For years, white people have been proclaimed or proclaimed themselves as “allies” for standing side-by-side with oppressed minorities. However, with increasing anti-racist training, some are rejecting the term entirely.
To many, the problem with the word “ally” comes from those who are using it. Assistant Professor of Secondary Education Jennifer Hernandez, an anti-racist educator at SIUE, said there is a simple way to figure out if someone is an ally.
“If you’re claiming that you’re an ally, and you’re calling yourself that, then you’re probably not. That’s a title you don’t give yourself. That’s a title that you receive from people you’re advocating for,” Hernandez said.
History professor Bryan Jack said his problem with the word comes from the implications it has for white peoples’ role in the fight against racism.
“It almost implies that it is a fight for people of color to do, and it’s white people helping, when in actuality it’s our fight – our meaning white people – it’s our fight as much or more than anyone else’s,” Jack said.
Instead of an ally, Hernandez identifies herself as a “co-conspirator.” She said during the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, many “allies” did everything but help.
“There were a lot of people who wanted to claim that they were there and on the streets and a part of it, but what they really did was promote it on social media,” Hernandez said. “That’s good because it brings awareness, but that’s not allyship. Allyship is a person who brings water to the protestors … They’re giving numbers to protestors to call for bail funds … Those types of things are the actual allyship.”
Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership J.T. Snipes said he has similar problems with the word “ally.”
“I want folks to move beyond notions of allyship. In activist circles there’s been language around accomplices … Oftentimes, allyship is wanting to be seen in a position of support or help, and that’s fine, but I think the way that we get to justice is when your fate is the same as my fate,” Snipes said.
So, what is the difference between an ally and an “accomplice?” According to both Hernandez and Snipes, while an ally might take a more passive role in something like a protest, an accomplice or a co-conspirator would stand between protestors and police to prevent a clash between the two.
Not all of those with anti-racist education reject the word ally. Art Therapy professor Jayashree George said she has her own interpretation of the word.
“I don’t subscribe to the definition of ally as someone who just stands there and does nothing … Being an ally is actively [talking] with other people who have the same privilege, so white individuals talking to other white individuals,” George said.
Jack said the best thing to do when being told someone is experiencing racism is to believe them.
“If you have a person of color and they give their perception of racism happening to them, accept it with no explanation, no proof, anything necessary,” Jack said. “When a person of color – whether they’re Black or of a different race – tells you about their experience, understand that they’re the expert on their experience.”
George said being a good ally all comes down to learning about and correcting white peoples’ role in history.
“If you don’t understand [the history] then you’re neither going to know how to be an ally to specific individuals of specific ethnicities, and not know how to be an ally to all ethnicities that comprise [Black, Indiginous, and People of Color],” George said. “If you know history, you will know how to do that. You will know the particular pain and the legacy of historical trauma.”
Hernandez said to be a good conspirator, it’s important to keep ignorant claims by other white people in check.
“I think the best thing you can do to people who are not intentionally setting out to be racist but are really speaking from a place of ignorance is to check them,” Hernandez said. “It’s checking them, correcting and educating all in one response.”
Snipes echoed her claims, saying the most important thing for an accomplice to do is reflect on their role and privilege.
“The work is always internal,” Snipes said. “In order for white folks to be good allies, it starts with understanding themselves and their history, and not the sanitized versions of those histories.”
Those interested in learning more about being anti-racist can visit SIUE’s webpage on anti-racism.