Amid the tumult of the last few months, we’re forced to consider an important question: Where to next? In Part II of our three-part series ‘Evolution,’ we consider white allyship and what it means to Black lives.
A wise woman once said, “When we’re marching and protesting and posting about the Michael Browns Jrs. and the Atatiana Jeffersons of the world, tell your friends to pull up.” That astute woman was Rihanna during her acceptance speech for the President’s Award at the 2020 NAACP Image Awards in February as she called on our colleagues, partners and friends of different races and backgrounds to join the fight. I’m with her.
Black people and people of color have been on the front lines of social activism for decades because our lives depend on it. We are in the trenches, fighting against a power structure that inflicts the horrors of death and the systemic dismantling and disinvestment of entire communities on a race of people.
When the cameras are gone and the headlines have been replaced, Black people will still be demanding equality for ourselves and others. Now is not the time to allow desensitization to seep in and fill the racial gap that divides us.
Fueling the flames
The current uprisings happening in protest to police brutality against African Americans have cracked this nation open to the core. Racial injustice has been exposed again. These experiences are not new for most Black Americans, but now, the world is tuned in.
This could be the result of a pandemic that has forced us all to be still. Within 24 hours of George Floyd’s death, protestors mobilized in 12 U.S. cities and then grew to hundreds of thousands of people protesting in more than 2,000 cities across the world. This time, the cry seems louder. But for Black people it remains the same – Black Lives matter.
The massive protest of multiracial crowds standing in solidarity against injustice is a powerful visual. In a political climate determined to further a dangerous racial divide, this is important. In a December 2017 Pew Research Center survey, 60% of participants opined that race relations had declined since the election of Donald Trump.
And in a more recent April 2019 survey, the center found that 71% of Black and 60% of Hispanic Americans were more likely than whites (56%) to express negative views about the state of race relations.
As a Black woman who cringed through Jane Elliott’s famous blue eyes versus brown eyes exercise on the Oprah Winfrey show, I admit I’m disappointed but not shook. This misguided perception of superiority is, after all, how inequity is fueled, systemic racism survives and microaggressions grow.
The fight for justice is empowered by people who share the same value in humanity. Systems are changed by those in positions of power. Those power positions in our country are mostly held by whites. A New York Times review of 503 of the most powerful people in American culture, government, education and business found only 44 minorities. That was in 2016. Equity and inclusion haven’t moved this needle much in the past several years, but let’s continue to hope for progress.
There has been much conversation about what it means for non-Black Americans to support Black people’s fight against inequity and racism. This comes on the heels of the health disparities highlighted in COVID-19 cases and deaths, and the most recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. As protests erupted there was a swift show of support across social media. On Instagram alone, millions of #BlackLivesMatter hashtags went up.
On one hand, this is good – awareness is a contributor to progress. A post sharing contact information for legislators, books to read and films to watch, or reminding people to exercise their right to vote show support while elevating the cause. Social media campaigns such as #ShareTheMicNow is another good example. The campaign magnified the voices of Black women on the social media pages of powerful and influential white women, providing them with a larger, mainstream platform and audience.
On the other hand, it could be disruptive. It’s a trendy response. This is not to suggest that people shouldn’t show support. On the contrary, your support is needed. But surface-level activism, also known as performative allyship, is not about the cause – it’s about highlighting the person. We saw this with the #BlackOutTuesday campaign that racked up more than 22 million posts on Instagram.
The allyship of posters who live in contradiction to their support of the Black Lives Matter movement was called into question. They were publicly called out for their egregious behaviors, but the problem is that it becomes a distraction from the cause.
An ally, for this purpose, is someone from a nonmarginalized group who uses their privilege to advocate for those who are marginalized. A debate is brewing around what word should be used to describe this person: ally, co-conspirator, accomplice? Frankly, the word choice is not important. What is important is the action the person puts behind the term.
Allyship can be in support of a group of people like speaking out against racist rhetoric or stepping down from a board to allow a person of color to have a seat at the table. Allyship can mean becoming a physical shield to prevent harm or elevating the work of a minority-owned company.
It’s about exploring what you have to offer to someone else to advance a cause. Sometimes it’s just about listening and educating oneself. Allyship should never minimize the voices of the people who are already doing the work or diminish another’s lived experiences.
What about privilege? Those who benefit from it are largely unaware. For as long as I can remember, privilege has been a part of discussions about finances and access. But in race work, “white privilege” plays a prominent role in conversations about race and biases.
Defined as inherent advantages possessed by a white person on the basis of their race in a society characterized by racial inequality and injustice, it’s clear how white privilege impacts social constructs.
Aya Waller-Bey, a doctoral student of sociology at the University of Michigan, further breaks down how white privilege shows up: “White privilege allows people to exist unchecked, unmarked, unharmed in ways that Black people cannot exist in this space.”
She says, “I think because it is so normative and it’s so blinding until it’s at your front door. That’s part of the privilege, where you are allowed to be disengaged from some of the realities of poor people – Black people – because it does not affect your daily life.”
Have difficult and, sometimes, uncomfortable conversations about racism and inequity. Not enough of those are taking place in constructive ways. The ability to confront these realities today brings us closer to solving the problems tomorrow. And take Rihanna’s advice. Start with the people you break bread with. These topics can be taboo and unintentionally offensive, and you want to be able to speak freely.
Waller-Bey suggests sharing the same resources or information, and then having a focused discussion about that – and making sure that your friend group includes people who bring different experiences to the conversation is critical. The more we understand and accept each other, the better we are as a people.
If you are in a position of privilege, become an active ally. There is historical precedence for allies being instrumental in change and progress. I Googled “how allies can support,” and countless resources turned up. You take it further. Use one of those suggestions, leverage your power and make it happen.
This moment is calling for us all to examine what’s going on around us, to learn and unlearn, to be open to introspection and to be unabashed in our approach to resisting racism as just part of our fabric. But more than that, we have to be anti-racist in our daily lives. I am hopeful.