On paper, I’m sure the answer is yes. If there’s one thing that pains me this election, it’s the stark realization that so many people – people I love, even – voted for Trump despite his racism. Racial tensions have been growing and growing and I’ve been aware, but I didn’t realize how few white allies there really are.
First and foremost, I am a white person speaking to white people, so any opinions I ever express on race come second to the opinions of those who suffer at the hands of racism.
I think it is a pretty common feeling among us white Democrats, that we are horrified at the racism and apathy to racism that elected Donald Trump. As has been said countless times, it’s time for us to band together and protect the vulnerable. If you are horrified by the racism, if that is one of the things lingering with you as it is with me, it’s time to be serious about being a white ally. Becoming an ally requires painful self-reflection. Being effective as an ally requires action.
This is not specific to political party. We liberals want to view ourselves as the party of racial equality, and we are going to have to take some steps if we want to defend that view. These steps are going to come in the form of giving PRIORITY to racial issues, instead of considering them just another part of our “big tent.”
Accept the idea that racism affects every aspect of the lives of non-white people. It is pervasive and ever-present, and you cannot try to banish it from a conversation. That is why it is not a pet issue; that is why we have to embrace it as our own issue if we wish to fully engage anti-racism on a political scale.
What is racism?
The answer seems obvious, but it’s nuanced. Racism lies within the system. That is why reverse racism does not exist. Prejudice is what people are thinking of when they say reverse racism – that a black person is prejudiced against white people, for example. It certainly exists, but is not reflected in the structure of our society.
According to blavity.com (punctuation added for clarity):
In basic terms, racism = prejudice + privilege + power. Prejudice is a preconceived feeling, belief, or emotion against a person of a different ethnic, cultural, economic, religious, spiritual, and/or sexual group. Privilege is an unearned advantage or benefit. Power is the ability to successfully and methodically exert influence. Together, these forces compose racism.
Ergo, racists are part of a system in place. Prejudice matters on an individual basis, but if you don’t know anyone prejudiced against white people, you don’t need to care about it. When you reverse the roles, that prejudice coupled with privilege and power makes that prejudice a very big problem.
When you get someone invoking Affirmative Action as an example of anti-white racism, we have to remember who is in power. You can argue the merits or disadvantages of Affirmative Action, but it does not dismantle the racist structure, which is what would be required to “reverse” the racism. It is simply an example of a salmon swimming upstream.
When people are denying the existence of racism, they are denying that there is a power structure in place catering to one race over others. If you want to consider yourself anti-racist, you are 1) acknowledging that this power differential exists and 2) acknowledging that you, as a white person, benefit from it.
If you cannot admit that the structure exists, it’s going to be difficult to be an ally.
I acknowledge! Now what?
Allyship cannot be had if the sole intention is gaining votes. Rather, it must prioritize the intention of living up to what we believe ourselves to be: the party of equality and diversity. Let go of any desire for personal gain; racial equality will help you indirectly, but you cannot let go of that principle if it doesn’t gain your party votes, or affect you more quickly.
The next step is that we have to live as allies, which requires us putting ourselves in some uncomfortable situations. Here are three good reads on how to be an effective white ally: (1) White Anti-Racism: Living The Legacy (tolerance.org) (2) Guidelines for Being Strong White Allies (racialequalitytools.org) (3) 12 Ways To Be A White Ally To Black People (theroot.com).
Some common themes in those pieces and in other conversations I’ve been in about allyship:
- Prioritize the voices of the oppressed group. Don’t speak over them, stand in front of them, or consider your voice equal in this conversation. Amplify their voices.
- Your view never, ever trumps the lived experience of any person of color, even if they disagree with most of their own people.
- Do not expect to be directly and concretely benefited by allyship. You exist in a position of support, and cannot back away when you can’t relate it to yourself. Train yourself in empathy.
- Expect to be uncomfortable when you misstep. And you will misstep. Shut up, listen, and give thought to the criticism when you are being called out. This does not mean every person of color is right and you are wrong every time; this means it is your responsibility to prioritize their opinion as their ally, and tread lightly on the matter in the future.
- Listen. When in doubt, be quiet. Seriously. Just zip it. This is the hardest one for me.
- Learn to recognize racism everywhere.
- You might have 99 problems, but racism isn’t one. No matter what your burdens, you always have white privilege. It’s not your fault, but it’s an advantage you were born with. Even if you’re poor, even if you’re disabled, even if you’re a woman. You still have white privilege. Don’t feel guilty about it; just respect its truth and keep it in your mind. Allyship is about others, not you. Remember?
- Do not tolerate jokes or subtle acts of racism among your white peers. You will, once again, have to put yourself in uncomfortable positions. Whether you convince the individual telling a racist joke he’s wrong, you will certainly show him that his joke isn’t going to be universally tolerated among white people.
- Educate yourself on the issues; do not ask people of color to educate you. You’re capable. Much has been written. Find writers of color and the countless writings they’ve done.
- These groups of people are not monoliths; you will get conflicting opinions from individuals. That does not invalidate their cause. When you are an ally, you keep all those conflicting experiences in your mind.
If it’s more comfortable or easier to envision, apply this standard in a feminist perspective: men cannot expect direct benefits from feminism; men will suffer in a lot of ways, but one of them is not misogyny; women want different things as individuals, but it does not invalidate the feminist movement. Much of the same applies for straight allies of LGBTQ individuals, and so on.
Allyship = listening and empathy.
- Find a local chapter of Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ), which is a loosely organized organization for white people who want to fight against racism. In New Orleans, the local chapter is European Dissent and it is associated with the Unitarian Church. Figure out the next meeting/join their mailing list/whatever there is to do.
- Add authors of color to your reading list. Set a goal to read an author of color at least every other book (both fiction and nonfiction). I will be starting this process for myself with James Baldwin. In addition to him, a very incomplete list to start with (some of whom I have read, and some I haven’t):
- Octavia Butler (Black American sci fi writer)
- Jesmyn Ward (Black American writer, works at Tulane I think)
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigerian writer)
- Julia Alvarez (Dominican-American writer)
- Junot Diaz (Dominican-American writer)
- Ta-Nehisi Coates (Black American writer, perhaps best known for his work in The Atlantic)
- Leila Aboulela (Sudanese writer)
- Luis J. Rodriguez (Mexican-American writer)
- Le Ly Hayslip (Vietnamese-American writer, from the perspective of a refugee)
- Sherman Alexie (Native American writer)
- Vine Deloria Jr. (Native American writer)
- Seek training to become a legal observer, and attend protests. I am still trying to figure out the next training in New Orleans. You can be an a voice of authority against police misconduct.
- Follow people of color on your social media. Some ideas:
Always welcoming suggestions!