to Mona. ‘It is often critiqued when an organisation is fighting for something that they haven’t lived,’ says Josie, when talking about her role as an ally. But, she says, ‘we all have a responsibility to use everything we have at our disposal to change the system.’ During the discussion, Josie identifies herself

as ‘privileged’ and acknowledges that this privilege is mostly inherited rather than earned – by being born in a certain

place, at a certain time, with a certain gender, class or race. Importantly, she identifies that the most useful way to use this privilege is not to feel ‘guilt’ but to challenge and change the systems that create and uphold it. She is aware that there needs to be a change in the language we use and the narratives that we build, because this desire to help can also undermine people if not approached with sensitivity and understanding.

It’s not about we need to help them, but rather about recognising that our shared system and the world that we all live in is failing people, and thinking about how we change that.

We are so often shown images and videos of people in war zones in the Middle-East or of Black people dying at the hands of the police in America. This can mean that we build singular narratives of communities. So, as much as we want to understand peoples’ struggles and identify how we can play a part in alleviating them, it is important that we do not turn speaking up for others into speaking over others. In our ‘solutions’ we must listen to communities and use our platforms to amplify their voices and experiences. This is the fundamental difference between allyship and savioursim.

Choose Love have a store in central London where people can directly purchase real resources for refugees (Alex Green/HelpRefugees)

‘As human beings’ says Josie, ‘we all have a responsibility to support other human beings,’ it is not about us and them, but about coming together as allies – and this comes with an important acknowledgment not to place ourselves in the centre of the narrative. An important part of what Choose Love does, is they listen to communities on the ground and support them in their own solutions, using their privilege to provide resources to groups, instead of presuming that their privilege means that they know best.

‘Is it a good enough excuse to not know?’

In 2015 the refugee crisis was literally on our doorsteps, says Josie, and acted as a wakeup call to many who didn’t realise what was truly going on in places like Syria, and how people fleeing from conflict are treated upon arriving in Europe. A similar thing can be said for the death of George Floyd which instigated a new rise to the BLM movement and triggered a response which alerted many people for the first time about the realities of racial discrimination, dating back hundreds of years, in our own societies. In conversation with Josie, Mona asks, ‘Is it a good enough excuse to not know?’ Josie who is now head of an organisation that is continuously working to help refugees in the challenges they face, admits that she herself didn’t know about the realities of how the system fails people, and it was the shock of finding out and continuing to educate herself that led her to start her current journey of allyship. She stresses that for many people it is not a lack of caring but a lack of knowing.

Black Lives Matter protest in central London on June 20, 2020 (Daniel Leal-Olivas: AFP/Getty Images)

It is important to be able to admit that, yes, I didn’t know, and maybe I should have, but I’m learning now.

It is therefore not a question of when did you get involved, but rather what are you doing with this new-found knowledge and how can you progress and take part. This is something that comes up in Fisayo’s conversation with Liz, our second guest, who illustrates a very different example of allyship. Liz, having come from a village with very little ethnic diversity, acknowledges that the absence of knowledge often comes with a lack of realisation that there may be more to know about a situation.

…there is a difference between wilful ignorance and just not knowing

Although she may previously have lacked knowledge of issues relating to racism, her marriage to her husband, Charles, who is Ghanian, has brought these realities to her doorstep. Here, allyship is no longer about self-education, resources, and a question of how can I help, but rather, a personal struggle of defending her children and standing up for inequalities that directly attack her family. This conversation delves into allyship as being a long-term change in mentality – a lifestyle. This is what makes those pressing conversations with friends and family feel more like a necessity and an instinctive choice, rather than an obligation. A good summary of this form of allyship comes from Fisayo who concludes that, ‘if you see racism, don’t just believe them and support them in your mind, but stand up for them and speak up.’ We can’t blame people for a lack of knowledge, when that knowledge is rooted in lived experience. We must acknowledge that everyone is exposed to different circumstances, environments and education growing up. However, we can expect people to learn and educate themselves once they are made aware of a social issue, especially one that they fed into. In a world full of infinite resources, we must each accept that it is our collective responsibility to be aware of how our societies function and at what cost. This self-awareness and desire to continually learn and act on your learning can be seen as active allyship.

You’ve got to let someone take those first steps otherwise where does the journey begin?

How can we challenge people?
Liz and Josie both address the importance of accountability. Liz acknowledges that it must be exhausting for people who have been experiencing oppression for a long time to patiently converse with people who are only just catching on. There can often be a mix between relief, and a resentment at the fact that things haven’t happened sooner. However, both women acknowledge the importance that patience played in their journey towards allyship and highlight the difference between education and humiliation. Call-out culture can often be counteractive and stunt someone’s journey to allyship. Fisayo and Mona come to the conclusion that, although it is not the oppressed group’s responsibility to teach people or be patient in their mistakes, especially when those mistakes have real-life ramifications, if the overall goal is to reach sustained change there will have to be humanity in the approach. It is guaranteed that people will mess up – it is unrealistic and often counterproductive to expect perfection.

So, what do we mean by Allyship and how can I be one?

This episode of Untelevised: The Podcast has touched upon so many essential questions surrounding the term Allyship. One thing that both guests and allies had in common, and something that can conclusively be said about what it means to be an ally, is that

…the fight becomes a daily part of your life, through knowing clearly where you stand and what you would speak up for, and is integrated into how you see the world.

This can be through organised work such as charities, or through day to day confrontations and acknowledgments. Make sure you have the right information, educate yourself and others, but also listen and learn, be unafraid of having conversations with people with different opinions, stand up against injustice even if that may be uncomfortable, admit when you’re wrong and be willing to change and progress, talk about what you learn and be mindful that someone else may have the capacity to change your mind – be active. And, if you want to take allyship outside of your home you can look into volunteering for charities and organisations that support people in specific crises, you can donate and fund movements and organisations, offer your skills –what can you bring to the table? Whatever you do can be big or small but the list is endless and it is never too late to start.