Beyond The Black Square
In 2020, more than 28 million people posted a Black Square on their Instagram feeds. The Show Must Be Paused, also known as Blackout Tuesday, was launched by two Black women in the music industry to disrupt and call out the “long-standing racism and inequality that exists from boardroom to boulevard.” It was one of many initiatives in response to the murder of George Floyd, and people worldwide jumped onboard.
As the co-founder of a DEI agency, I regularly work with individuals and organizations who made big statements about becoming anti-racist allies during the ‘Black Square Summer.’
I vividly remember that day. I wondered whether I, too, would post a black square and, if so, what my caption would say. I also remember the mixed feelings I experienced watching others—who until then, had remained silent on the issues of racism—post black squares, as if to tick a box. Where were they for Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Atatiana Jefferson? Even more recently, where was their outcry for Ahmaud Arbery or Breonna Taylor? It was deeply painful to witness, and I almost preferred their silence over what felt like a performative post.
As the co-founder of a DEI agency, I regularly work with individuals and organizations who made big statements about becoming anti-racist allies during the “Black Square Summer.” And over the past few years, I’ve been privy to the many well-meaning but often naïve attempts to fix this “racism thing” as quickly as possible. In that context, the idea of allyship has become a widely discussed topic.
What makes an ally? Is it an identity, and if so, who can claim it? What’s the difference between performative allyship and effective allyship?
These are just a few of the questions addressed in the workshops we run, and they are important questions to ask. While defining terminology and evolving language is important, our workshops focus on what we are actually asking of folx who want to act in effective allyship. Because whatever term we settle on, one thing is for certain: It’s about much more than a performative actions checklist we can tick off.
What Is Performative Allyship?
In the anti-racism course I run, someone once asked how to avoid performative allyship on platforms inherently performative (referring to social media). I told them that if our so-called “allyship” is reduced to those platforms, it is inherently performative—every post must connect to an action, and we must consider our motives for posting (or not posting).
I know that I’ve been complicit in performative actions before and have to continuously unlearn and listen to those I seek to ally myself with—within and outside of my own community. Performative actions are often more harmful than helpful, and there are key things that can help us identify whether our actions of allyship are authentic and effective. These are relevant for both the Black community and other underrepresented and marginalized folx alike.
Let’s explore some of the signs that have helped me and others identify if our actions are of a performative or self-centering nature and therefore cause more harm than good.
1. Your education stops with social media
Following and engaging with educators on social media is great and reposting educational content (once fact-checked—we want to be responsible social media users) can be helpful, but it’s not enough. The systems of oppression we seek to dismantle and the narratives that come with them are not understood by a simple tweet or in 10 infographics.
2. You’re quick to tweet but slow to speak
If you’re only ever tweeting or posting about racism or other forms of injustice but don’t speak up when faced with them in your day-to-day life—at work, with your family, or elsewhere—it’s an indicator that your allyship is performative. The hard work happens beyond the internet.
3. You’re looking at external actions only. You’re not interrogating your own complicity or recognizing your need to learn (and unlearn)
It’s so easy to point the finger at everyone else when we wake up to injustices around us. Yet a quick look in the mirror reminds us that the work starts at home, in our own lives. We cannot act in allyship if we’re unwilling to do the inner work—which includes apologizing for the harm we’ve caused and recognizing our need to learn (and unlearn). It’s a willingness to be teachable and to be called in. More on how to do inner work below.
4. You’re centering your voice and are profiting from your “allyship”
This should be obvious, but sadly it isn’t. Acting in solidarity and allyship doesn’t mean taking over the conversation or even the fight. It means offering your resources and privilege to those leading the charge: those who are most marginalized. In the context of the Black community, that’s Black women and Black trans women in particular.
It also means making space, not taking it. It includes crediting the work of those who have taught you and believing the stories of those you seek to ally yourself with. It’s essential to resist the urge to become the “savior” (a deeply problematic notion rooted in anti-Blackness, anti-indigeneity, etc.). If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of saviorism, particularly white saviorism, I recommend engaging with the work of NoWhiteSaviors—a Black women-led advocacy group based in Kampala, Uganda.
