For the first time since it was launched 26 odd years ago, dictionary.com has chosen as its word of the year, a word that had not made its way into the dictionary until last month.
The word is allyship. Certainly not a new word to many English speakers. In fact, it has been in use from the beginning of the latter half of the 19th century.
What does this word mean? Dictionary.com defines allyship as, “The status or role of a person who advocates and actively works for the inclusion of a marginalised or politicised group in all areas of society, not as a member of that group but in solidarity with its struggle and point of view and under its leadership.” More than ever before, the spirit of allyship is needed in a world where self-conceit reigns supreme, and where at the drop of a hat the ego-besotted developed nations can disenfranchise over 130 million people from enjoying their civil liberty of traveling the world. In a world obsessed with the unsavoury spirit of narcissism, me-ism, and bigotry, the pressure to rise to the level of allyship, might seem a tall order. But it is doable.
Clearly, active allyship demands impartiality, equity, compassion, and empathy. Attributes that, unfortunately, are in short supply the world over. What you and I might have observed over the years, from our compatriots and foreigners alike, is a conduct that is vaguely dressed as active allyship, but is in fact, passive or performative allyship. This is fake allyship, commonly called showmanship, a disingenuous front for a higher moral ground, where the focus is on oneself, and the clamouring for credit in public settings takes centre-stage. People consumed by the spirit of this false allyship are often active in social media, seemingly advocating the rights of the marginalised, but dismally failing to take appropriate action of speaking up when they pick up structural or systemic bias against the minorities. Allyship is not a status thing. The spirit of allyship compels us to kick the notion of self-centredness away and prods us to take positive action. We need to appreciate that one of the most effective ways of serving as an ally, is not to blow one’s horn nor to focus on how we are perceived by others, but to actively play the advocacy role, whether overtly or behind the scenes.
People who have embraced the spirit of allyship always have their minds and eyes wide open and would be among the first to recognise oppression in all its manifestations, whether subtle or not. Their social and natural justice antennae are always switched on and they subscribe to what was said by an American civil rights leader named John Lewis, “When you see something that is wrong, you must say something, you must do something.” This requires vigilance and the willingness to act even before an offence is reported by the victim. However, the path to allyship is neither smooth nor straight. Like a long river, it meanders and often crosses rugged landscapes. But with sheer determination and effort, it can be navigated successfully. We should voluntarily identify marginalised people in and outside our communities, step out of our comfort zone, and proactively embody allyship. For this to happen, we should ever so often take the right action and avoid being complicit. But if we were to introspect, wouldn’t you agree that most of us have had those moments where we witnessed some form of injustice and failed to act, only to condemn ourselves after the fact?
Who is at the receiving end of the depressed spirit of allyship? It is the ethnic minorities, the disabled, the socially and economically compromised, members of non-mainstream religions and women. Much as we may want to deny it, we must come to terms with the fact that the playing field is not level, it is tilted in favour of the privileged. Inequities of all forms exist. It is incumbent upon us to recognise them and play our part in decisively quashing them. The bottom line is, one cannot be a true ally if he doesn’t appreciate the value of inclusivity and diversity. We might be privileged by virtue of birth or gender. While we appreciate that privilege, we should from time to time reflect on the rights which we take for granted, though denied the less privileged folks. We need to apply our minds to how we could best take advantage of our privilege, not to widen the gap between us and the less privileged, but to narrow it by using our privilege and voice to support others. In so doing, our target must be to achieve impactful change for the benefit of the marginalised. Uncoerced and uncompelled by improprietous opportunism, we should, out of choice, fight for equality and champion the rights of groups that we do not socially identify with.
To give context, a few examples are in order. One, treatment of marginalised employees at work. All male employees should show genuine interest in career progression of their female co-workers. In some toxic workplaces, female employees face undue prejudice. They are often belittled and unnecessarily interrupted by their male colleagues and bosses. We may not be party to this, but our failure to call out such toxicity will render us complicit. If we sense that our female colleagues are oppressed, slighted for no good reason, or their contribution is deliberately ignored, we cannot just watch, as if we are part of an audience in a theatre. No.
We must be observant and decisively act on destructive behaviour. We should combat this unfortunate conduct by noticing when our female colleagues are at the receiving end of unprovoked aggression, provocative body language or unconstructive verbal assaults. Whenever someone tries to steal the thunder from a colleague, we should point that out and forthrightly attribute the credit to the deserving person.
That is the spirit of solidarity, and this is what builds a work culture of inclusivity. It is this culture that is often instrumental to the build-up of strong, cohesive, and productive teams in an environment that is fair, diverse, and inclusive. A workplace where employees revel in consistently hitting targets that are crucial to success.
Two, sexual harassment at work. The psychological manipulation and the physical violation that go along with this place a disproportionate and heavy emotional burden on female employees. Male employees must recognise that owing to their gender, most of them will remain privileged in that they will never be harassed by their female co-workers for sexual favours. In this regard, innocent male employees tarnish their innocence if they choose to be silent observers to the harassment of their female colleagues. If we are compromised, we should dig ourselves out of that rut forthwith. By our acts of omission, we render ourselves, whether consciously or subconsciously, undignified accomplices and compromised collaborators. Rather than watch from a distance while our colleagues suffer, we should proactively fight injustice and ensure that sufficient protection is accorded all by means of implementable policies that would hold offending male colleagues to account.
Actions speak much louder than words and it would never be enough to post words that reflect aversion for bad behaviour while our actions say something totally different. It is important for senior management to rally all troops, at all levels of the workforce, to frequently give them feedback, with a view to decisively acting against sexual harassment. Where fear of victimisation exists, a toll-free number should be dedicated to reporting improper conduct in anonymous settings. Once that is done, internal investigations must be kickstarted and offending parties must never be protected.
Two, illegal immigrants. The spirit of allyship has no room for xenophobic tendencies. We should appreciate that illegal immigrants are humans as well, and all human rights that we enjoy, must also be extended to them. In most cases, these people have chosen to live in our country as economic refugees. Their intention is not to bother us. They are happy to put in a day’s work, almost every day, and they must be compensated appropriately for that. Some of our compatriots have taken undue advantage of these people.
Their language is normally inhumane, and they often pay these folks far less than the agreed amounts banking on the fact that out of fear for being deported, the illegal immigrants would shy away from reporting them to the authorities. This defies all the norms of allyship. May we all objectively assess ourselves with a view to rising to the level of allyship.