When SSMU ran their Costume Campaign in the weeks leading up to their 4Floors Halloween event, they ran it with the goal of preventing incidents of racist and culturally appropriative costumes at the event. The campaign was started in part as a response to numerous instances of these types of costumes at last year’s event. But in trying to be helpful, they ran photos of students in blackface and appropriative costumes, taken explicitly for the purpose of the campaign, displaying exactly the kind of insensitivity they were trying to combat.
This is a prime example of allyship gone wrong. An ally is an individual – or in this case, organization – that recognizes and actively works against the oppression experienced by marginalized groups. An example of effectively combating racist costumes is the campaign of Ohio University’s student group Students Teaching About Racism in Society, entitled “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume.” This campaign – in fact, the inspiration for SSMU’s Costume Campaign – featured people of colour holding up signs of people in culturally insensitive costumes with the words “This is not who I am, and this is not okay.” This, rather than featuring students in racist costumes, is an example of good allyship; instead of perpetuating oppressive actions, it allows marginalized peoples to express their own perspectives.
Being a good ally has less to do with offering your own opinion as it does with listening to those of the people you’re aiming to support. Someone speaking from a relative place of privilege often has the advantage of space to make their voice heard. It’s necessary to acknowledge this when venturing into a space or movement created for a marginalized group, as it may be one of the few places reserved for members of that group to speak. It’s their turn to be heard.
With mouths shut, and keyboards silent, listening and reading become priorities for allies. Accounts of the experience of oppression are some of the most valuable tools of political education. Luckily for us, they’re plentifully available online, on issues ranging from disability, race, citizenship status, class, gender, and more, on sites like Racialicious and Tranarchy, in addition to the myriad personal blogs.
The best use of an ally’s voice in most cases is to direct other people of privilege to the words and interpretations of people belonging to the group they wish to support. One such opportunity is coming up on November 20, the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, organized as a tribute to those who have been killed as a result of transphobia. Cisgender allies should take this day to listen to and support the voices of their fellow trans* community members as they memorialize their dead. Throughout the rest of the year, McGill-centred events like Social Justice Days and Culture Shock take place with the aim of educating and raising awareness about issues ignored in the mainstream.
However, these resources and learning opportunities are only starting points. Allyship is not an identity one can assume, but is instead crucial, ongoing process. Having completed one good deed doesn’t mean completing the transformation into an ally. There is no point at which an individual is ‘finished’ with the process, as it is one that requires continual evaluation to prevent complicity in the oppressions that marginalized people face, and one that demands daily, critical attention.
—The McGill Daily Editorial Board