British Columbia

How to become an ally: Educators, community leaders explain ways to stand up to anti-Black racism

As messages of solidarity with Black people are being shared by people of all races, academics and community leaders describe what it means — and what it takes — to become an ally.

Messages of solidarity are being shared by people of all races. But what does being an ally really mean?

People gather to protest racism, injustice, and police brutality in Vancouver on June 5. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

We've seen the protests supporting Black Lives Matter, the black squares posted on social media for "#BlackOutTuesday" and the lists of places you can donate to help — all efforts to shine a light on the systemic and institutional racism faced by Black people. 

The death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, has led to renewed calls for change, with protests against systemic anti-Black racism now in their third week in the U.S. and around the world. 

Messages of solidarity are being shared by people of all races, who are standing up to be allies.

But what does being an ally mean?

According to Handel Kashope Wright with the University of British Columbia's Centre for Culture, Identity and Education, it's a person who can stand up and engage "in the struggle of a group that is marginalized against, even though they [the ally] are not a member of that group."

Handel Kashope Wright says allies play a very important role in change. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Wright says allies can play a critical role in a movement — but says there are good and bad types of allyship.

The good involves being open and listening to the people you are trying to align yourself with.

That's especially important if you are in a position of power, where you can "use your authority to create a better, more inclusive culture," Wright says. 

WATCH | Academics, cultural leaders explain the importance of allies:

What is allyship

3 years ago
Duration 2:09
Educators explain the importance of allyship.

Educating yourself — taking the burden off those facing injustice to do the educating — is vital to becoming a good ally, he adds.

"Act with humility and take the initiative to do your own research and learn about the cause," Wright says.

When it comes to good allyship, it's all about long-term commitment, he adds; a bad ally treats causes like a "flavour of the month" and ultimately loses interest.

Studies show the more equal a society, the better the life expectancy and quality of life, Ismael Traore says. (Nadia Jannif/CBC)

Ismael Traore, an anti-racism educator, breaks the concept of allyship into two dimensions. 

The first looks at non-compliance, in which, he says, "you're clear what you're saying 'no' to" — ultimately meaning you reject anything that would lead to racial disparity.

The second dimension Traore sees is affirmation. This means working toward increasing the wellbeing of racialized people. Traore refers to several studies that show the more equal a society, the better the life expectancy. 

The ultimate aim is a balance between races.

"It's not a zero sum game," says Traore. "Black Lives Matter doesn't mean white lives don't matter. To say Black liberation is important doesn't mean that white bondage is the conclusion of Black liberation."

Breaking down community prejudice

All communities have a part to play in fighting racism against Black people, Wright says.

Satwinder Bains says allyship begins with identifying and challenging your own prejudicial sentiments, as well as those of your family and friends. (Submitted by Satwinder Bains)

Satwinder Bains, with the University of the Fraser Valley's South Asian Studies Institute, agrees — and points to the South Asian community, where she says many ingrained, prejudicial views exist.

As well as classism, ableism and ageism, she says, anti-Black sentiments can also be apparent in South Asian culture, especially when it comes to colourism, where light skin is seen as more desirable.

Bains says such prejudices must be broken down in order to begin the process of becoming an ally. This can be done by identifying and challenging your own anti-Black sentiments, as well as those of your family and friends.

"It's critically important that we do our internal work within our community to dismantle our own oppressive practices and cultural traditions or rituals that we've undertaken," says Bains.

"How can I align myself with the Black movement unless I understand my own culpability within my own culture?"

Chinese-Canadians have a duty to 'uplift the work and voices of Black organizers and leaders,' Kimberley Wong says. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

For Kimberley Wong, with the Chinatown Legacy Stewardship group, the heightened prejudice her own community has faced during the COVID-19 pandemic means they know first-hand how fragile and fraught their "membership with colonial Canada" is.

Chinese-Canadians, therefore, have a duty to "uplift the work and voices of Black organizers and leaders," Wong says. 

She feels especially compelled to work with the elders in her community, "to teach our elders, our own parents, what's happening right now, and that's been a difficult conversation to have."

It's difficult because, as Wright says, prejudicial views, including anti-Black sentiments, can be "deeply ingrained" in individuals and communities. 

Beyond these first steps, Bains says, allyship should ultimately become part of how you live your life. 

"You have to be in this on a daily basis. There has to be a consciousness about it and everything you do," she says.

"I must struggle along with Black people, I must not stand by the side and watch [racism] unfold."