As a black civil servant, I want to talk about ‘allyship’ in the fight against racism

The murder of George Floyd and the subsequent global protests have seen many white people declare themselves allies in the fight against racism, in workplaces like the civil service and beyond. But, in these personal reflections, one official asks: what does this mean in practice?

By Ayo Awoyungbo

28 Sep 2020

In the wake of recent events there has been lots of talk about allyship in fighting racial injustice. White people want to help. White people always want to help. 

Articles in the mainstream and specialist press about how to be an ally now abound. But I think that some of them have the wrong emphasis: the writers are keen to instruct white people on how to be allies of black people in the fight against racial inequality rather than positing that black people should be allies of white people as they (white people) fight to dismantle the unfair structural systems from which they mainly benefit. This new version of allyship leaves the burden of change firmly on the shoulders of white people. It’s more than just a matter of semantics: as Professor Ibram X Kendi says in his book How To Be An Anti-Racist, definitions anchor us in principles.

Before we begin, here’s full disclosure: I am a black man. But I haven’t always been. I grew up in Lagos where I was simply a boy; Yoruba, Nigerian. I studied history in secondary school. I was a boarder and still remember jolting awake at the beep of the alarm on my plastic wristwatch strategically placed beneath my pillow the night before. Then, abandoning the security of my mosquito net, I would creep out of the dormitory and down to my classroom, not forgetting my jar of instant coffee –essential for keeping me alert between 04:00 and dawn. The reason for this clandestine activity? The torture that was the Form 3 (Year 9) end of year exams. Caffeine fuelled, I remained sufficiently conscious to revise whole chapters of Peoples and Empires of West Africa.  This was a standard West African Examinations Council textbook in the 1970s. It did exactly what it said on the tin: it taught me about the people who inhabited areas which today make up countries we know as Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Nigeria and Ghana, to name a few. Take it from me, between the 10th century and the end of the 19th, there were ethnic groups living in self-determining societies, in city states and kingdoms, well before the Berlin Conference when men on one continent drew lines on a map of another. But from initial contact in the 15th century and ever since, Europeans have also been there, scrambling for Africa and anxious to help. Europeans have long wanted to help “civilise” non-white people, impose forms of government and “develop” races perceived as inferior. We were even offered a new religion – you know – the one that teaches that we should love our neighbour as ourselves.    

Fast forward to May 2020. George Floyd was killed in public and as we all watched in horror, white people thought: how can we help? And the genuine amongst you worried about the right language, the right phrases; worried about causing offence and about your own ignorance of all things that, up until George Floyd’s murder, you hadn’t worried about. So you decided to be allies and we suggested books that might hasten you on your journey to educate yourselves. (Some of our suggestions were, in fact, plain wrong: many black people are no more expert than white people on the nuances of racism – we just think that we are because we have first-hand experience at the sharp end. And much of the literature focuses more on the symptoms and less on the causes – but that’s another story.) 

So discussions were organised, conversations were arranged, workshops hastily convened to create safe spaces to talk about “issues’” to help us all become “race confident”. Sometimes these discussions were led by well-meaning white people. And as the word spread, more white people declared themselves allies too; different white people from the first white people. And at the discussions, at the talks, some of you read poems, some of you cried – some of you read poems whilst you cried and beat your breast shouting mea culpa; some of you expressed shock and outrage as you heard black people articulate their daily lives, speak about casual racism within the workplace and elsewhere, about things that have been going on right in front of you, not even hidden in plain sight. And you asked: how can we help? You “declared your solidarity” and we politely thanked you. Because your declarations of solidarity and allyship mean the world. You don’t have to do it but we are glad that you did. Because now you are here, things will change. 

How will things change?

So I ask: exactly how are things going to change? What is the purpose of your allyship? Is it to awaken you to the trauma of racism? One would have thought that you are already well informed, given that white people are, in the main, perpetrators of actions perceived by the recipient as racist. . Is sharing our lived experience supposed to alleviate the trauma? I can’t speak for others but I’m no victim and your sympathy doesn’t help me. And if you are seeking knowledge from my trauma, then it has to be towards an identified goal, for a clear and noble purpose. This is not a situation where “knowledge for knowledge's sake” cuts it. If I share my trauma, will you make it stop?  Anyway, there’s not enough time for me to tell my stories. And I am definitely not a hero. My tales taken individually may appear quite trivial, but when read as an anthology make one hell of a book.    

Do declarations of allyship actually help? Or do such declarations simply make you feel like you are helping black people in the struggle against racism? If the answer to the latter is “yes”, then the fundamental flaw in allyship is exposed: to help black people. In my opinion, the emphasis is wrong. You are offering to help black people dismantle a structure that is of your making. You want to stand alongside black people to fight against systemic injustice that is, in the main, experienced by black people as a result of actions by white people. 

We should be standing alongside you as you seek to dismantle the dehumanising system of racial oppression that you created. It’s more than just a matter of semantics. Let us be your allies as you lead the charge. Your version of allyship still leaves the burden of real change firmly on our shoulders. The struggle is ours because we have skin in the game. But for you, the revolution is optional.. If there is no revolution, then the status quo remains: institutional racism, microaggressions, white superiority, differential outcomes and everything else that makes up business as usual. Those who benefit from the system continue to benefit from the system. Life as we know it simply goes on. My sense is that some of these declarations of allyship are merely performative; a distraction. Those committed to real change, white and black, may be well advised to keep on supporting minority-owned businesses, donating time and resources and challenging ourselves and others as we demand change, with or without self-proclaimed allies. 

So what is the purpose of your allyship if you don’t actually do anything? What is the purpose of your allyship if you don’t even change anything about yourself, about how you think? Self-declarations of allyship don’t impress me much. Here’s a thought: maybe allyship is not something you declare; maybe it’s something that you earn, something that is conferred. But only after the event, the action, your difference, that marks you out as worthy of the title “ally”.

Ayo Awoyungbo works in the International Justice and Organised Crime Division of the Crown Prosecution Service.

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