Since the results of the United States presidential election came in last week, the number of hate crimes reported across North America has increased dramatically. Over in Alabama, the Southern Poverty Law Center has tracked more than 200 incidents of vandalism, harassment, and hate speech in the U.S. — offences against people of colour, Muslims, LGBTQ people, and those perceived to be immigrants. Here in Canada, posters advocating white supremacy have been plastered around eastern Toronto neighbourhoods, while swastikas have been sprayed on front doors in Ottawa — echoing anti-Muslim hate crimes that popped up in fall 2015.
Much like last year, when social media movements such as #IllRideWithYou appeared on Twitter and Facebook to offer support to people affected by acts of bigotry, some Americans have taken to wearing safety pins as public shows of solidarity — often described as allyship — for those affected by the ugly sentiments that have surfaced this past week.
But when do public overtures stop short of actually helping the people they’re meant to? And what does “allyship” really mean? We asked four journalists to explain how Trump’s election win has changed their ideas about both.
What does the term “allyship” mean to you? Have the results of the election changed its meaning or relevance in any way?
Eternity Martis: Before the election, allyship meant understanding how your own privilege and biases affect disadvantaged people around you. It meant not getting defensive or trying to justify it when a person of colour was killed or assaulted by police, or was discriminated against. For me, it was really about listening, and about standing up to people who were being racist or discriminatory.
After the election, though, it now means two things: understanding and empathy. I don’t want to hear, “Oh, well, maybe Trump won’t be so bad.” It’s the very fact that Trump was elected that allows people to justify committing hate crimes against people of colour, against Muslims, against LGBTQ people. I don’t live in the U.S., and yet I am deeply fearful for my safety, especially when you think about the history the U.S. has with Black and brown people. Allyship now means understanding that, for you, Trump may be annoying or troubling, but for others, it can literally mean a death sentence.
Kelli Korducki: I didn’t grow up with money, and one of my parents is an immigrant of colour, so I always felt as though I could play both sides.
It’s been difficult but important for me to recognize that, in truth, my experience of moving through the world is markedly different from that of people who in an instant can be marked as “other.” I always knew this on an intellectual level, but really accepting it has been a journey.
My parentage is incidental by now: I’m educated and bourgeois and white in appearance, and the fact that I’ll likely be directly unaffected by whatever Trump’s presidency brings has really driven this home. My concept of allyship has moved from a sense of positioning within a greater conversation to a real mentality of action — which includes shutting my mouth and listening to what people who are actually marginalized have to say.
Vicky Mochama: “Allyship” has never meant much to me. Something about the term has always suggested that people who claim to be allies were opting to defend my equality and freedom, and that they could at any point remove themselves from that position. For example, many male “allies” of feminists still silence women, speak over and interrupt them, and deny or dismiss what they say is their lived experience. Those who call themselves “allies” of people of colour still stand idly by while their friends are attacked on racial grounds.
As a black woman, I need someone who is looking for social equality without a title. I need someone who, when the time comes, will put their body in front of mine when I am in danger.
Erica Lenti: I think my tricky relationship with the term “ally” reached its peak when I saw plenty of people use that Orlando Facebook avatar filter after the massacre in June. When it came to other issues, like Black Lives Matter protesting at Toronto Pride this past year, many of these same people distanced themselves from the issue as much as possible. It’s as though they didn’t realize how many people of colour died in Orlando and couldn’t see the connection. Like Vicky said, I think the ickiness comes from this ability to distance oneself from the title of “ally” when it’s convenient.
At the same time, I know a lot of great people who actively give space to people of colour, LGBTQ people, those with disabilities, and so on, and I know that they have improved my life
Let’s talk about safety pins. In the wake of some of the uglier acts of bigotry this past week has turned up, calls to action for people to wear safety pins as a way of signalling to marginalized groups that they’re “safe” with them have been floating around the internet. It’s been at turns shared as a way of combatting hateful attitudes and criticized as a largely empty gesture. Does it seem that way to you? When do overtures of friendship or help become more about the people offering it and less about the people at risk?
Korducki: I personally have not taken to wearing a safety pin and I likely won’t start. Not necessarily because it’s an empty gesture, but because it feels a little too much like broadcasting, “Hey! Look how woke I am!” without actually requiring that a person put in actual work.
At the same time, I think that dismissing it entirely misses the point of the gesture, which I believe should be taken in good faith. The safety pin worn as an offer of friendship and safety has origins in the Dutch resistance during World War II, and it was brought back after the Brexit vote precipitated an uptick in xenophobic violence, much like what we’re seeing now in North America. When you consider the history of the symbol, it’s conceivable that the pins serve wearers as a small reminder to do the real work involved in allyship, which is more rigorous and less visible than affixing a shiny piece of metal to your jacket. Because, let’s be real: actions speak louder than pins.
Lenti: I want to give people the benefit of the doubt, and I’m sure most of those who have been wearing safety pins these past few days mean well. But I agree with the idea that it’s an empty gesture; it’s akin to sharing a Facebook status about an issue. I think Phillip Henry at Mic put this really well in a recent column: “It signifies almost nothing at all. It is a self-administered pat on the back for being a decent human being.”
