Anti-racist allyship in the age of social media: Emma Dabiri’s What White People Can Do Next

Updated: Sep 12, 2021

With the regular appearance of the Black Lives Matter movement in the news and media over the past year, many people began to turn their attention toward what they do in order to support and help the black community. Emma Dabiri is an Irish-Nigerian author, academic and broadcaster, best known for her acclaimed book Don’t Touch My Hair - so the release of another brilliantly engaging piece of work from her was welcomed.

But whilst some were eager to hear from Dabiri again, others expressed concerns over the potential exploitation by commercial publishers of the self-reflection prompted by the BLM movement. Dabiri provides a critique of the ‘anti-racist genre’ in her book, as well as shedding light on the problematic nature of the social media economy in relation to race and racism.

What White People Can Do Next, published in early 2021, is a kind of educational tool-kit against racism. Drawing on years of academic research and personal experience, Dabiri encourages her readers to challenge themselves and others, with the hope and intention of instigating and inspiring meaningful and sustained change. By touching on issues such as ‘white privilege,’ the relationship between racism and capitalism, and the importance of education, Dabiri places those difficult conversations with colleagues, friends and family members at the heart of what it means to be anti-racist.

In her book, Dabiri is particularly critical of the notion of ‘allyship’, arguing that it often provokes too much of a pity-driven approach by white people towards members of the black community. She also spends time addressing the problems with social media activism and performative allyship, particularly in relation to ‘hashtag activism’.

Many people will remember the infamous ‘Blackout Tuesday’ in June 2020, back in the depths of the first national lockdown, mere days after George Floyd’s murder. Though intended to be a symbol of solidarity with members of black, minority ethnic and oppressed groups, much of the world became angry at such a meaningless display, if those posting a black square were re-creating an image of allyship but not doing the important work in their daily lives to educate themselves and others, and to call out racism when they observe it.

Dabiri’s work reminded me, on numerous occasions, that the most important work in the fight against racism is challenging it in our day-to-day lives, especially with the people we are closest to. The digital age has highlighted the danger of Instagram infographics in pretty colours, with a consensus fearing that anti-racism is becoming a social media trend, rather than a movement focused on serious and meaningful efforts at creating change.

A key takeaway from Dabiri’s work is her emphasis on the duty of white people to educate themselves, and to go out there and learn. It is not the role or responsibility of the black community to teach their white counterparts how to behave, nor about the histories of racism - it is exhausting enough to be a victim of racial persecution. So read Dabiri’s work, and read as much as you can about how to educate yourself and others on the past legacy and present manifestations of racism. The very least we can do is work to learn and understand, so that we can actually do something about it.

Evie is an English Literature undergraduate at UCL, and an avid reader and book-worm. Alongside her work in Holocaust Education, she loves to write about books as a way into better understanding current affairs and contemporary issues. She is currently serving as Publications Manager at Yet Again, and President of Pi Media, UCL’s student publication.

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