Listen and Learn: How to be a Non-Optical Ally


Whilst the #BlackLivesMatter movement has existed for about seven years since the shooting of Trayvon Martin, its presence as a household term has peaked and waned throughout that time. The last few weeks following the death of George Floyd have brought the Black Lives Matter movement to its most recognised and established point during those seven years. However, there are concerns that this support will fade over the coming weeks and months, that as BLM fades from Instagram’s algorithm, it too will fade from people’s minds. Posting a black square is a well-meaning show of support, but it can often be performative. #BlackoutTuesday had more than double the posts than the George Floyd petition had signatures.

The very fact that it has taken seven years for the Black Lives Matter movement to reach these heights is an indicator in itself that white communities have neither thought nor sought to be allies to the black community until this point. Deep down everyone knew what was going on; racist police brutality is no new phenomenon. For years, black people’s words have not been enough, as if they were somehow either lying or exaggerating as a whole community. Incidents were explained away by victim blaming and assumptions that police deep down must have been trying to do the right thing. In the future, we as a whole society must do better. Black communities should not have to wait for a graphic video to eventually reach the Instagram feeds for people to finally spring into action. To be allies in the future, we must recognise that white people are not the arbiters of truth. We do not know everything there is to know and instead we must listen to and learn from black communities, respecting and acknowledging their struggles without first having to feed off of traumatising videos.

Latham Thomas defines optical allyship as ‘allyship that only serves at the surface level to platform the ‘ally’, it makes a statement but doesn’t go beneath the surface and is not aimed at breaking away from the systems of power that oppress’. To be a true ally, white and non-black communities must not drown out black voices, our job is to support them. Sometimes that means speaking loud and clear in spaces where black voices will not reach, sometimes that means staying quiet so that black voices can be heard louder but showing your unconditional support to that message. And so, I would like to myself acknowledge that all of these points have been suggested by members of the black community already and that further information on the topic can be found online in various articles and videos online and the ‘Non-Optical Allyship Guide’ on Instagram by Mireille Casandra Harper should be referred to.

Addressing our own biases and those of the people around us is essential; take a Harvard implicit bias test, call out racist rhetoric from your family members. If you simply ‘agree to disagree’ they will continue to carry those biases into their schools, workplaces and communities. It is important to donate to funds and support initiatives which support black people, such as the Minnesota Freedom Fund, or support black-owned funding platforms like Kwanda. Especially with YouTube videos helping to raise funds, there is really no excuse for not contributing financially to this cause. Look to the areas you can make the most difference. For those in the UK, it may be difficult to influence American representatives, the police or other officials but we can help pressure our own representatives. Sign petitions and email your MP to stop exporting licenses for tear gas and rubber bullets to the US. Whilst some MPs have denied the existence of such trade, a freedom of information request reveals the quantities of these supplies sold to US or other countries and can support individuals in holding their representatives to account.

Ultimately in order to help cement this momentum into real change, we need to engage in long-term strategies and donate to organisations with long-term plans such as the NAACP or ‘Fair Fight’ which work to introduce political and legal reforms throughout the country. It is important to recognise that this movement is about more about retroactive justice for black individuals, but to enact preventative measures and wholescale systemic change, ensuring these events do not continue to reoccur. We need to be willing to address all aspects of society. Long term change is required, for that we need sympathetic politicians elected and informed, understanding judges and police. Voting in both national and general elections is important to achieve this. There is massive hypocrisy in claiming to support a movement but voting for the politicians who denounce it or ignore its requests. Yet, on its own this is not enough. Black and supportive electives must be able to count on continued grassroots support and activism to help pressure other electives to vote for legislation that will enshrine legal protections for black citizens in police encounters and strict regulations to hold those who break these to account. Fundamentally, pressure needs to be applied to politicians to vote in favour of educational reforms to our national curriculum. Teaching the history of Britain’s colonial legacy and race relations will help raise a generation of ally’s that will understand the history of black struggles in the UK and worldwide. Such action will make sure black communities are heard from the beginning, rather than seven years down the line.

Image: Unsplash

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