The events of the past few months–mainly, the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd–have sparked a new wave of outrage and controversy over the issue of individual and systemic racism in America. Or is it really new? The photo currently circulating the internet of a 2015 Time cover says it best. The cover photo, depicting a man running away from a group of cops during a protest against the murder of Freddie Gray, has the headline “America, 1968,” with the 1968 crossed out and replaced with “2015.” The new viral take on the image crosses out the “2015” and instead emblazons “2020” across the front. This image depicts what we all know to be true: These murders and acts of police brutality against black bodies are not at all new, but are only part of a continuous history that America as a country has been founded upon.
As a white woman, it has been difficult to navigate how to best act as an ally for people of color, especially as I’ve been coming of age. Before I continue, I want to acknowledge that this “difficulty” of mine in no way compares to the very real suffering, pain, and difficulty that is living as a black person in America. When I was younger, during my teenage years, my intense negative emotional reaction–the utter disgust, outrage and sense of guilt–that I felt in regard to these violent acts of blatant racism often paralyzed me and led me to do what is probably one of the worst things a white American can do: nothing. I also never wanted to overstep my boundaries as a white woman in a conflict all about race. While this is still an important notion to keep in mind, there’s certainly a difference between “overstepping” and completely staying out of the conflict, the latter of which creates a different, although just as detrimental, form of violence.
As an Individualized major, I have been studying race relations and the black experience through the literature and music of the United States and Latin America since my first semester at UConn. It was through education that I had my first formal introduction to systemic racism (this placid introduction being just another mark of my white privilege): As a child and teenager that always loved reading, I began to wonder why in American literature classes we would hardly ever read works by black authors. Often what would happen is that a Toni Morrison novel would be tacked on to the end of the curriculum almost as an afterthought; I distinctly remember rushing through “The Bluest Eye” in the last few days of my sophomore year of high school before finals. That led me to think about other major issues in our education system: Why had I never formally learned about the Civil War in any history class? I knew about the Civil Rights Movement (and really, only certain aspects) but had no real concept of the Reconstruction period until taking a specialized course in college. I had learned to praise Martin Luther King Jr’s method of nonviolence (with no mention of his intersectional work with race and wealth) while only learning about Malcom X as the “bad” juxtaposition to MLK. This was especially disheartening to me, considering I grew up in the Northeast and was part of a very good public school system.
With all this being said, I think one of the most important things we can do as white allies is to educate ourselves and other white people on the history of race relations in America. I think many people view this “education route” as too passive or as not doing enough to help with the tragedies going on at the current moment, which is understandable and even perhaps correct in some situations. However, the truth of the matter is, if we want to help fight to completely end racism in America (which is quite a job, considering America was founded on racist ideals as well as the economic benefits directly stemming from slavery) we need to change mindsets. In the long run, changing individual mindsets is what will dismantle the entire system, albeit slowly but surely. And the best way to change mindsets is through education and awareness.
Something that’s interesting to think about is how learning black history is, in a way, “optional” for white people: We don’t need to know this history in order to survive in America the way a black person needs to know it, since we benefit from our whiteness in American society. The American education system itself has made this blatantly clear, what with the complete lack of curriculum dedicated to African American history (which should really just be part of American history). Changing the thinking that black history should be “optional,” even if that thinking is subconscious, is just one small step that can end up ultimately making a difference. The best part of self-education is that you don’t need to read stuffy books on the subject (although there are a plethora of amazing, definitely non-stuffy books out there). If you prefer visuals, there are tons of both movies and documentaries that can act as your resources. Even getting information from social media, whether it’s by following the @Blklivesmatter Twitter or reposting a graphic on how to act as an ally on your Instagram, can be beneficial.
I think that sometimes white people that want to be allies can’t see that little acts can ultimately add up and help the cause without making it all about them. When I was younger, I felt like it was “fake” if I merely reposted a photo saying “RIP” to Eric Garner, as an example: It frustrated me because it seemed like I wasn’t actually doing anything, that I was just jumping onto a sort of “fad” to make myself seem better in other people’s eyes and that it would seem as though the next week I had forgotten the whole thing when I posted a picture with my friends (although the later two weren’t true). Lately I’ve had a twofold realization in regard to this: First of all, it’s not about me! This seems so obvious but it’s really true. There’s no need to worry about how I look reposting the link to Color of Change’s petition to arrest Breonna Taylor’s murderers because this has nothing to do with me or my image. It has to do with taking action, demanding justice and spreading this information so others can take part as well, no matter how simple signing a petition or making a small donation may seem.
