Allyship with marginalised groups means examining your own privilege

A photo of a Black Lives Matter protest in Dublin last year, which showed many white people engaged in allyship with the Black community.

The definition of allyship is when a person who is in a position of privilege and power seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalised group. It is not an identity. Instead, it is a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with minority groups. Allies need to work and put in the effort to be considered genuine by the group they seek to pledge their solidarity with. 

But sometimes people who claim to be allies, perhaps unintentionally, engage in behaviour that is unacceptable, performative, and not helpful to those they claim to assist. 

Black Lives Matter

After US police murdered George Floyd in May 2020, multiple Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests were organised worldwide. It was amazing to see the Black community marching together. What was noticed was the amount of white people or allies who joined these demonstrations. Many who joined were passionate about saving the lives of Black people. Cynics might argue that some did so as it was something to engage in during the COVID-19 pandemic. Or perhaps some did it because they are performative allies who often want something to put on their social media posts to enhance their profiles.  

The behaviour of some these people was most unhelpful. One such example was during the campaign for justice for Breonna Taylor. Breonna was a 26-year-old African-American woman who was fatally shot in her own apartment by a police officer in Louisville, Kentucky, in March 2020. The campaign aimed to have the policemen who shot Breonna Taylor arrested. Soon her name and the aim of the campaign was made into memes, which was distressing for Ms. Taylor’s relatives and unhelpful to the cause. Such memes were often found on posts by white liberals, something which failed to impress the Black community. Deeds on their own like this do not make you a good ally and if you are asked to delete such posts, you should.

Some of the criticisms from the Black community on the Breonna Taylor memes.
Examples of the memeification of Breonna Taylor’s killing.

In Ireland, many political parties extended their solidarity to the BLM movement. However, they could be described as hollow. For example,  in the Dáil, they dutifully condemned racism. 

However, for parties like Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, it was purely performative. They stand over and are apologists for the discriminatory system that is Direct Provision in Ireland. Fine Gael councillor David McManus went on the radio and argued that the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) should be taken off Black Lives Matter protestors at the same time his leader and party were pledging their solidarity in the Dáil. 

Sinn Féin, claiming to be allies of the Black community, posed beside BLM murals and took the knee. They also highlighted their long history of solidarity with marginalised groups. However, was it all just optics and PR?

During the BLM protests in the North, the PSNI fined BLM protestors and many were told they could be prosecuted at a later date. Michelle O’Neill, vice president of Sinn Féin, and Alliance leader, Naomi Long, said the PSNI’s actions were proportionate. Later on, the PSNI had to apologise for its handling of the BLM protests, as it was unfair and discriminatory, especially as it failed to fine far-right protestors who days later mobilised in Belfast. 

Can Sinn Féin call themselves allies after they appeared to side with the police? Former Sinn Féin member Tim Brannigan, who is himself biracial, has been very critical of Sinn Féin’s actions and believes they are not doing enough for the BAME community.

Tim Brannigan points out how hypocritical Mary Lou McDonald is in her condemnation of racism.
Sinn Féin and Alliance’s performative actions for the Black Lives Matter movement. 

To be a good ally, you must ensure you are not centring yourself and that voices from the Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) community are heard before yours. In Dublin during a BLM protest, a white People Before Profit (PBP) member addressed the crowd. Having excellent intentions, she was very passionate about ending racism in Ireland. But her speech went on for so long that she angered the audience and they told her to “pass the mic”. Eyewitnesses reported she ranted about her party and attacked Fine Gael, clearly going off-topic. Would it not have been better for her to have had a shorter speech and allowed BIPOC voices to be heard before hers? Or for her to check her privilege and to leave her politics for her party’s Zoom calls. There is a time and a place. 

There was also criticism that there were too many PBP flags visible at the protest, which had some wondering if the protest was a PBP event or a grassroots protests organised by members of the Black community. PBP have also been subjected to criticism by Migrants and Ethnic-Minorities for Reproductive Justice (MERJ) activists for having their political logo on a Black Lives Matter mural in Belfast. To be a good ally one must listen attentively to people’s concerns. According to MERJ, PBP should heed this.  

PBP’s BLM Mural in Belfast that was paint bombed recently.  

You cannot be silent if you claim to be an ally. As Reverend Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressors”. You must speak up and criticise injustices even if this is difficult. Educate yourself on the often cruel realities of prejudice in life. Always call out racism. 

When Green Party leader, Eamon Ryan said the N-word in the Dáil after quoting a news article, many Green Party members, rushed to condemn him. However, others who claim to be anti-racist spent longer condemning Councillor Daniel Whooley, who suggested that Ryan should step away from the leadership contest than they did their leader who repeated a racial slur. To be a good ally, you should enlighten your friends, colleagues, and family.  

