This nation is once again at a turning point on racial relations in this country. We have definitely been here before. But as many have observed, we see more support from white allies than we have seen in the past. To make sure we are on par with Black folks’ full and authentic liberation in this country, we must be sure to leave the master’s tools behind.
A pandemic and the murders of George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, and Ahmaud Aubrey, have once again forced this nation to reckon with race and engage with the movement for Black Lives. We are now in a moment of statements of solidarity, increased funding for BlackLivesMatter and other Black-led organizations, protests, demands for divestment in police funding. Civic leaders in both parties join the conversation, condemning police brutality, shouting demands for police accountability. Last but definitely not least, white allies are showing up in new and expanded ways.
What is an ally?
According to Webster’s Dictionary, an ally is; “one that is associated with another as a helper: a person or group that provides assistance and support in an ongoing effort, activity, or struggle.”
Emphasis on; “who expresses or gives support to that group.”
This past Sunday, ABC News aired an episode of its series, Turning Point Project on Race. During a series of interviews, a Black business owner was asked what is different about the protests now than Ferguson’s rallies in 2014 when Michael Brown was murdered by Officer Darren Wilson. She responded, “more white people are involved.”
Whites getting involved is certainly not a new phenomenon. And in the Movement for Black Lives, allies are welcomed but with conditions. However, as with all spaces where white people “enter” or “get involved,” the struggle with what it means to “express or give support to” marginalized groups continues to elude well-intentioned white people.
Enter — culture
As an anti-racist educator and consultant, I engage groups of people (BIPOC and non-BIPOC) in conversations on race, privilege, whiteness, and culture. Of all these topics, culture is the area that is most nuanced for me. And it is often the topic that gets glazed over quickly in DEI training. In my view, culture needs to be explored more thoughtfully and more deeply.
Culture is defined as; “the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.” In other words: the way we do things. We share this definition during training and ask participants to reflect on what defines their culture. Responses include; food, expectations, morals, dress, and other characteristics. These examples speak to prominent representations of culture. However, a less obvious element demands our attention.
I am referring to the cultural elements related to notions of ownership, dominance, power, deficiency, which we believe has the authority, and who we believe has the right to autonomy. All of which may influence how allies enter and exist Black centered spaces.
As I mentioned in the beginning, the pandemic and recent murders of Black bodies — which are deeply rooted in anti-Blackness — have galvanized a new wave of allyship in the movement. While non-Black folks are invited to join us in demanding our collective liberation, all of us must pay attention to how whiteness shows up in these spaces.
So how do whiteness, anti-blackness, and allyship intersect?
Before I share my opinion, it is essential to note that this piece’s focus is to discuss areas that fall outside of the political arena. In particular, one place is initiatives designed to prioritize and uplift the Black community with intentionality. This intentionality manifests itself by allocating funding and other resources to create equity for Black business owners, students, residents, and others in the Black community. This investment attempts to rectify systemic disparities that adversely impact BIPOC. These initiatives aim to center people of color in their approach and maybe led by well-intentioned white folks standing against oppression. Uncovering the health disparities in the pandemic and recent murders of Black bodies by police officers and citizens has triggered white allies to do something. We understand and appreciate the gesture. We also need white allies to check and monitor how they engage to not do more harm.
When Can Allyship Problematic?
In my opinion, allyship can be problematic when allies bring less visible white culture elements to the movement. In some cases, these elements show up as the need to be in charge and speak for others. I understand that white people are now aware and empathetic to the movement for Black Lives. I also appreciate and welcome invitations which ask, “what can I do.” I do not welcome and do not understand why a white ally has to take the lead. I also need white allies to deconstruct their culture before taking on responsibility for eradicating anti-blackness.
I believe it is necessary to deconstruct white culture because, at its root, it is anti-Black. And this shows up in very nuanced and subtle ways that can be missed. Further, a white ally cannot grow in authentic allyship without being open to understanding how their culture is rooted in anti-Blackness. And this cannot be undone by attending training, reading a book, and regurgitating your new-found woke(ness) on podcasts. None of these actions fully dismantle white culture.
White culture shows up as leading efforts for Black people without consulting them. White culture shows up by denying access to Black bodies and Black voices you disagree with when their Blackness does not fit your vision of “diversity and inclusion.” Further, white culture shows up by believing you have the privilege to decide how you will serve as an ally to a marginalized group. White culture shows up when “diversity and inclusion” as a core value — really means that white folks lead and Black folks follow.
These are just a few ways in which white culture, anti-blackness, and allyship intersect. And while there are many others, they all fall within a central theme: white folks needing to be in the front of an initiative, leading it, or controlling it somehow. And the belief they are “supporting a marginalized group” by embodying one of these roles. I don’t believe this an authentic allyship.
A colleague and mentor often remind me about the denial of agency across the Black American experience. And the more I hear that expressed, the more I have become aware that we are bringing the master’s tools to the house we are trying to build even in the moment of increased allyship. If you look at the Black experience in America, there will be a consistent theme: Black folks’ lack of autonomy and agency to decide for themselves how they will freely exist. Even now, at this turning point on race relations, we could be once again repeating the same patterns which are counter-intuitive to the liberation of Black bodies.
As the ecosystem of race reckoning evolves and more hands come on deck for the movement, I believe attention must be paid to the subtleties of race and culture that are often missed by allies. And some Black folks are fatigued with being the racial consciousness of this nation. Therefore we need white allies to pay attention to themselves, deconstruct their own culture, and disconnect themselves from the anti-Black behaviors when they show up for us. Nothing you do for us should be without us, even if you are not the one steering the ship.