Moving Beyond Allyship.
Updated: Aug 5
When I was in university I loved spotting ally pins on people's backpacks and jackets. Walking across campus it would give me a little zing of joy to spot one among the waves of people all heading to and from class.
Image from: GSA Treats on Zazzle
Twenty years ago allyship was seen as a good thing and something that people involved in social justice work aspired to. Around 2010 I remember coming across the following list by Kathleen Wong that outlines the difference between being a friend and being an ally. At the time I shared it with others because I felt that it so clearly outlined how to go beyond friendship towards positive action as an action.
A Friend is Someone Who:
Is a sympathetic listener.
Offers support privately and personally.
Wants to be supportive but is not always sure how.
Is receptive to conversation/discussion of issues.
Takes a reactive stance by responding to inappropriate comments, behaviors, actions, etc. as they arise.
Is aware that differences affect people, yet is more comfortable focusing on “common humanity”.
Offers suggestions or advice for ways to deal with an issue or incident.
Is optimistic/helps cheer up the target group members when incidents occur.
An Ally is Someone Who:
Addresses issues, not just incidents.
Mobilizes and organizes to respond to issues without being prompted by a target group member.
Is willing to take risks that may affect her own place, position, and authority within her (dominant) group.
Is willing to make public mistakes in front of both target groups and her own agent group(s).
Is visible, active, vigilant, and public (even when the target person is not in the room)
Is willing to recognize the inherent privilege and power of being a member of the dominant group.
Views membership in the dominant group as an opportunity to bring about change.
But the conversation has changed. It's not enough to be a good ally anymore. Today, I imagine the last point on Wong's list being re-written as "uses membership in the dominant group to bring about change" in order to illustrate the desired shift towards action.
The term ally has been around for some time, and recently many critics say that it has lost its original meaning. Instead of being used to identify one’s role within a collective struggle, it has come to symbolize a token identity – a kind of “badge” that people wear to show they are one of the “good guys”.
Quote Source: Indigenous Ally Toolkit
In this powerful interview Bettina Love explains why she wants co-conspirators rather than allies. She tells the story of Bree Newsome and James Tyson and then calls on people to take a risk, and to put something on the line: "And that's what we are talking about with co-conspirators. Allies; they know everything, they can say it, they can talk it. But when it's time they're not there." She calls for people to step-up as co-conspirators by getting uncomfortable, by taking risks, and by using their privilege as a tool to achieve anti-oppression.
Today, the goal for many of us who are involved in equity work should be as a co-conspirator and co-resistor. It's a goal that I'm still working towards. It's easier to be an ally. It feels safer. It requires less risk. It allows me to think through and talk about problems instead of acting on them. It doesn't require me to put myself on the line. But simply being an ally is not really what I aspire to.
Below you'll find a curated list of resources that provide insight into how to move beyond allyship. I'm sharing these in hopes of providing a similar sort of clarity to what I felt years ago from reading Wong's list that compares a friend to an ally - a clear path for moving forward beyond allyship.
If being an ally is where you're at then check out The Indigenous Ally Toolkit. It has some great advice on how to make sure that you're being a GOOD ally. It outlines three steps to effective allyship that starts by asking you to consider why you want to be an ally and calls on potential allies to de-centre themselves.
Ally Up! Practice Effective Allyship from Cornell University also talks about allyship. I've included it because it has clear steps for allies, but also suggests some initial steps to move beyond allyship and into action.
In Go Beyond Allyship Andrew Lee writes: "Whereas allies center themselves, “accomplices are realized through mutual consent and build trust. They don’t just have our backs; they are at our side, or in their own spaces confronting and unsettling colonialism.” This isn’t just a semantic difference. It’s a different way to think about and practice solidarity: through centering those most directly affected and joining in the struggle, through direct action and confrontation, to dismantle systems that oppress them even as they benefit us." This article is published by Anti-Racism Daily which I've recommended before.
In the Racial Healing Handbook, Anneliese Singh outlines six responsibilities you can take towards becoming anti-racist. Being anti-racist is an action and therefore is a step beyond allyship. You can read more about anti-racism from Calgary Anti-Racism Education and 4 Lessons on Anti-Racism from Brené Brown and Ibram X. Kendi. As a quick intro to anti-racism consider what Singh writes in her introduction:
The term “antiracist” refers to people who are actively seeking not only to raise their consciousness about race and racism, but also to take action when they see racial power inequities in everyday life. Being an antiracist is much different from just being “nonracist,” as Black antiracist Marlon James (2016) made clear. Being a nonracist means you can have beliefs against racism, but when it comes to events like the murders of Black men by police, “you can watch things at home unfolding on TV, but not do a thing about it.” According to James, being an antiracist means that you are developing a different moral code, one that pairs a commitment to not being racist (whether verbalized or not) with action to protest and end the racist things you see in the world. I would add that saying you aren’t a racist isn’t enough to start healing from racism. You need the intentional mindset of Yep, this racism thing is everyone’s problem—including mine, and I’m going to do something about it.
5. Facing History & Ourselves Canada has developed a guide called Engaging as Co-Conspirators in Anti-Racism Work which outlines a cycle that starts by examining your individual motivations and position through to participating to achieve social change.
6. Finally, Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally Industrial Complex is a piece by Indigenous Action that is extremely critical of allyship in the context of decolonization. I found it difficult to read because of the frankness with which the authors criticize allies for their self-centredness and self-promotion. It's because of this discomfort that I am recommending the article - because I want to better understand how not to be a patronizing white lady.