September 24, 2020

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'Discomfort is part of change': How to be an ally in fighting anti-black racism

As protests over the deaths of black people during encounters with police have roiled the U.S. and Canada, many supporters are eager to take a stand, but run the risk of crowding out black activists on the front lines of the movement. Demonstrators take part in a rally protesting the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet in downtown Toronto, Saturday May 30, 2020. Thousands of protesters took to the streets to rally in the aftermath of high-profile, police-involved deaths in both Canada and the United States. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

As protests over the deaths of black people during encounters with police have roiled the U.S. and Canada, many supporters are eager to take a stand, but run the risk of crowding out black activists on the front lines of the movement. Demonstrators take part in a rally protesting the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet in downtown Toronto, Saturday May 30, 2020. Thousands of protesters took to the streets to rally in the aftermath of high-profile, police-involved deaths in both Canada and the United States. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

As protests over the deaths of black people during encounters with police have roiled the United States and Canada, many supporters are eager to take a stand, but run the risk of crowding out black voices on the front lines of the movement.

Advocates and academics say being an ally extends far beyond sharing hashtags on social media. It's an ongoing commitment to educating yourself about anti-black racism and your role within it, listening to and amplifying black voices and speaking up when they go unheard.

To understand what it takes to be an ally, The Canadian Press spoke to Kathy Hogarth, associate professor at University of Waterloo's school of social work; Aklil Noza, health and society student at McMaster University in Hamilton and Dexter Voisin, dean of the University of Toronto's faculty of social work. Here's what they had to say:

An ally is not a hashtag

Hogarth: An ally is a verb, not a noun. It's not a tag that we wear. It's borne out in our actions. I think in our current climate, what is most important is for us to see is that we are standing together in solidarity. That we understand what's happening in our world not as a black problem, but as all of our problems. So we stand together, because it is only together we will defeat this.

Don't ask to be taught, take it upon yourself to learn

Hogarth: Half of your work as an ally is doing your homework, doing your own work and not asking those who are victimized to educate you on top of it.

Noza: A quick Google search can save yourself a conversation that may disrupt the grieving process for many black individuals who are in collective mourning at this time and aren't obligated to be teachers at any point in time.

Don't take centre stage

Hogarth: Being an ally has limitations. Because you can go home at night and you wear allyship like a pair of jeans, and you can take it off. For those whose bodies are constantly under attack, they don't have those options of taking it off. So when you wear your allyship badge, I ask that you wear it responsibly. Being an ally does not mean taking the stage. It's not about you. It's about dismantling the system.

Listen with compassion

Voisin: What you don't want to happen is that folks have intellectual curiosity or they look into somebody else's experience from a voyeuristic standpoint. It's what some folks call the "pornography of pain" — when you look into someone else's pain without compassion or empathy...

Don't patronize by saying, 'I understand what you mean.' ... Maybe because of the identities and the intersecting identities that a person might hold, they may have experiences that you will never understand or feel or experience. And that's not really your job.

Amplify black voices

Hogarth: Sometimes as an ally, you just need to pass the mic. Then sometimes as an ally, maybe you're just a water carrier. And that has to be OK, too. Black bodies have been undergoing centuries of violence. (And that's) where our allies come in, if you can picture buttressing, pushing from behind, supporting those weary hands as they are risen, and holding your hand up as you hold theirs up.

Use your privilege to speak up for justice

Hogarth: Understand your privilege. It is not about shaming you. The only time you should feel shame about your privilege is when you don't use it to advance justice.... Understand that when you speak, you are heard in ways that when racialized folks speak, they are not heard. So use your privilege of voice.

Noza: I can be seen as an angry black woman when I speak up to defend myself. I ask that if a non-black person sees something, they say something, ultimately, because white outrage is unfortunately valued more than mine.

Being an ally is a hard, ongoing process — but it's necessary for change

Hogarth: Privilege blinds you from seeing certain realities. Being an ally is oftentimes an uncomfortable position. A knee in the neck is even more uncomfortable, I guarantee it... To the ones who dare challenge themselves, I say don't run from the discomfort. The discomfort is part of change.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 3, 2020.

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