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White allyship: When to step back and when to step up

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Many of us are still reeling from last week's grand jury decision on the murder of Mike Brown, an unarmed black teen who was shot by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO. 

Wilson was not indicted of any crime prompting Ferguson residents to march in the streets and express their outrage. Riots ensued and the police released tear gas on thousands of people.

Solidarity marches were held following the decision in New York, L.A., Philadelphia, Toronto and Montreal, among other cities.

The march in Toronto was also dedicated to Jermaine Carby, a black man who was fatally shot by Peel regional police for unknown reasons.

On social media, people were encouraged to use the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter to show their support for the black communities in Ferguson and all over the United States and Canada.

Most recently, a grand jury in Staten Island decided not to indict a police officer who was videotaped choking a young black man to death, causing more outrage and disappointment.

In Ottawa, organizers for a Mike Brown vigil asked white allies to remain in the background by not speaking to the media and refrain from occupying space.

Some white invitees on the event's Facebook page derided the suggestion, equating the organizers to the same racists and segregators the event aimed to challenge.

The question of white and non-black allyship is definitely one that needs to be asked, scrutinized and analyzed, especially during times when healing and empowerment are an absolute must.

When a white or non-black person makes a long and impassioned status on Facebook about Ferguson and racial injustice, it doesn't always mean it comes from a place of true allyship.

It's hard to put a cap on outrage, especially on a platform that gives us the ability to say what’' on our mind at any given moment.

And it's even harder to place limits on outrage when blatant and systemic racism continue to affect marginalized communities.

But true white and non-black allies should know that Facebook is just another forum where space can be occupied by certain people and denied to others who may experience racial injustice every day.

By acting as a vocal authority on the subject and by using language that would infer that Ferguson is indeed "your struggle," white and non-black folks who exhibit and comply with this behaviour fail to be proper allies.

The last thing anyone needs right now is an onslaught of white guilt and desperation for approval.

Even publicly stating that you, as a white person, are going to defriend people who are "neutral" on Ferguson and therefore on the side of the oppressor doesn't constitute proper allyship at all.

Allyship doesn't mean undermining black and racialized people and their decisions that may help with healing. It doesn't mean ending the conversation with "you're racist." And, it doesn't mean taking a photo of you burning or tarnishing American symbols as an act of protest. 

This is a time where white people can step up, it's true.

But real allyship means, above all, asking one fundamental question: "what does this community/this person need from me?"

Sometimes, it is speaking out when casual or blatant racism is occurring. Sometimes, it's just listening to someone who wants to be heard. But more than not, it means using your place of privilege to educate others instead of shunning them away.

It means using the knowledge and -- consequently -- the power you have gained to practice when it's needed the most.

But, it can mean stepping back from opining on Ferguson because your voice isn't the one that's routinely silenced and erased.

Allyship means acknowledging the power that you, as a white or non-black person, have in this situation and allowing others to occupy space.

It means acknowledging that most people picture a white man when they picture a police officer.

It means harnessing the empathy and outrage you feel and doing something constructive like respecting suggestions for vigils, acting as peer support, or asking important questions regarding solidarity.

It means reflecting on how violence is first rooted in the daily interactions we make and the power imbalances thereafter. Discourtesy can often lead to disrespect which can lead to rudeness, harassment, intimidation and aggression.

Lastly, it means making connections. The people you want to defriend may fail to see the connections between racism and certain aspects of policing culture. Who is going to tell them about it? This is where you come in. This is where you make the connection between a simple Facebook status or a tweet and proper allyship.

I'm not black. Ferguson isn't my struggle either.

While Hispanics in the United States and Canada are profiled, targeted, and stereotyped, Ferguson represents a struggle that is specifically entrenched in anti-black racism. This is why it's important to ask people in the black community right now what they need from you as a white or non-black person. This is why you need to do the work for yourself on what constitutes as proper allyship.


Francella Fiallos is a fourth-year journalism student at Carleton University in Ottawa. She sits on the board of directors for OPIRG-Carleton, edits a campus newspaper, and hosts a radio show on CKCU 93.1 FM in the capital region.

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