And it’s true: we’re seeing a lot of straight, white celebrities — people who probably don’t know what it feels like to fear for what’s to come, with Trump soon to be president — wearing them, and posting selfies on Twitter and Instagram with a hashtag.
Martis: In my days working as a teaching assistant, one of my students emailed me the day after the bomb attacks in Brussels to say she couldn’t come in because she was terrified of being attacked while walking to school. In a case like this, I think the idea works, and as someone who has experienced a great deal of racism in Canada myself and is constantly hyperaware of my surroundings, I do welcome the idea. However, safety pins are a Band-Aid solution that reinforces the idea that people of colour need to be “saved” by white people. If we’ve gotten to a point where we are so under attack that we need a safety pin, I’d like to see some activism and outrage too, not just a dollar-store gesture.
Mochama: I’m of two minds. I think it’s nice to see people wanting to do genuinely nice and possibly brave acts for one another. It’s also hard to see past the grief of the moment and know what to do. It seems that in feeling helpless, people are grasping on to whatever they can to make themselves and one another feel better. However, I agree with Eternity that it smacks of the White Saviour Complex. Wearing something to let others know that they are “safe” is something that I didn’t honestly need white people to alert me to; I already knew that.
Beyond safety pins, how can a person in a position of privilege do something concrete to support people who are, or stand to be, affected most by a Trump presidency?
Korducki: It’s a real challenge for people like me — stubborn and kind of self-righteous — to do the work of sitting back and listening. But it’s an essential component of real, meaningful allyship. Beyond the intellectual and social actions required for progress, I’m also a big fan of throwing money at things now that I’m in a position to spare a little: Planned Parenthood, Black Lives Matter, the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center (the last two of which have taken up the safety pin as a symbol on their Twitter avatars), could all use your money and/or time.
Also, even if you live in Canada, a good act of allyship is to call Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in his Janesville office to protest Trump’s appointment of a white supremacist as his chief strategist. These are things that people in positions of privilege can do quietly, without fanfare, to be proactive without trying to draw attention to themselves.
Lenti: I’m white, and I can’t pretend to know what it’s like for people of colour in the U.S. right now. So for me, being an ally means listening, not always interacting or interjecting with thoughts and opinions, and letting others speak.
I know a lot of people want to be clear that they’re one of the “good white people” or one of the “good cisgender straight folks” and are opposed to all of the horrible things Trump and his supporters have said over the past months. There’s an inclination to respond to tweets or Facebook posts with an opinion, or to start conversations about issues that perhaps aren’t about their own lives, and to assume they understand what it’s like. If you’re in a position of privilege, my best advice is: don’t make it about you.
Martis: The listening is so important. It’s a difficult feeling to describe, when someone is trying to be the “good white person”: they talk at you, throwing around facts, saying how outraged they are about something, or will start conversations that feel intended to win you over. I have friends who have been like: “I’m just so mad that X nearly beat Y to death!” Inside, I’m thinking: Are you really mad? Or are you saying this because it makes you feel like part of the conversation/you scored points with me?
So I think Erica is right. It is great to care and to be in the know, but people with privilege who want to support need to think about their motives. Is it to be a part of a historical moment? Is it to feel cultured? Is it because you romanticize activism? Or is it because you truly can’t stand to sit idly as hate wins?
Mochama: I love that Erica is willing to acknowledge the privileges of whiteness, but I’d want to know what that whiteness means to her. What I’d really like is for white people to start talking loudly about the ways in which they’re complicit in or have internalized white supremacy.
The biggest surprise for me, in this election, was the large numbers of white women who supported Trump. Sure, they’re Republicans, and they’re entitled to their political views — but their choice also reveals a belief that they’re protected because of their whiteness. I think it would be great to see more conversations between white women about what it means to prioritize whiteness, unconsciously or intentionally.
The suggestions from everyone are great; both personal and political action will be necessary in combatting the worst effects of Trumpism. But at the same time, here in Canada, there’s an election in 2019, and two political parties are choosing a leader in 2017. So now is the moment to have frank public conversations about how whiteness is centred in public and political life here at home too, and whether that reflects the country we want.
Lenti: Vicky, you’re absolutely right. Frankly, I don’t even know where to begin to unpack my whiteness or my privilege — it’s something we aren’t challenged to think about enough. So that’s part of it: yes, people of privilege need to sit back and make space for vulnerable populations. But we also need to re-evaluate what that privilege means. I think it’s an uncomfortable process for a lot of people, but it’s necessary.
Vicky Mochama is a freelance writer and national columnist at Metro News.
Erica Lenti is editor-in-chief of This Magazine and a freelance journalist who covers mental health, LGTBQ and women's issues.
Kelli Korducki is a writer and editor who lived in Toronto, and now lives in New York.
Eternity Martis is a journalist and associate editor at DailyXtra.
May we have a moment of your time?
Our public funding only covers some of the cost of producing high-quality, balanced content. We depend on the generosity of people who believe we all should have access to accurate, fair journalism. Caring people just like you!
Get Current Affairs & Documentaries email updates in your inbox every morning.