White Allyship: A Brief and Incomplete Primer

A few days ago, the site Very Smart Brothas put out a pretty funny (to me), mostly scathing criticism of stereotypical "good" white people called The 10 Most Dangerous Types of Supposedly "Good" White People. It's quite good, and no matter who you are you should read it. Reactions will vary wildly depending on your relationship to black people (though it can be applied to more than just black folks; more on that later).

Anyway, within the article, and with a nod to the recent spectacular film Get Out by Jordan Peele, the author lists out 10 types of white friend/ally that we as black folks need to watch out for because they'll either treat us as tokens, low-key abuse us further than society already does, use us for self-aggrandizement, or some other such very valid and very real thing. It handles this with a hard and unapologetic side-eye to white folks of all types that consider themselves friends of black folks, which can leave some of those white folks feeling attacked and raw. Such is the way of things. I happened to share this article on my Facebook feed and one of my white friends responded, understandably so:

I know we don't always do it right, but good intentions are sometimes (often?) poorly executed. Maybe this article isn't meant for me, maybe it's just for people to know they aren't paranoid, their observations are real. But I think it would be useful to mention specific things that allies do wrong to help us be a better voice for the cause instead of vaguely bashing us. We are all trying.

There are many people of color that would immediately respond with "It's not my job to help you figure out how to be a less shitty person while I struggle through living in a society that oppresses me by default. Figure it out." And justifiably so. It's not my/our job to direct white people on how to be better and treat us like humans. We've got enough to deal with, and to put the job of education on the shoulders of minoritized populations is in itself a form of abuse as you're effectively taking advantage of our experience instead of doing the work yourself of seeing and respecting our humanity.

But, I'm not one of those people of color. Not yesterday anyway. It helps that I truly believe that I have several white friends and acquaintances that genuinely do want to do the right thing. Including her; she's pretty dope and has come through for me several times without my prompting or expectation of reciprocation or thanks. So I responded and wanted to expand on that response here.

Of the 10 types of white people listed, only two are worthy of my attention because only those two can have a chance of actually seeing black people as humans: The "But What About Me?" Ally (#6) and The Self-Flagellating and Lazy Liberal (#10). It also happens that the white people that I allow to be my friends and influential in my life are really only in danger of slipping into those two roles; everyone else only gets as close as arm's length. So here: the brief primer on white allyship.

As a white ally, you can avoid #6 by remembering that when it comes to oppressed minorities, if you are not a part of the group then it isn't and never should be about you. Ever. Not even once. Selfless contributions hinge on taking "I" out of the equation and focusing on the acts themselves. So there should be no mention of you and your feelings. There should be no plea to accommodate you if you get triggered by something that we experience or have to deal with every fucking day. You should never try to insert yourself as an authority on black issues, I don't care how many protests you've been to. I don't care if you went to a black school growing up, or if some black family has accepted you as their own at some point along the way. I don't care how many episodes of Luke Cage you watched or if your favorite movie is Soul Plane (good lord no), you are not an authority. You are not the center of this story. Be able to handle yourself and show empathy with respect to your minoritized friends.

Here's one reason why the above is important: we as oppressed minorities cannot turn blackness off. Granted, most of us (I can't speak for every black person b/c we are not a monolith) would never choose to do so because blackness is dope even if it comes with the societal baggage. But we are Black every minute of every hour of every day. That blackness means that we are constantly under assault from a predominantly white society that sees us as dangerous, inferior, and disposable. Every day we have to deal with a society that gaslights us and drives us to paranoia about our existence within it. You may witness it, but we live that shit. Every time another black kid gets shot by police, we feel the pain and fear for our own children. Every time a brother or sister gets locked up because they took a plea for some shit they didn't understand or even do, we know that that could very easily be us. Every time a black person gets overlooked for a job they were qualified for, we add it to the tally of every other time black folks have been overlooked. Every time someone makes jokes about how difficult it is for them to pronounce an "ethnic" name, we understand the implication that it and by extension we are silly because we are not like them. These and messages like these that continually invalidate our daily lives as black citizens of the American machine are a constant stream.

