Since the non-indictment of Darren Wilson and the increased visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s been a lot of dialogue about how white folks ought to act as protesters and organizers, especially with respect to how white activists dominate space during actions. Part of being white in the United States means getting to believe that it’s one’s inherent right to be dominant at all times. This belief is so pervasive throughout our culture that it often plays out in explicitly anti-racist protests, actions, and organizing spaces. Though many white activists come from a place of genuinely wanting to effect change, the culture around white social justice activism makes it easy for white folks to keep the spotlight on themselves.
Being involved with planning and events and carrying out high-profile actions is glamorous, doing behind the scenes logistics or shitwork is not. Nor is it glamorous to step out of the spotlight and change diapers or do dishes or skip the POC dance party or otherwise decentralize one’s own experience. This may be why, when white allies decide that an event or collective needs fewer white people or more POC, they often take steps to exclude white people while excepting themselves by virtue of being “allies”.
Within the Slingshot Collective, which is at the moment largely (but not entirely) white, there’s been a lot of conversation about constructive ways for white people to support Black Lives Matter. Some of us have encountered fliers at protests with suggested “protocols and principles” for white activists, but many of these fliers read more as a list of “don’t”s than a list of “do”s. To that effect, I’d like to offer an alternative, somewhat more fleshed out list of suggestions:
When gaining awareness of the history of oppression, it is common for white folks to react with feelings of guilt. Although this is an understandable way to feel, such emotions in and of themselves do not contribute to struggling against oppression, and often paralyze people from doing anything productive, especially when folks feel the need to process such emotions during a planning meeting or action. If you’re really struggling with feelings of guilt, try processing them with a therapist or trusted friends, outside of the meetings and actions.
Be a good listener. When you speak, speak in your own voice – not for other people – and make room for other folks to speak as well. Stepping back doesn’t mean never speaking at all – it means speaking with self-awareness and consideration of others’ desires to be heard.
Don’t be afraid of messiness and difficult emotions. Rather than focusing on our fears of imperfection, we could embrace our own imperfect humanity and accept that we’re going to make mistakes, we’re going to get confused, and we’re going to feel uncomfortable. Acknowledge your mistakes, make an effort to do better, and move on.
Be honest with yourself about what you don’t know. As white people, there are times when we’ll be approaching solidarity with an outsider perspective – this isn’t inherently “bad”, it just needs to be acknowledged.
Avoid making sweeping assumptions about groups of people and their “leaders”. Following the leadership of people of color often assumes that POC are a monolithic group that all share the same goals, politics, and leaders. If an organized group of “white allies” wishes to seek out guidance, they have to make a decision on which POC are worth listening to, whose voices they think are most representative or worthy. Rather than assuming the existence of a “leadership”, educate yourself on a variety of perspectives and experiences.
Just because you have white privilege, doesn’t mean that folks of color are helpless and need or want white allies to step in and “lift them up”. None of us are benevolent saviors, and it’s paternalistic to act otherwise.
The phrase “white supremacy” often conjures up images of Nazi skinheads, but the reality is that white supremacy is not an extremist belief. It’s a structural, systemic problem that, beyond underpinning racial privileges and oppressions, universalizes white experiences such that white people do not have to think about the fact that they’re white. It isn’t anyone’s fault that they are born into a white supremacist society, and it also isn’t possible for white people to exempt ourselves from being part of this society, just by claiming “allyship”.
Challenging white supremacy is messy and complicated and all of us are going to fuck up. As white people, we need to get over this. Making mistakes is part of learning and growth and we don’t need to freak out about always saying the right thing or doing the right thing or otherwise being Perfect Non-racist White Activists. It isn’t All About Us. We don’t need to apologize or feel guilty for having privilege, or whine about how we aren’t responsible for privileges we didn’t choose to have, or make a lot of self-righteous noise to prove to everyone how not-racist we are. Ultimately, solidarity isn’t about self-absolution or feeling guilty or trying to prove one’s own benevolence. It’s about acting in support of others’ struggle for liberation out of a sense of shared humanity.