Performative action is not helpful or wanted. As previously mentioned, there were many allies who joined the BLM protests in June. Some put the BLM hashtag on their social media accounts and a black square on Instagram. However, when George Nkencho was shot dead by the Gardaí in December, many allies who proudly marched the streets in June were noticeably absent. To quote Martin Luther King Jr, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”. 

LGBTQI+ Allies  

If you are a straight person who wants to be an ally for the LGBTQI+ community, it is necessary to educate yourself. Do not assume a person’s gender. Always ask for their pronouns if you are unsure of them. If one repeatedly misgenders people, don’t be upset when those in the LGBTQI+ community get defensive. Inclusive language is crucial, especially for those in the Trans community. 

Last week, Labour Senator Rebecca Moynihan, introduced a period poverty bill. It must be noted that her post used inclusive language, to include the Trans community. Such sensitivities makes a good ally. The post angered Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFS), who are no allies to the LGBTQI+ community. As this was mostly online, good allies educate, report, and block TERFS.  

Inclusive language in Labour’s period poverty post.

More is required than waving a rainbow flag at a Pride parade. This involves standing up for the LGBTQI+ community on all occasions and engaging with those who don’t believe people in this group are entitled to equality and respect, even one’s parents. 

It is also not wise to work with anti-LGBTQI+ organisations or TERF groups. Any social movement must be LGBTQI+ friendly. During the Repeal the 8th campaign, it was noted that groups like Together for Yes explicitly excluded mentions of Trans and intersex people from its literature for the sake of reaching out to “Middle Ireland”. 

Newspapers who platform anti-LGBTQI+ material one week and then pro-LGBTQ+ material the next, may be undependable for promoting a change in public attitudes. The anti-Trans pieces these same papers have published in recent months have angered the LGBTQI+ community and many of their allies. This has led to James Hudson and Anna Walsh setting up the Trans Writers Union, which aims to give Trans creatives a focal point to gather around, pool knowledge, share opportunities, and keep one another safe in overtly or implicitly hostile industries.

The LGBTQI+ community are no strangers to performative allies. Each Pride Month, many business premises are bedecked with Pride flags. Yet in the recent past, some of these companies have engaged in homophobic behaviour. It seems they too want to jump on the bandwagon. In politics some parties try to gaslight the LGBTQI+ community. For example, on the 4th of February 2021, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), who claims they are progressive, put up a tweet that said they would vote to ban conversion therapy in the North. However it turned out its Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), Alan Chambers, abstained on the vote at the health committee.

UUP’s Twitter.

Traveller Allies

Irish Traveller Rosemarie Maughan claimed that to be a good Mincéir (Traveller) ally, you must encourage people to educate themselves about Traveller culture, history, and issues affecting them. You must enlighten others and challenge anti-Traveller prejudice. She suggests that one should join local initiatives engaging with Travellers to promote greater understanding of their traditions and integration with wider society. Allies should promote greater positive interaction at all levels thereby lessening their exclusion from the wider world.  

Employers should be encouraged to ensure appropriate opportunities are made available to Travellers by the use of imaginative schemes thereby overcoming the often obvious problem of a lack of qualifications when in receipt of applications. It would be a huge boost for the Traveller community to see more of them enter politics where their voice would not only be heard, but their concerns could be acted upon. 

It was most significant to see Mincéir Eileen Flynn on the Taoiseach’s nomination list for the Seanad. She has brought her community’s agenda into the Oireachtas. Maughan also cautions that you can’t call yourself a Traveller ally if you support anti-Traveller politicians engaging in anti-Traveller issues such as opposing halting sites or housing allocations for them.   

It is hypocritical for politicians like Fine Gael TD Josepha Madigan, who has engaged in anti-Traveller racism, to claim that she and her party are anti-racism allies. Green Senator, Roisin Garvey, told fellow party members not to use “big words” when talking to people from rural Ireland and she claimed she learned this from working with Travellers. This did not go down well with either community, as it suggests that people from both the Traveller community and the rural community are uneducated. 

Being a white Irish settled person does confer a certain privilege of life’s certainties; a life of inclusion in everyday living, an experience that often is not available to Travellers. It is also so offensive to deny that Travellers face racism because they have “white skin”. They are a recognised ethnic group in Ireland. 

Mincéir Rosemarie Maughan.

Allyship is greatly valued and greatly assists with ending oppression for marginalised groups. But it is important that we become good allies and amplify marginalised voices rather than hog the limelight for ourselves. Always call out discrimination,  always volunteer, and always help the cause.

Christine O’Mahony is an Irish-Caribbean postgraduate student of International Human Rights Law in University College Dublin. She holds a LLB International in Law from Maynooth University and is currently researching hate speech laws in Ireland. She is a member of the Social Democrats and volunteers with the group Abolish Direct Provision.

Featured image via Twitter – Caelainn Hogan

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