We live in The Matrix here and can see the bullshit but are often powerless or actively disempowered to do anything about it so we get stuck drowning in the daily grind that is life. You and your whiteness can decide to start caring. Do you know how fucking offensive that is? Do you understand just the level of... ugh! I can't decide to not be black; not even for a day. I can't decide to not see how society treats myself or my people. I can't decide to not be exoticized. I can't decide to walk by police like "you know what, there's no chance that they might beat my ass to death for looking at them the wrong way." Honestly and seriously, every time I wear a hoodie (that was given to me by my well-paying job no less) I think of Trayvon Martin. For you to have the OPTION to get involved and assist from the outside is just.... it's just a fucking no. No, no, fucking no. So no, you don't get a fucking cookie for feeling bad about Sandra Bland being killed in jail. You shouldn't expect gratitude for voting for Obama. You shouldn't expect to be comforted for your tears that fall with respect to the oppression of people in this country. You really want to feel something? Try feeling OUR feelings.

That went off the rails a little bit there. The point that I hopefully made above is to take yourself out of the equation and practice allyship because it's right; because it does something for us and not because it does something for you. Now, with all of the above said, I'm not gonna act like you shouldn't get frustrated that allyship is often thankless work. We're only human and of course want to be recognized for what we do. Even the selfless have egos. But when you get frustrated, make the effort to check yourself and remember: while you can choose to stop giving a shit, we can't. Not ever. Not even once.

You can sidestep #10 with the age-old maxim of "actions speak louder than words." It doesn't mean that you can't tweet about right-wing bias against black communities or share an article about how white America's fuckin up, because it is and does often. These are real things and I for one am glad that you can at least recognize some of the bullshit too. It does however mean that if you are really down for the cause of uplifting minoritized people, you actually do the work and do it without expectation of recognition or fanfare (see above). Don't just talk about it to your black friends or click the "Share" button. That's the easy part. DO THE WORK EVEN WHEN IT DOESN'T DIRECTLY BENEFIT YOU. Attend the diversity conferences, do the community service, do what you can to facilitate hiring qualified minorities for jobs they aren't normally afforded and then support them continuously when they're in those roles by creating an environment that speaks to their needs, support someone outside your comfort zone fully as they need to be supported. Spark conversations with your white friends about the oppression of black people and really go to bat for us. Push your workplace to support diversity with more than just money and empty words (*coughZuckerbergcough*). And when it does come to supporting with your dollars, pay us with respect to what the work we do is worth and not less than someone with the same qualifications but less melanin. Putting on the performance of being an ally through sharing the odd news article or tweeting about some of Trump's bullshit does diddly-fucking-squat for black folks. Do the work. That's what a full ally is: someone who would sacrifice some of what they've got in order to ensure that someone else can accomplish what they want to accomplish. They do the work. Action goes about 20 steps beyond just feeling bad about the regular mistreatment of minoritized populations.

At the end of the day, true and valuable allyship comes from an understanding of the humanity of the person you want to be an ally to. Not pity, not putting on a pedestal, not exalting our strength or resilience, but understanding that we're just fucking people. We want the same shit you do. We want to be seen regularly in media. We want our kids to go to schools where the teachers give a shit about their futures. We don't want to see ourselves lying in a pool of blood, shot full of bullet holes. We don't want to feel nervous when we roll through a given neighborhood because it's filled with folks that aren't like us. We want to be normal, not through assimilation but through understanding. We don't want to be you. We want to be us and have it be OK.

You'll find that the above applies to not just allyship to black people, but to all types (just replace the black parts). LGBTQ+ people want to be seen as human too (big surprise!). Women are people and want to be SEEN just like any dude. So-called "illegal" immigrants are just trying to get by, just like you. See the humanity in people and you should be just fine.