Allyship is the active support for the rights of a marginalised, underrepresented or minority group that you are not a member of.
Allyship goes beyond ‘holding the door open’ and can take many forms, for example:
- Understanding and interrogating your own biases
- Understanding what privilege/s you hold
- Embracing your own feelings of discomfort and worry over saying the ‘wrong’ thing
- Educating yourself on the cultures of marginalised groups outwith your own identities
- Educating yourself on the ways in which people are discriminated against, histories of oppression and resistance, current oppression happening in your country and around the world
- Educating yourself on how to be a better ally
- Encouraging allyship and educating others
- Being actively anti-discrimination and anti-oppression – for example, anti-racist
- Understanding how to create safer spaces for people who are discriminated against
- Speaking out against discrimination
Empathy is key to allyship
Good intentions always mean well and can go a long way, but without understanding your privilege/s and biases and educating yourself, it is possible to still do harm even though it is completely unintended.
You will likely face your own defensiveness and discomfort as you move through the early stages of this journey.
There may be times when the reaction you receive to saying the ‘wrong’ thing feels unpleasant. In those moments, try and remember that your feeling uncomfortable is highly likely not as awful as how a person feels when they are discriminated against.
Remembering that discrimination often takes multiple forms – systemic, structural, cultural, societal, and individual – working its way into the everyday existence of that person.
Working against oppression and towards a world where everyone is free from oppression and discrimination is a lifelong journey for all of us. Embedding empathy in your allyship can help you do much good along the way.
What privileges and biases do I have?
Awareness of how our biases and multiple identities intersect in several ways is the first step. While the society and cultures we grew up and live in, our experiences and the media we consume can condition and encourage certain unconscious biases, we have the agency to become more conscious of our own biases and privileges and act towards creating more equal and inclusive societies.
Most of us support equality and equal human rights but being told you are a privileged person when you do not feel privileged can raise your heckles! So, what do we mean by ‘privilege’ in the context of equality?
In the UK, we have the 2010 Equality Act to protect people from discrimination. The legal ‘protected characteristics’ are:
- Gender reassignment
- Being married or in a civil partnership
- Being pregnant or on maternity leave
- Race including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin
- Religion or belief
- Sexual orientation
I would add that awareness of socio-economic and cultural disadvantages is also vital when thinking about our privileges.
Each ‘characteristic’ above can overlap – these are what we call intersections. And within each ‘characteristic’ are many diverse communities.
Every person holds a range of identities and privileges and/or certain disadvantages in society.
Acknowledging your privilege does not mean that you have never faced any struggles in life. It is about understanding and acknowledging systemic power structures, inequalities, and injustices.
For example, a white working-class person holds ‘white privilege’ due to racial inequalities and is also socio-economically disadvantaged within society; whereas a Black cisgender man holds ‘gender privilege’ and is also discriminated against (disadvantaged) because of his race or skin colour.
From a personal perspective, I benefit from anti-Blackness, colourism and white privilege because I have light-brown skin – I may be treated as a ‘safe’ Black person or person of colour and given preferential treatment at times. I am simultaneously privileged in some aspects while disadvantaged due to racial inequalities. As a disabled person of colour, I face intersecting barriers, though I hold some privilege with invisible disabilities.
As you educate yourself, you will discover and understand the nuances and will find ways to be more inclusive in your day-to-day activity as a writer.
Allyship in practice as a writer
There are actions, small and large, that you can take to become a better ally to marginalised people.
As a writer or literary professional, this may look like:
- If you have been invited to read or be a panellist or chair at an event, checking whether the panel or speaker line-up is all one privileged group – for example, an all-white, cisgender, heteronormative panel is not diverse
- Being mindful of who you are reading and listening to when researching cultures you are writing about or drawing inspiration from – absorbing information from people with lived experience instead of (or as well as) people writing about a culture they have no lived experience in
- Interrogating and looking out for your biases and stereotypes that may be coming through your writing, for example: the criminal in your script having a visible difference (for example a facial scar); romanticising a First Nations or Indigenous community’s culture as inspiration for a creating fantasy world; an antagonistic character or group who has dreadlocks or wears their hair in locs; using food to describe a Black or brown person’s skin tone (coffee, caramel, chocolate, etc); adding token sidekick character just to include a marginalised person
- Asking your editor or manager to hire a sensitivity reader
- Reading, supporting, networking with, and recommending writers from marginalised communities
Allyship as part of a writing career and practice
Empathy is often at the heart of our work as writers, plus reading has been proven to develop empathy.
There are times when we need to be in spaces with people who share our lived experiences and, equally, there are times when we need to bridge, understand and celebrate our differences together.
Finding and building communityand working on our allyship creates a more empathic and, I suggest, resilient society.