In October 2017, the Centre for International Studies organized Mount Allison’s first allyship and anti-oppression workshop. It was a free event that was open to the wider community and was led by a genderqueer person of colour assisted by a queer white woman. As organizers, our vision for the event was to set a precedent for anti-oppression workshops to be commonplace on our campus and community. Accordingly, a few months later, the Feminist Leadership Conference announced that their theme this year would be centred around allyship.
With increases to alt-right and white supremacist activity on university campuses, the embracement of allyship by privileged individuals is a real way to support and be in solidarity with people of colour, specifically queer people of colour. Allyship is a verb and a lifelong process for the privileged to challenge oppressions (that they benefit from) without being performative. It is something that cannot be self-appointed or self-defined, as the purpose is to centre minority bodies and voices. True allies seek to open up space for marginalized peoples out of responsibility, rather than guilt and white fragility. More importantly, however, allyship is a spectrum.
Over the past week, I’ve been engaging with organizers from the Mount Allison Feminist Leadership Conference concerning their roles as allies. I was deeply unimpressed and disappointed when it was brought to my attention that a white person would be giving a talk on appropriate responses to allyship, often referred to as “calling in” and “calling out.” “Calling in” is a concept of educating a person who has said or done something oppressive through communicative aims. It is often thought to be a more compassionate way of calling someone out for their harmful actions, and in most situations, I would say this is the best way to hold people accountable. However, if you are the victim, calling someone in requires deeply traumatic emotional and intellectual labour. Marginalized folks are allowed to be angry and call their abusers out for their violent actions. Choosing to act as an ally only when being called in is wrong; it’s a tactic of tone-policing.
Especially as a feminist organization, it was discouraging that organizers felt it was appropriate or acceptable to have a white person teach other people what appropriate responses to allyship looks like. In addition, it was disappointing to hear that all the organizers were white, especially in light of the conference theme. It took a week to address the organizers because I was distraught by my own internalized racism and fear from backlash, so I made excuses to ignore holding the organizers accountable. However, since then, I’ve had some dialogue with individual organizers about learning from this experience and ensuring that the situation is not repeated again in the future.
Similar to being a good partner or sibling, instructions do not exist on how to be a good ally. In any context where power structures and oppressions are being dismantled, the loss of power often results in white fragility. It is inevitable to make poor decisions – it’s just unfortunate that the learning curve is shouldered and pained by the marginalized.