Photo courtesy of Chris Slupski / Unsplash

On Practicing Allyship: It's Not About You

On Dec. 9, 2018, Michael Sorkin ‘21 vandalized Welch Hall with racist slurs. In another incident in 2017, Black Lives Matter signs on students’ doors were vandalized to read “Black Lives (don’t) Matter.” These were not isolated incidents, not random acts of prejudice and cruelty by uniquely racist or violent individuals. These incidents are symptoms of the conscious and unconscious racism that is evidently present on BC’s campus.

The incident in December shocked the campus, which seemed to spring into immediate action. Meetings were called, petitions were passed around, newspaper articles were written and circulated, and the clamor for change seemed deafening. Immediately following the incident, individuals decided to show support for and to the Black community on campus. Students posted lengthy and numerous Instagram stories and status updates featuring #BlackLivesMatter, and variations on “racism will not be tolerated at BC.” Printed Black Lives Matter signs suddenly became ubiquitous on dorm rooms’ doors, and despite final examinations, meetings on the subject of institutional change were packed with attendees.

This looked and sounded like a full campus of #allies coming out in full force to support Black students, and of course, such clamors are important in supporting marginalized groups, especially after such jarring events. Now, however, after the end of a long winter break, do most of those people who posted supportive statuses continue to practice good allyship in seemingly peaceful times?

Allyship, as defined by The Anti Oppression Network, is the active and consistent practice of unlearning prejudice in which a person with privilege seeks to operate in solidarity with an oppressed group. A lot of nuances exist to add to this definition, as well as multiple sets of rules and guidelines to help allies work better. Everyone should read those rules, as almost everyone has someone to be an ally for, but considering the specific aftermath of December’s incident, an important rule to focus on is the second one: “It’s not about you, so take your ego out of the picture, and deal with your own defensiveness.”

In trying to practice allyship towards a marginalized group, that allyship cannot be based on a desire to exempt yourself from guilt, shame, or responsibility. In other words, you should not post #BlackLivesMatter if you’re only doing so to say #I’mNotRacistLikeThatWhiteGuy. Acts of allyship should not be about assuaging guilt or defenses against accusations of racism, but acts of genuine support—and that means acknowledging one’s own responsibility in the situation. That also means that allyship mustn’t be a one-off response to a racist incident—such an approach is simply not good enough when incidents like these continue to occur.

As a white man in the United States, I benefit from white privilege, the systematic, institutional, conscious and unconscious favoring of white people based in a history of slavery and oppression of people of color, particularly Black people, in the United States. Many white people experience the phenomenon of “white guilt”— a collective guilt felt for harm done by white people’s racist treatment of ethnic minorities, both historically and currently. White guilt causes white people to default to defensiveness—it’s much easier to shout “I’m not a racist, how dare you accuse me!” than it is to admit “I benefit from institutionalized racism and have been complacent in receiving those benefits.”

Allyship is a practice, not a state of being—we must practice allyship, practice it wholeheartedly and consistently over time and regardless of place. All of the aforementioned Instagram stories were/are valid and important shows of support, but they can’t stop after a week. The clamor for change cannot be allowed to die down. If you posted an Instagram story with #BlackLivesMatter, have you followed up? Have you taken steps to educate yourself? If not, go and read those allyship rules, and change the BC community.