A Focus on Optical Allyship

I saw a thought provoking Instagram post this week asking “what have you done since you posted your black square?”

It was a powerful post, and one that halted my thumb from simply double tapping and scrolling past.

What are we doing, and continuing to do, to support anti-racism? And more importantly, how real are our efforts?

These questions became the inspiration for my blog this week. They prompted me to go back to “Me and White Supremacy” by Layla F Saad and re-read the chapter on Optical Allyship. They helped me to collect my thoughts on the journey towards an anti-racist society.

I am by no means the first person to offer my thoughts on this subject. Even Vogue offered its readers advice earlier this year, but it’s important to keep bringing this subject to the fore. Activism is a lifelong commitment, and part of it includes being consistent in supporting, prompting and challenging society to do better.

My English teacher always used to tell me, “Claire, before you launch into your writing, you must define your terms, otherwise we won’t know what you’re talking about.”

So…a definition of optical allyship:

It is the appearance of someone supporting people of colour, without them taking the actions needed to move us towards an anti-racist society.

For example, it’s the sharing of inspirational quotes about anti-racism on social media without understanding it, adding your own learnings or your personal points of view. It’s the criticism of others without reflection on your own assumptions and behaviours. It’s the proclamation of “oh that’s terrible” when consuming images of police brutality without a commitment to self education. It’s the use of the Black Lives Matter hashtag without choosing to invest your time, or money, into the relevant resources. It’s asking your Black friend for all the answers without doing the work yourself.

It’s the illusion of anti-racism without the hard work that goes behind it.

I’m conscious that I don’t want to appear preachy in this blog. I actually hesitated before writing this particular piece, because I passionately do not want stop people from taking steps to further their personal journey on the road to anti-racism. For some people, some of the examples above, such as sharing a social media post on the sensitive subject of race might be their first step. It might be completely out of their comfort zone and might spark lots of debate and learning among their peers. That can be powerful, commendable and should be supported and to be celebrated – as long as the journey doesn’t stop there.

For some, reading this blog might be one of your own personal steps. By reading and joining me in these discussions, we’re learning and progressing together and I thank all of you for that. Thank you for being here.

For those of you who want to do more, who want to move further along the anti-racism road, here are some of the steps I’ve been inspired to take myself.

  1. Read. Listen. Self-educate. There’s a huge amount of information out there, and it’s being shared more widely and supported more loudly than ever before. There are no excuses not to learn about Black history, racism, positive role models and Black excellence.

2. Buy Black. Books and fashion have been the biggies for me so far. If you want to even out the imbalance of White centrism, I really encourage you to make a point of seeking out companies, retailers, designers from people of colour. This has been one of the most pleasurable parts of the last few months for me, I’ve discovered new authors who are now on my list of favourites, (I even got the opportunity to interview the brilliant Rachel Edwards, author of “Darling”) and I’ve bought clothes from fabulous designers whose service and quality has blown me away. (More to follow on that another week – I still have lots to explore!)

3. Support charities. It can be totally overwhelming when you start to understand how complex systemic racism is. I know, I’ve been there. It can make you feel powerless but we’re not powerless. A meaningful and tangible way to support anti-racism is through relevant charities. Your time, money or expertise can make a difference. Stylist Magazine offers a curated list here.

4. Start a conversation. By now, you know how passionate I am about this one. For me, the most important element is conversing. Asking questions, sharing learning, taking ourselves out of our comfort zones and truly listening. Of course actions speak louder than words, but understanding is the foundation that change is built on.

And on that note, as always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Please let me know what you think, what you’ve learned, or what additional advice you might have here on my blog, on Twitter or Instagram. I’m always up for a chat, and if there’s anything anyone would like to hear about, let me know.

Have a good week everyone.

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