"As a white person, how can I be a better ally, without, like, speaking on behalf of people of colour?"
Down to the pauses, and the "like," I have gotten this question down to a science. It has been burned into my brain. And though it comes out slightly different each time (some don't use the "like", some use more "likes", some take longer or more frequent pauses, taking forever to get to the point,) they all return to the same place: "How do I be a better white ally?"
After a recent event, where that question was presented to me for the third time in less than a week, a friend and colleague of mine and I walked to a quiet space after speaking on a panel together. We walked back casually with smiles on our faces - as the event did go well, and we did enjoy ourselves- and as the door closed behind us while we entered the room we instantly dropped our shoulders and our smiles and at once, both said similar variations of the same thing: "if I get asked this question ONE more mothafuckin time!"
From workshops, to panels, to conferences, the question I receive most often, no matter where I speak, is a white person wondering how they can do better in fighting against racism. And I know it never fails to get asked just as many times, if not more, to my fellow black activists and educators. So I made a small list. Not only as a way to help answer this question for curious white folks, but also, and more importantly, to take some of the burden off of those who are constantly confronted with this question. So here it is. Want to be a better white ally for me? Here are a few ways to start.
1) Do. The. Work.
Racism isn't a mess that should be left to racialized people to clean up. Hell, it isn't even a mess that we made in the first place. You want to be helpful? Do the work. Start actively finding ways to dismantle white supremacy, unlearning your own problematic ways, and take the time to learn about things you never knew, or just don't quite understand yet in regards to race and racism. Don't leave all that labour to us to do for you.
2) Decolonize Your Mind
White supremacy is incredibly powerful, and intentional, and runs so deeply throughout our society and the systems we live in. Being born into white privilege isn't something you can control as a white person. But what you choose to do with that privilege, is.
You also- and this is very important, so pay close attention- can’t engage in other isms while claiming to care about racism. You must decolonize your mind from homophobia, transphobia, ableism, sexism, xenophobia, and any other form of discrimination. Because if you’re only willing to stand up for certain black lives, then you’re missing the point entirely. And if that's the case, then I don’t want your “allyship.”
3) Be Willing to Give up Real Privilege
Don't forget, being down for the cause means you actually have to be willing to deal with what that entails. The first part in being a great ally is recognizing how much privilege you actually have, then being confident in your ability to have to let some of that go. You don't serve enough purpose to white supremacy as a white person who genuinely wants to dismantle racism. And that might come with - even the most insidious forms of- rejection. But think of it this way, what's the worst that could happen? You get treated like a person of colour? Ha..ha...am I right??
4) Collect Your People!
Call them out. Be responsible. Because I am no longer the one. If you invite me over for dinner, knowing your racist aunt will be there, and instead of defending me you wait for me to go off on her, then that is not allyship, or even real friendship. You placed me into an uncomfortable, potentially dangerous situation, and if God forbid I stand up for myself I'll be the "angry black woman" in a matter of seconds.
It is safer, and makes more sense for you to confront other other white people when you recognize their racist behaviour. Now it might seem like quite the burden to have that kind of responsibility. Trust me, I get it. But remember, people of colour are always held accountable for what few people in the entire race do.
5) Don’t be Comfortable With Subtle Racism
Most white people I know are quite friendly. They smile at me. Are willing to stick up for me if I was in a dangerous situation. And as far as I know, aren’t KKK members. But the thing is, being silent in the face of racism might not be intentionally contributing to it, but you certainly aren't taking away from it either. The racist jokes you hear friends say in the locker room, the comments your parents or grandparents make about the person of colour they encountered in the grocery store today. Shut it all down before you unintentionally give it more room to grow.
6) Don’t Speak on Behalf of Us
Simple. As. That.
7) Value Lived Experience
In my workshops I've gotten questions over the years like "what anti-racism model do you use?" and "is there a statistic for this?" (after telling an entire story that is a personal experience of mine.) And while I understand it is important to have as much information as possible as an educator. It is necessary to pull from theories, and books, and films, and articles, But the reality is, no matter how long you've spent with your head in the textbook, nothing will ever trump lived experience. A white woman could have a masters degree in race studies, with a focus on anti-black racism. She could likely tell me more about the geographic history of my people, the wars we've lived through, the genocides that have taken place. But she could never tell me how it feels to move through this world in a black body. And that's the difference.
8) Don’t Tokenize Us
Don’t use your one black activist friend as your 24/7 encyclopedia. Just like sway, they don’t have all the answers. Being black isn’t the same experience for everyone. And while some will certainly be happy to be that point of contact, at least just ask.
And of course, the more obvious meaning of the word, don't tokenize us in your dating and/or friend circles. Tokenizing someone based on their skin means that all you see in them is the stereotypes that you expect of them based on your preconceived notions of that race.
9) Don’t Ever Tell Us How We “Should” Feel/React
Our anger is valid. But our calmness, even in really shitty moments, is just as valid. Understand that when it comes to code switching, we are ninjas. We know how to act accordingly in certain spaces for our own safety. You encouraging me to rage because a white girl in the club said the N word isn’t helpful. That could be a potentially dangerous situation for me, especially in a club filled with people who don’t look like me. So, ally, if that’s how you feel, then this would be the time where you step in.
10) Don't Ask This Question
Okay, it is a good question and I do believe that it comes from a genuine place. So when I say to not ask this question I don't mean stop learning new ways to be a better ally, or stop asking racialized people what they need, or how to be useful in anti-racism work. What I mean is don’t take up space with this. Or at the very least, before coming to an event and asking this, do your research. Read articles, blog posts, listen to podcasts. It goes back to the importance of doing the work and not continuing to put the responsibility solely on people of colour. Think about it this way, anti-racism work requires the dismantling of white supremacy, so for you, as a white ally, take time to ask yourself the question: how can you be a better ally? Because the truth is, you have more access to dismantling white supremacy from within than we do from outside.