5. You’re expecting a pat on the back or a thank you from those you seek to ally yourself with
I’ve seen corporations and individuals alike do this—one or two positive changes are implemented, and the immediate need for validation kicks in. They see their actions as a form of charity or even a favor. Dismantling white supremacy, racism, and all the other “isms” is not a favor to those most oppressed that deserves a pat on the back. It’s the right thing to do and will ultimately benefit everyone.
Moreover, your allyship and solidarity in this context can’t be conditional or reliant on whether or not you have Black (insert any other marginalized group) friends who can give you said pat.
6. You quit as soon as it gets hard
Someone challenges you on something you said, a racist troll finds your IG, your feed (thanks, algorithm) suddenly looks like racism and discrimination is everywhere; in short, it’s getting hard, and so you switch off.
While I understand the desire to do so, we must remember that switching off is a privilege many people don’t have. If it’s starting to feel hard after a year of being confronted with racism, imagine what it’s been like for those of us on the receiving end of all the “isms” for centuries.
What It Means To Practice Effective Allyship
What then constitutes “effective” allyship? Does that even exist? One of my favorite definitions of allyship can shed some light on this:
“[Allyship is] 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 group that has been marginalized.”
The Anti-Oppression Network (paraphrased)
It goes on to say that allyship is not an identity and is not self-defined. And to me, those are some key elements in how we should approach the idea of becoming co-conspirators in the work of liberation and justice.
1. You’re doing the internal work of constantly unlearning and re-evaluating
Authentic action is rooted in the knowledge that none of us are exempt from this work; we all have to engage with internal or spiritual work—not just once or twice, but as an ongoing practice. This includes listening to anti-racism educators and activists and reading their work. It also means challenging biases regularly and learning new narratives.
Remember: Anti-oppression work and acting in allyship is a lifelong journey.
2. You pay Black folx
From choosing to buy from Black-owned shops (sustainably so, not just as a one-off gesture) to supporting Black-led charities, putting your money where your mouth is, is always a good place to start with effective allyship. Most social media educators have Venmo or PayPal info in their bios, too. Is their work furthering your learning? Pay them.
3. You call out racism and call people in
At work, in school, at the dinner table, with your friends. Narratives uphold the systems at play, and as you learn more about the origins of racism, you’ll find that the construct of race keeps some people in power while oppressing others.
Some anti-Black narratives include the criminalization of Black folx, entitlement to Black folx bodies as a commodity, colorism, and the strong and/or angry Black woman narratives. The list goes on. By allowing these narratives to persist, the fear of Black liberation persists—because is it really safe for Black people to be truly empowered and free if the stories told about us continuously perpetuate these dangerous narratives?
Racist and anti-Black narratives must be challenged, no matter how “small” they may seem. In ourselves and the world around us. The more people who challenge the narratives, the more that will impact how people behave.
4. You support and demand anti-racist policies
Individuals acting in allyship is only one side of the coin when it comes to liberation and dismantling white supremacy. Community-organizing and collective movements are incredibly important too.
Allyship cannot be apolitical. Policies are either anti-racist, or they uphold the status quo. Support those who are actively challenging and changing policy and hold leaders and politicians to account.
5. You center Black folx voices and make space
Last but certainly not least, acting in allyship requires you to make space. It means paying attention to the rooms you find yourself in and demanding change if they are not representative—whether on your social media platforms, at work or school, or anywhere else in society. You don’t speak for us but do your part to ensure that our voices are heard. You use your privilege to open the doors we historically haven’t been able to walk through, and then let us walk in. You credit Black folx, you learn from Black folx, you elevate Black folx voices.
Learning to act in effective allyship is not a tick box exercise, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Living beyond the black square (or insert other hashtags and collective efforts of “showing” solidarity we’ve seen over the last year) requires us to take an honest look at our motives. It demands that we look at where our contributions are not helpful, and then build new practices and habits to act in solidarity with the groups of people we seek to ally ourselves with.
Keep listening, and keep learning.
What’s important is that we start somewhere. It’s not about perfection. We’ll get it wrong along the way, and that’s okay—as long as we remain teachable and let others call us in.
Jess Mally is a London-based writer, speaker, creative, and producer. She is also the co-founder of BELOVD agency and the host of The Third Way podcast. With a passion for social change, mental health, the arts, and spirituality, she hopes to use any and all means available to her to tell stories that shape a better world. Follow her work on Instagram and sign up for her next anti-racism course here.