The emergence of allyship
The events of 2020 revealed the centuries of systemic oppression that people of colour (POC) routinely experience in their everyday lives. The institutions that enforce systemic oppression, like education, justice, and healthcare, are rooted in a hierarchy of race that places more value on the lives and bodies of white individuals than on the lives of all other racial groups. While race is indeed a social construct – a concept created by humans to retain socio-political power within a specific group of people – its impacts extend far beyond the realm of the abstract. Social justice chips away at these racial hierarchies while affirming that the colour of an individual’s skin plays a significant role in the privilege they have access to.
With the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the United States (US) at the hands of the police, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement gained new traction in North America. The movement aims to “intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state” in North America and the United Kingdom such that “Black lives are no longer systematically targeted for demise.”
Protests against the imminent threat of police brutality against Black bodies demand radical change in the American justice system. In June, between 15 and 26 million people attended these protests in the US.
These protests were unusual in the US, not only because of the number of protesters present but because there appeared to be more white protesters in 2020 than in previous years. Historically, such protests have been attended more by POC than by white supporters. After George Floyd’s death, almost 75% of American counties that had protests had a majority of white residents, and 54% of protesters in Los Angeles, Washington DC, and New York were white. This means that white individuals were more active in the fight for racial justice than ever before which may be attributed to the nationwide rise of ‘white allyship.’
What is white allyship?
White allyship refers to the acknowledgement and abandonment of one’s own complicity in institutions that uphold systemic racism. In practice, this is seen by acknowledging the socio-political and economic privilege afforded to them by virtue of being white and then making the effort to restructure these institutions.
An increase in the number of white supporters of racial justice, or white allies, can be connected to the rise of white nationalism encouraged by President Trump and the limelight on racial disparity within the healthcare system that the COVID-19 pandemic has shone. Communities of colour are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 because of congested housing and systemic discrimination in medical institutions among other causes, according to a Senate committee report. Yet most importantly, many white people have felt the “permission” to voice their support for racial equality, says Gene Demby in an article for National Public Radio (NPR).
However, the problem arises when white allyship – somewhere in the developing stages between institutional privilege and an upheaval of the racial hierarchy – begins to cast a shadow of white supremacy over the movement to disrupt that very notion of supremacy. The problem finds its roots in the perception of white allyship as a primary tool for achieving social justice instead of being a supporting mechanism.
The dangers of white allyship
White supremacy shows up in many forms in protests. One of these is the perceived intellectual superiority of white members in a movement over those of other racial groups. This intellectual superiority translates into white allies telling POC how to organize their fight for justice and heal from the psychological violence of racism. This superiority can be subtle in instances where Black people’s expression of frustration with systemic oppression is labelled as aggressiveness and dismissed because it doesn’t appeal to white audiences. This means that white allyship attempts to define methods of resistance to socio-political and economic oppression along the lines of what white people are comfortable with. Thus, white supporters become self-appointed spokespeople for such movements, which in turn shifts the focus of social justice to white allies’ biased conception of racial justice. This tokenistic integration of POC’s voices retains power with white individuals over how the lives of racialized people are perceived and policed by institutions as a continuation of colonial racial hierarchies.
Teju Cole coined the term “white saviour industrial complex,” wherein racialized issues like BLM become a litmus test for white assistance and display of superiority. The white saviour complex stems from colonization and its justification as a civilizing project. White colonizers saw themselves as ‘saviours’ of the Black people they enslaved and the Indigenous people they forced into European ways of living under the because of the belief that non-European societies were ‘uncivilized.’ In denoting themselves as the saviours of the people whose cultures they uprooted, white colonizers claimed intellectual superiority over non-white communities and their ways of life.
In such a case, the supporting voice of white allies becomes a commanding voice. This reinforces white supremacy and takes credibility away from Black protesters in the case of BLM.
Lake says in an article, “Liberation of oppressed Black communities is synonymous with the destruction of whiteness and its ideologies of control.” This means that white allyship, characterized by a redefinition of whiteness to be supportive of non-white people, is rooted in white supremacy and saviourism. It is inextricably linked to whiteness, which is a “dominant cultural space” that marginalizes non-white people.
Yet protests across North America have gained unprecedented news coverage and support on social media because of white voices joining the protest movement. This suggests that ‘whiteness’ is necessary to validate the struggle for racial equality created by white supremacy.
White allyship is therefore harmful if made a defining factor of racialized social justice movements.
At the same time, the increased visibility of protests irrespective of their demographic composition has been beneficial in creating change. An example is Breonna’s Law, passed by the Louisville Metro Council in June 2020. The law was passed after the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor, a Louisville resident, by police who raided her home without permission. The law bans the use of search warrants which do not require police officers to seek permission before entering a house. While the passing of this law cannot be credited to white allyship alone, it can certainly be attributed to the numerical strength of the protests.
White allyship is only dangerous when it is made about whiteness and white saviourism. White allyship can be a boon if utilized to bolster and uplift people of colour. However, it can be the bane of protests if exercised as a tool to establish white control as an extension of colonial violence towards racialized people. Outside the context of whiteness, the allyship of people in social justice movements (independent of their racial identity) is central to achieving racial equality in a responsible and ethical way.