As someone with Jewish roots, Black History Month makes me think of the importance of allies and allyship in the fight against the harms of racialization and racialized injustice. On January 27th we observed Holocaust Remembrance Day. For many, the Holocaust is a historical artifact of a particular time and place: the systematic, state sponsored persecution and genocide of nearly six million European Jews during World War II in the 1940s. For me, it is part of my own family’s life history – leaving my father the sole survivor of his immediate family and forcibly displaced. This persecution took place in broad daylight, as thousands, millions stood by. But there also were those who acted, to rescue or to save individuals -often complete strangers- and to fight against the system of persecution.
Today, in the wake of prominent cases of social injustice and systemic violence against specific racialized groups, allyship is as critical to building a just society as ever. Allyship has various definitions, but that of the Anti-Oppression Network resonates particularly clearly for continuing education: “an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person in a position of privilege and power seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group,” in order to disrupt power imbalances and redress systemic inequities and social violence.
Continuing education institutions, such as my own, often view themselves as points of access to marginalized communities. The act of unlearning and learning is key to how continuing education can and must serve as a platform for allyship. So, what does that concretely mean? For one it means that we need to recognize that recognizing both the achievements but also continued struggles of many of our Black learners, colleagues, friends, and family cannot be relegated to one month out of the year alone. It must be a lifelong commitment. It requires active listening, reflecting and reacting in a manner that gives the other person space and encouragement to express themselves – even when it might be critical of oneself or one’s position of privilege.
Speaking of privilege – a gut reaction to that word will be to deny privilege. But consider this: According to Statistics Canada, as of 2021, Blacks made up 4.3% of the population of Canada, including 40% born in Canada. Less than 2% of post-secondary education are identified as Black. And yet more than one third of homicide victims are racialized and of those 50% are Black. I could cite other similar data points that point to the disproportionate negative impacts of systemic racism. Most of us, who do not identify as Black are not pidgeon-holed or shackled in the same way. We do not have to go above and beyond expectations to prove that we have a right to be where we are or how we are. That is a privilege too.
How can we be effective allies to the Black community in and out of the classroom and the workplace? For one, by pro-actively engaging the issues that negatively impact Black communities and highlighting the intellectual and practical contributions made by Black scholars and practitioners; ensuring an inclusive learning environment that is open to disagreement and different perspectives. We must educate ourselves and take responsibility first and foremost, rather than adding the burden of educating us to those already in marginalized positions. And we need to actively work to transfer our privilege to those whose voices may not be heard: speak up against discriminating treatment or decisions even when those most effected are not in the room, question and challenge racism at every turn.
But there is a fine line between effective and performative allyship and cultural appropriation, e.g., expressing your support for ‘the cause’ without actively working to change your own life or understanding of what contributes to systemic racism. Or limiting your action to the occasional social media post, or joining a parade or protest for an afternoon, or expecting recognition and centering your own voice of solidarity over that of those who are in fact the marginalized and unheard. Just because we listen to Black music, appreciate Black artists or writers, wear “African inspired” fabrics and clothing, or appropriate other aspects of what popular culture thinks of as “Black” does not make us effective allies.
I, as an individual of European descent and a socio-economic status that allows me to live and work reasonably comfortably without fears for my life, am very privileged. Just as we do in continuing education, I must continuously unlearn to actively learn and listen to be an anti-racist. I choose to use that privilege, as best I can – and rarely perfectly- to remind myself and everyone around me that we cannot stand by silently, that the pain, suffering, and unreasonable burdens imposed on some members of human society ARE preventable and solvable.