You are currently viewing Conceptualizing Allyship

Conceptualizing Allyship

By Nemee Bedar

I want to start off by saying I am not Black. I am an Indian, cis-gendered, heterosexual woman who immigrated to Canada when I was three years old. I am self-identifying because I believe that our multi-layered, intersecting, overlapping identities shape our perceptions and experiences. My experiences have shaped my engagement with contemporary anti-racism–and specifically anti-Black racism–social justice movements.

‘Allyship’ is a term that has been used a lot these past few months. As a person with access to internet, news, and information about what is happening in my community and beyond, I have been thinking a lot about what allyship means. I have been contemplating my role within the anti-Black racism movement. I have been grappling with how to engage in ways that are authentic, productive, and helpful to the Black and Indigenous folks, and POC more generally, who have been disenfranchised and disempowered by the systems in which I live.

My conception of allyship involves an individualized process that inherently varies from person to person. At its core this process internalizes a sense of duty or responsibility to achieve equity in partnership with those who are disenfranchised. I will not attempt to articulate the structures through which Black folks are disenfranchised here because to do so would unduly simplify the mechanisms through which oppression occurs. Nevertheless, oppressive institutions and systems include, but are not limited to, policing, public education, prisons, and underlying societal myths.

But I digress. What is allyship? Allyship is many things but it is not static. Allyship is an ongoing behavior. It is an evolutionary process. According to Ibram X. Kendi “Being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.” Being an ally is not doing one thing once. It is not checking a box. It is the consistent engagement in anti-racist work. It involves, at its most uncomfortable, acknowledging internal biases and unpacking, taking ownership of, and being accountable for past wrongs. It requires reflection. According to Samantha Peters, a Black femme lawyer in Toronto, it also requires compassion. It requires not becoming so weighed by this accountability that you freeze up before engaging in acts that work towards equity.

Allyship is comprised of varied actions. These may include reading books by Black authors, learning about the history of Black folks, listening to speeches, contributing to Black Lives Matter bail funds, attending protests, engaging in conversations about anti-Black racism, citing Black academics in scholarship, and spending money in Black-owned establishments. The modes of these activities vary. They may serve educational purposes, to empower Black business owners, or to politically bolster movements through attendance. But at their core these actions work towards racial equity by internalizing a sense of responsibility and, in turn, spurring action.

Adrienne Maree Brown envisions the effect of these multiple, consistent small actions of allyship as part of ‘emergent strategy.’ These actions of allyship are “how we intentionally change in ways that grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for.” It is through small, consistent, intentional actions that we can strengthen equity in society and entrench equitable practices in the evolution of social relationships. Brown stresses the importance of critical relationships over critical mass. She instructs us to “build the resilience by building the relationships.” In this way, allyship is also about the actions we take to build relationships and, through these relationships, embed social justice.

Allyship is education. Intersectional subordination is an analytic framework grounded in Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality. Intersectional subordination seeks to explain how color, gender, economic class, and other identity markers intersect to result in multilayered oppression. For example, colour, gender, and economic class may intersect so that the discrimination experienced by a Black transgender woman is qualitatively different than the discrimination experienced by a Black man or a white woman. Crenshaw argues that intersectional subordination “is frequently the consequence of the imposition of one burden that interacts with preexisting vulnerabilities to create yet another dimension of disempowerment.” If we accept this argument, then we accept education as an iterative, challenging, and complex process. Learning about another human’s experience is multifaceted, ongoing, and always requires commitment. In the context of anti-Black racism, I believe allyship requires analyzing and deconstructing existing narratives, with nuance, to support Black folks in the reconstruction of those narratives.

To me, allyship is a multi-layered, multifaceted ongoing process of active engagement characterized by an authentic willingness to learn. Allyship is an internalized sense of responsibility to equity and racial justice. It is many things and many actions, but at its core it is an iterative and evolutionary process necessitating reflection, vulnerability, and commitment.


  1. The Skin We’re In by Desmond Cole
  2. Assata by Assata Shakur
  3. Mapping the Margins by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw
  4. Seeing Race Again: Countering Colorblindness Across the Disciplines by Kimberlé Crenshaw, George Lipsitz, Daniel HoSang, Luke Charles Harris
  5. Policing Black Lives by Robyn Maynard
  6. Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown
  7. How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

Ottawa-specific resources:

  1. “Addressing Anti-Black Racism in Ottawa: Forum Summary Report” (2017) Chelby Marie Daigle
  2. “The Mental Health of Ottawa’s Black Community Report” (2020) Ottawa Public Health

Image Source:

Leave a Reply