It is truly inspiring to see the number of white people who were previously disconnected from the Black Lives Matter movement are now seeking an understanding of the deep history of racialized police brutality in America. Racism is a white problem so it is white America’s to solve within their own communities and structures. I know the reflective process of recognizing one’s privilege, especially white privilege, is layered, profound, and downright challenging so I want to acknowledge those who are choosing to do that imperative work.
However, with this groundswell of interest in allyship, there is some advice I would like to offer white people who are now entering this chat room.
Do not expect consistent gold stars from Black people for doing work that you should have been doing. I understand the excitement around this new level of “woke” you have unlocked and it might be tempting to contact your nearest Black person to let them know all the things you’ve learned and what you are doing to support the movement. Bear in mind that seeing racism is not new to Black people. We’ve been living this all the days of our Black lives. Your eagerness to talk to us about it comes across as: “Wow! I just learned all of this brand new information despite it being available for centuries! Let me tell you all of the ways white people have oppressed you as if you don’t already know!” If you want to discuss all of your latest discoveries, do not assume that every Black person is comfortable speaking to you about their oppression. This is a very personal and sensitive topic for us. One reason it may feel like we are so open to talking about our trauma is because we have to be vocal in order for anything to change. Instead, talk to other white people. They are the ones that really need that information.
I would also like to remind you that you are not performing anti-racist work to get credit, you are doing it because this is what you are supposed to do as a decent human being. I don’t believe in congratulating a fish for swimming. It has always been your responsibility to dismantle the foundation of white supremacy that built this nation. Again, white people started and still benefit from this mess so it is yours to clean. You don’t need your neighborhood Black person to shower you with gratitude for finally recognizing the reality of white supremacy. If you find yourself upset or discouraged when a Black person doesn’t thank you for your newfound wokeness, ask yourself why you expect that praise in the first place. You don’t deserve credit for not being racist.
It helps to consider your motivation for allyship. Black people have been dying at the hands of law enforcement since the founding of this country. Why now are you motivated to act? None of this is new so what took you this long to get here? Do you truly believe Black people are being treated unjustly or are you feeling pressured to march and post on social media to assuage your own guilt or prove you’re not racist? Are you worried if you don’t participate that you will be on the wrong side of history? Do you want to be able to tell your grandchildren that in the historic year of 2020 you were “on the front lines”? In today’s cancel culture, are you concerned what your reputation will be if you don’t feign an interest in anti-racism? If your motivations are in any way self-serving, you are not an ally. One mistake many white people make is centering themselves and their feelings in a conversation that should focus on the experiences of Black Americans. Remember that this is not about you.
As others have said, I am also concerned about the stamina of white people to run this race. Advocating for racial equality is not a sprint. For the Black community, it has been an ongoing relay and we have been passing the baton through the generations to make collective progress. Right now, you have this fire ignited by your recent revelation that Black Americans are being systematically murdered by law enforcement. What are you doing to ensure that flame doesn’t die? When Black America says we are tired, you will never fully comprehend how consuming and debilitating that generational exhaustion is. To quote James Baldwin, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” No matter how enraged Black people are, we do not have the ability to take a break or check out of the race conversation. That is white privilege. You have the opportunity to disengage from this discourse whenever you choose and go back to living your “normal” life. Every single day I am reminded that I am Black. Being Black impacts my daily behavior and decisions. What happens when you, white ally, get tired of this? What happens when it becomes burdensome to constantly be reminded of race?
I encourage white allies to ask yourselves how long you are willing to keep this energy. You can pat yourself on the back for walking in a couple of marches and posting a black square on Instagram but, a year from now, are you still going to be looking to advance your knowledge of Black issues? Will you still check up on your Black friends? Will you make permanent changes to include more Black voices in your staff and make your workplace more inclusive? Will your company continue to make public statements in support of the Black community? Will you make recurring donations to the nonprofit organizations that support Black people? Will you speak out against microaggressions in the office, in your friend group, in your own home even if Black people aren’t around to know about it?
Allyship is an action word, not simply a state of belief. Just as many white people thought racism was solved with a vote for Obama, centuries of oppression cannot be overcome in one summer. Black Lives Matter is not a trend that you can try out and toss aside like a “Don’t Rush” transformation video. Real social change comes from sustained commitment and I anticipate the trendiness of the protest will pass for many of you. There will come a day in which it will no longer “feel good” to stand up for Black people. Will you give up and retreat back to your life of blissful ignorance? As you embark on this journey that Black people have been walking since 1619, prepare yourselves mentally and physically to go the distance. Otherwise, your social media performative allyship is hollow at best and detrimental at its worst.