When confronted with irrefutable data from Census statistics about groups that are marginalised in Ireland, people regularly ask me what they can do to help.
Being an ally is one of the most productive ways that an individual can create the change they want to see. There are many definitions of an ally. The person I call an ally is one who is willing to act with and for others in pursuit of ending oppression and creating equality.
Allyship is seen in and by its actions. It is not just talk or wishful thinking and saying, “Oh, isn’t that sad.” It’s about the actual actions you take to address what you see. Being an ally typically involves a member of a dominant group standing beside members of groups that suffer discrimination.
It means joining with another person in their struggle to overcome prejudice, discrimination and oppression. This is not simply being a detached helper, but developing an interest in an area you want to help in. To be clear, allyship is mutually beneficial, for the giver and the receiver. We often forget that a more equal society is a better, safer and happier one.
As Martin Luther King Jr said so eloquently in his letter from Birmingham Jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
If we deconstruct that, first we see that an ally must have a clear idea of what counts as oppression and what counts as equality. Whites tell stock stories, also called dominant discourse. Critical-race-theory scholars describe these as stock explanations that construct reality in ways favourable to in groups and the dominant population.
In the Western world, Whites are stratified at the top of the racial and economic ladder, and thus are the in group. They often tell stock stories from how they see the world, oblivious of how Whiteness advantages them. An ally, however, must be able to look through the stories told in our social world and see what others are going through.
With the increasing numbers of visible haters of difference today, many sympathisers who believe in equality still cannot claim to be allies.
Here are a few characteristics of an ally.
Often times, we talk about White allies, and they exist, particularly in the Western world, which is predominantly White in the top tiers of society. However, allies can be of any race.
Allies do not consider themselves superior to or better than the person or group that they help. While the person being helped is a direct beneficiary, allyship is not the charity model but one of empowerment that sees others as entitled to equal rights and treatment.
They stand up for marginalised communities through their personal commitment to fight the prejudice and oppression experienced by others. This is evidenced by their actions. Remember, allyship is not in words but actions.
Allies are aware of and acknowledge their privilege. This makes it possible for them to see how others are unequally resourced, not really economically, which is the outcome, but in things like respect, trust, social capital and networks, and positive regard.
To be an ally, you must be willing to educate yourself about others’ difference and how they experience it. And you will need to take on the responsibility to educate yourself about the situation. Remember, it is not the place of the person being oppressed to teach you about their oppression or how to help.
This is not to say that some members of that group won’t be teachers. What it mean is that not all members of that group are teachers. I remember when I was in college, people just expected me, as the only Black girl in the class, to answer all the questions about Africa and its people, forgetting that Africa is a whole big continent and not a country.
Actively seek opportunities to show your allyship. Here are some simple ways to start.
Come to the aid of minorities when they are being attacked either physically or in virtual spaces. Call out perpetrators of injustice because they’re wrong – not so you can look good.
While you risk also being attacked, particularly by online trolls, don’t be afraid of being attacked. Remember the person you are standing with is being attacked as well.
Share or retweet posts, events and activities that concern the person or group you seek to be an ally to. It shows your circle that you are comfortable with being connected to that person, group, or idea. Be comfortable with them on your timeline and feed as a connection. Love out loud!
Report trolls when you see a minority being picked on because of their difference.
Call out dog-whistle attacks against minorities
Do not take the place of a minority even when you can. We have a lot of that happening. Look for a minority and recommend them for it even when you have been asked.
Call out the lack of diversity whenever you are in a space. Don’t be comfortable with a room, organisation, department or unit that is not reflective of the current demographics of Ireland in terms of all difference, be it race, gender, social class, religion, Traveller ethnicity, dif-abilities.
Call it out when you see it. It is exhausting being the minority who calls out their marginalisation all the time.
Actively looking for opportunities that will promote the minority person and group in question. This can be in the form of sending them notifications of opportunities, and recommending them for opportunities where they are not often represented.
Don’t undermine the minority when you intervene, either by speaking over them, silencing them or electing yourself to speak for them. Let them speak their own stories.
Don’t remain silent when inappropriate things are said even if no minority or minorities are there. Say something. Speak up to close family, colleagues and friends spreading inappropriate right-wing or racist jokes. It’s never okay. Staying silent makes you complicit and you help normalise racism in our society.
While many Whites can pick and choose when to be affected by microaggressions, racial slurs and racism, Black minorities do not have that luxury. Let’s make time to stand in solidarity with them not just when it is convenient.
Most importantly, remember to catch yourself when you stray in your messaging, language, or you revert to sharing stock stories. Ask yourself in that conversation: what is this saying about the group. This will help you know when to censor or self-regulate.
It is not enough to not be a racist. As an ally, you must be anti-racist and stand against racial injustice. Question the contradictions in the stock stories told by your colleagues. Imagine what would happen if we had more allies who did not withdraw from the display of White discomfort when they are called out.
Your silence shows complacency about race despite the immense inequality around us today. Don’t just appease your conscience when it is awakened by media reports because lack of action means the situation remains unchanged. An ally will take action for change.
White allies are an under-researched, under-represented but vital group. A buy-in from White allies and Blacks who have broken the glass ceiling is necessary to progress racial equality.
You are not being asked to be a perfect ally. I am not sure they even exist. Recognise your privilege and use it to also advantage those who do not have the same privileges as you. Don’t victimise the victims by telling stock stories that impute a deficit to the other. Let’s recognise our privilege.
Despite the level of disadvantage I experience, I too am privileged by my education, resilience and access to some level of social capital. We all have something to give. Don’t wait until you are the “perfect ally, or you have so much. Start from where you are right now.
Do the best you can, just show up, speak up and stand for others. You will be making a huge difference because every life counts, one person at a time.
Got questions about race and identity in contemporary Ireland that you’d like UCD lecturer Ebun Joseph tackle in her column? You can send them to us through this contact form.