March 1, 2017

How to Be a White Ally to People of Color


Photo Credit: Spike Lee

On Feb. 11, I led a workshop on white allyship at the Athens library. I decided to create this workshop because I couldn't reconcile the words and behaviors of lots of my white friends with their insistence that they were allies to the cause of liberation for all, and specifically black liberation.  

Conversations about racism were constantly being centered around whiteness—i.e., how it makes white people feel, and how it affects them. This behavior became almost unavoidable after the holidays, when most of my white friends were posting #NoDAPL memes and shaming people of color for enjoying the holidays like we always do. The writing was on the wall for my white friends. They couldn't ignore their families’ racism after Trump's election, and they didn't want to face it during their visit home for Thanksgiving.  

Also, they didn't understand—or didn't want to accept—why people of color weren't dreading the holidays (because our families aren't racist), and they certainly weren't here for any talk of how their momentary inconvenience cannot even stand in the shadow of the subjugation and violence that brown communities have faced in America since we stole it from the natives.

I decided to create the workshop when certain white people bucked at the notion that they would be just fine—that this country is theirs, it was made for them, and though their parents are idiots, they'll never suffer under racism, because they can't. There is no space in the conversation about racial justice for the inconvenience of whites, because racial justice is not achieved when the oppressor is accommodated. Black liberation is not contingent on white comfort, and it is way more important than white feelings.

The white people around me did not understand or want to accept this, but they still wanted to call themselves allies. They still wanted to believe that they were active in the struggle, though they did nothing tangible to effect change, and even wanted to silence black voices for the sake of uplifting their own “struggle” of sharing the table with their homophobic aunt. If your goal is to be comfortable, then your goal is not a revolutionary one.

So I created the workshop and hosted it through the Athens Free School. It went great. Everyone who attended was passionate and proactive while still possessing the humility to take correction and let their activism and allyship be led by the group that they want to support.

I wanted to do this workshop because white people have power in ways they're not even aware of, and of course with great power comes great responsibility. If they're serious about helping, then they should know how. Racism is an American disaster, a social construct as destructive and deadly as a flood, and when people go to provide disaster relief, they don't just hit the ground running or lay about claiming they're working when they're actually not. They allow the people already present and working with that struggle to point them to the areas that need the most help. They take direction and coordinate their actions to maximize their effect. Studying up on your whiteness and how it can contribute to liberation is the same thing. You don't get to just call yourself allies anymore, white people. It's a specific role, and it's a label that you must earn.

I want to thank everyone who attended my workshop, as well as everyone who wanted to come but either couldn't make it or couldn't register in time. I'll be hosting more, but I can't provide any solid dates for a while. The experience was touching, fulfilling and energizing, but it was also triggering, depressing and exhausting. Spending months reading about problems in racial justice is enough of a bummer, and fielding racists and trolls on social media didn't help at all. And let's not forget the people who aren't trolling at all, but are just so incapable of introspection that talking to a brick wall is more effective.  

It's not the job of a community in grief to teach their oppressors how to be better people, though I'm glad I took the initiative to do this, because I really do think that the pale, crunchy, pseudo-hippie masses of Athens are in desperate need of guidance on this issue. Some of us would rather eat MDMA with swarthy tokens at burner gatherings than do the real work of racial justice, and that's just as well. But there'll be more white ally workshops in the future, and you're invited.