Understanding the role of allyship

by Micaela Briscoe

The abandonment of privilege will help society to reach racial harmony 

Location: UK
Published: Tuesday 18 October 2022
Micaela Briscoe

Allyship has been brought to the forefront of the public consciousness in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, and being an ally is integral to the promise of the ‘Time for Change: Action Not Words’ theme of this year's Black History Month.

The discourse around allyship appears to revolve around how to be an effective ally without addressing the issue of white colleagues committing performative acts that make them feel better without changing the underlying problem.

This constant focus is brought about by the tension between applying an abstract theory and implementing it in reality. Namely, is the application of allyship only making it seem like everyone is working together, or are white colleagues taking concrete steps to look at their privilege?

The battle between these two concepts has been readily exposed by many – from Grace Barrett’s Cosmopolitan article How to be a better ally for the Black community, which offers tips on being a better ally, to Kelsey Smoot’s opinion piece in The Guardian, White people say they want to be an ally to Black people. But are they ready for sacrifice? which questions the resolve of white people to move away from simple, kind platitudes to dismantling the structures in their lives that reinforce inequality between themselves and black people.

A glaring lacuna between these two states is the emphasis on why white colleagues should care about being an ally to black people. Without this underlying reasoning, it is easier for white colleagues to make do with the simple measures that exasperated Smoot.

Only when this is fully understood can the next steps to completely dismantle the structures that uphold racism in black people’s daily lives be actioned effectively.

Martin Niemöller’s confessional prose ‘First They Came’ eloquently conceptualises the moral case to pursue justice:

    First they came for the Communists

    And I did not speak out

    Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists

    And I did not speak out

    Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists

    And I did not speak out

    Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews

    And I did not speak out

    Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me

    And there was no one left

    To speak out for me

Niemöller sequentially explores the consequences of inaction by not speaking out against injustices to the communists, then the socialists, the trade unionists, the Jews, and then, finally, himself. Injustice in one area does not mean the same injustice will not spread to your life. Understanding the importance of allyship is intrinsically linked to the fact that injustice affects all of us eventually.

So, in light of the consequences outlined by Niemöller, concrete action must be taken to ensure equity for all. If not, it will be disastrous for the individual, and by extension the whole of society. Allyship is therefore a key component in white people’s engagement in the struggle to dismantle racism.

True allyship means shedding one’s privilege – no matter how difficult that may be – to ensure a harmonious society can be achieved, as emphasised by Smoot.

Ultimately, allyship is one step on the long road to a just society.


Micaela Briscoe is a fifth year medical student and BMA South West regional council member