Latest posts by Neva Newcombe (see all)
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Salutations to the white people reading this to assure themselves they’re doing all the right things. Unless you’ve been living in an arctic cave or perhaps suburban Connecticut, you’ve probably noticed the disturbing spike in racial violence, particularly anti-black violence, over the past two years. With this spike has come a growing number of white individuals declaring themselves allies with the black community. I am one of them.
This declaration is positive, but incomplete. The idea that centuries of racist atrocities can be undone by tweeting #BlackLivesMatter and calling it a day is empty. However, even when white allies are more engaged in the fight for racial justice, there are lots of things we can do, say, and think that aren’t helpful, and are even racist themselves. The items below are not ultimate guidelines for being a white ally, but rather highlight where the white ally community is currently falling short. These ideas come from writings by people of color and conversations with people of color about the gaps in white allyship.
1. The first thing, which seems almost too obvious to mention, is that white allies must acknowledge that racism is not a series of isolated incidents. Racism is systemic and therefore shapes all of our lives and perspectives, even if we think we are “one of the good ones.” The recent police killings are awful incidents of racism, as was transatlantic slavery, but that’s not all racism is. To help fight racial inequality, we must acknowledge and address the racism in our own lives. As a white ally, you are not limited to reacting only when black people are subjected to violence very visibly and publicly. Moments of crisis do not need to be the catalyst. Everyday racism, often referred to as micro-aggressions, is a real and detrimental form of discrimination we must all strive not to participate in.
2. It is essential to recognize that we have white privilege. If you are unfamiliar with white privilege, it’s the set of advantages granted to you within the racial structure solely because you are white.
I’ve seen numerous white people claim that because they experience other hardships, such as being poor, they couldn’t possibly have privilege. The twin pillar of racism is economic injustice, but we musn’t use class issues to trump race issues and avoid the racism conversation.
3. We need to make sure we don’t make it all about us. Growing up in a white supremacist society has led white people to believe, however subconsciously, that our experiences, thoughts, and opinions are paramount. Even after declaring alliance with people of color, this belief can surface. Sometimes, in poorly calculated acts of alliance, white allies will wrongfully insert themselves into the struggle of people of color.
Using the hashtag #AllLivesMatter is another example, but that is falling out of popularity among misguided white allies and being picked up by GOP candidates. Additionally, the white voices dominating certain protests, like this one in the Bay Area, are out of place in a conversation that centers around black grievances. Our energy as allies needs to go towards lifting up the voices of black leaders, and listening to what they say they need. Speaking of which…
4. Do not try to tell people of color what they need. This is an issue I’ve noticed a lot among white people, both well-meaning and hostile. Politicians and news anchors have a habit of criticizing black culture and black individuals under the pretext of trying to lift them out of oppressive conditions that people like themselves imposed in the first place. However, even allies occasionally act in a similarly didactic manner. This is yet another subtle way that white people use their privilege to demean and govern black people. Shockingly, nobody understands the intricate struggles of people of color better than people of color, so whatever solutions or advice we imagine we have for them are incomplete and gratuitous.
5. African-American vernacular English is a very real dialect, but it’s not ours. While this concept is very specific, it’s at the center of the white allyship. African-American Vernacular English, or AAVE, is a dialect of the English language, just like Cockney or the New York dialect. We grow up being told this dialect is unprofessional, lower class, and an indication of lower intelligence. In other words, “little kids are told they better not speak that if they want to succeed in the world.” That’s some good old fashion blatant bigotry right there. The dialect someone speaks is no indication of the content of their character or their mind. Because white people have tyrannized this country for so long, our dialect (and I’m referring to General American here) is the one many people in power speak, and therefore is seen as the “right” one. AAVE is an equally valid and rich manner of speaking, yet I see white allies look down on those who speak it. They’ll make a passive aggressive citation of Dr. King and block out the voices of black people who speak AAVE. This kind of abhorrent ignorance has no place in the racism conversation.
Yet the flip side of the coin is that AAVE does not belong to white people, and to speak it is appropriative. We as white people are never familiar enough with the African American experience to take their dialect.
6. In a similar vein, we don’t get to decide what kind of black lives deserve our attention. Black lives matter. All of them. However, many more black lives are taken in acts of racist violence than hashtags trend on twitter. There is a tendency in the media when someone dies to explain exactly why they didn’t deserve to. Either they were a good kid, or they were on their way to college, or they were a father of three. These narratives humanize victims of racial violence, though often they’re not quite so positive. We see headlines days later with phrases like “thug” and “criminal record” and “THC found in her system.” But both positive and negative narratives have unsettling implications. Black lives are inherently valid. They don’t need kids to earn the right to breathe, nor a college degree, nor a bright future. In fact, some murders don’t get any coverage when they occur, often the murders of black trans people, uneducated black people, and mentally ill black people. These lives are deemed so inconsequential that their deaths get no attention at all. Where was the hype for Elisha Walker, Troy Robinson, or Maximo Rabasa? This thought doesn’t just apply to murders either. Some white allies have a tendency to only appear from the woodwork when there’s a death, and others only when they meet or hear about a black person they deem respectable. So, as Rebecca Carroll, op-ed writer for the guardian said:
“When you are on the subway and you see young black people talking loudly, expressing themselves and letting off steam, realize they see you looking at them, clutching your bag, passing quiet judgement you likely don’t even know you’re passing.”
Those black lives matter, and we as white allies cannot wait until they are summarized in hashtags to acknowledge that.
7. We must educate ourselves. Do not think that your innate wisdom or some personal experience has prepared you for a discussion. Read something before trying to engage in a conversation, preferably written by a person color. Learn before you speak, seriously. It’s all right to say you aren’t informed enough to have an opinion– in fact, that’s probably the case most of the time.
8. Our most important work is talking to other white people. In a interview that went viral last year, Chris Rock pointed out, “To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before … That’s not black progress. That’s white progress.” White people inflicted the gaping racial wound in this country, and every day white people reopen it. People of color don’t need our misplaced dogmatism, and they don’t need us to save them. Brittney Cooper, co-founder of the Crunk Feminist Collective, cautioned “Too frequently, white allies think we are asking them to come into our communities to affirm our account of racist acts and structures.” In reality, we need to enter our own communities, which is far more difficult. White allies must use their privilege to talk to other white people about racism. Challenge each other, dismantle each others biases, and call each other out. Oh, and on last thing…
9. We don’t get a cookie for not being racist. Nobody owes you anything for not being a jerkbucket. Just like you don’t owe someone sex for being polite to you, people of color don’t owe you friendship, praise, or snickerdoodles for being a white ally. It’s basic decency.
Luckily, you can make your own. Congratulations on being a marginally better white ally.