Reposting actual resources (such as petition links, donation websites, pertinent information, etc) can have another benefit. As a white ally, it’s important to be outspoken and announce that you’re an ally. Again, this is not in order to make yourself look or feel better. Instead, on a personal level, it’s a way to let your black friends and other friends of color know that you are there for them, you see them and most of all, you are going to continue to work alongside them even when things seem to “abate” or “subside” for the time being (aka, the murders of black bodies are no longer on the mainstream news, although they’re still happening). At first an announcement of this sort may seem self-important, going back to the age-old “white savior” trope. However, true allyship has nothing to do with being a white savoir, because a true white ally does not (and understands they cannot) swoop in to “save” black people from their oppression (which is of course caused by whiteness in the first place). Instead, a white ally can merely commit to working and speaking alongside their black counterparts, but never for their black counterparts. I think the Guide to Allyship sums it up best when it breaks down being an ally into four parts. According to the guide, to be an ally is to 1) take on the struggle as your own; 2) stand up, even when you feel scared, 3) transfer the benefits of your privilege to those who lack it and 4) acknowledge that while you, too, feel pain, the conversation is not about you.
Being an ally means listening to black leadership and then using what is said in the conversation to interpret how to spread awareness and take action in your own way. However, being an ally does not mean relying on black leadership to tell you what to do. As allies, we cannot expect black people to tell us the exact actions to take in order to “make things better,” as this is putting an even bigger emotional and mental burden on them. However, by listening to black people, both those in leadership roles and those in our everyday lives, we can interpret and then follow what are the correct next steps to take. And of course, if someone of color on their own merit suggests steps that we as white allies can take, we should most certainly follow suit.
The third step to being an ally according to the Guide to Allyship is of the utmost importance. Sometimes, those that want to be allies may perhaps fleetingly express their acknowledgment of their own white privilege, but truly understanding, accepting and utilizing one’s privilege is key to acting as an ally. Like with black history, educating ourselves on our white privilege is not a quick process but will ultimately have positive repercussions. I know it’s something I still grapple with a lot and need to continue to work on in order to truly understand it and utilize it to the benefit of others. I never want any of my friends of color to think that I think I’m better than them because of the color of my skin, and of course I don’t actually think that. However, there’s a difference between expressing that I think I’m better than them because of my skin color and acknowledging that I do have a better position in American society than them because of my skin color. The latter is extremely important to internalize, express outwardly and then use to one’s advantage as a white ally although it’s uncomfortable.
Color blindness, or the idea of not “seeing” color and instead viewing everyone as “equal,” creates a different although similarly detrimental form of racial violence. Being color blind means that one thinks the problem of racism is basically over, when in reality this couldn’t be further from the truth. I think where white people often get confused about the negative connotations of color blindness is the idea of seeing white and black people as equals. Isn’t that a good thing? They may say. On one hand, the actual basis of equality between black and white people is certainly correct: In no way is a white person morally or physically better than a black person. However, when put into the context of American society, the idea of just saying We’re all equal now! completely ignores the ongoing history of race in America (which goes back to the idea of this history not being taught properly). Black people are not on equal social, political and economic footing as white people in this country. Black people are just as smart or dumb, motivated or lazy, good or bad as white people. This is an inherent difference that is important to understand and ultimately use to one’s advantage as a white ally.
These are just a few of my thoughts on the pursuit of white allyship in racialized America. At the end of the day, I certainly do not have all of the answers or even a majority of them, and I know I’ll only continue to grow, educate myself and reflect on my past thoughts and actions. My only hope is that perhaps some of these thoughts and ideas may strike a chord with a fellow white person, in much the same way that the books I’ve read, movies I’ve watched, posts I’ve seen and conversations I’ve had have struck a chord with me. Also at the end of the day, I’m bound to make many mistakes in my pursuit of white allyship, whether they be accidentally overstepping my boundaries, staying quiet when I should have been loud, speaking as though I have authority on something I really don’t know enough about, or anything in between. However, the main thing I’ve come to understand and accept is that I cannot let my fear of making these mistakes hinder my attempt to do my part as a white ally in order to join the fight in overcoming racism. And when (not if) I make a mistake of this sort, all I can do is acknowledge it, apologize for it, pledge not to make the same mistake again and continue forward. I can only implore my fellow white Americans to do the same.