2020 has brought almost crippling hardship upon the black community. Amid COVID-19 — the novel virus that is still affecting thousands globally and has had a disproportionate effect on black Americans and Brits – many are left reeling as they work to figure out how to navigate a bereft and trying social climate.
But it’s not just the virus that is threatening black lives. Since the pandemic hit its peak in the United States at the top of the year, we’ve also witnessed the continued killing and mistreatment of black folks, namely in the wake of the recently reported deaths of those like Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd — as well as the victimisation of those like Christian Cooper, a black man who a white woman called the police on in Central Park after her asked her to leash her dog.
The recent events have brought allyship to the centre of discussion as many white people explore how to be better advocates for the black community. How can white people approach allyship in a way that’s productive and incites change? What hard truths do they need to sit with? And what self exploration is required before one can begin doing the work?
R29Unbothered reached out to activist and community organiser Leslie Mac, whose work is rooted in helping white people become better allies. In this as told to, she discusses the importance of understanding white supremacy culture and why, as she’s said previously, “learning that racism and white supremacy exist is not an end goal.”
White people have been taught via society and “White Supremacy Culture” that their feelings are the most important thing in the world, therefore their natural approach to allyship is centred on themselves and how it will make them feel.
After learning about white supremacy and racism, many white people feel badly. When white people have a bad feeling, their feelings are positioned as action. It’s why white tears are effective, and black people get less pain medication than their white counterparts in emergency rooms across the country. To push through this, and understand that their feelings aren’t the destination — but instead a beginning — is a foreign concept. Nothing else in their world operates that way. We are talking about rewiring the internal mechanisms that white people are conditioned to respond to. It takes intention, deliberate action, accountability and humility to do this internal work.
The goal is not just to have people learn about white supremacy, but to understand how their personal lives support it. White people need to do a lot of introspective work to understand the ways in which they personally contribute to, benefit from and tolerate white supremacy. This isn’t about shame. I find shame to be a useless emotion that will keep people stuck where they are and focused on their own feelings. Guilt is something true allies need to confront on a regular basis. Not just the feeling of guilt, but what needs to be done in order to take action because of the guilt they feel.
Any “allyship” rooted in performance is not effective. If the action you are taking has any component of making you feel like you did something versus knowing something was done, then you know you aren’t productive.
For example, with the hashtag #IRunWithAhmaud — black runners were participating in that action as catharsis, to connect with someone they know could have been them on a different day in a different place at a different time. Why were white people running? To show that they ran? To make themselves feel like they did something of use? To perform allyship instead of being an actual ally?
What would it have looked like for white runners to offer distance “security” for runners in their area? Or research how black runners in their location are being treated? Fundamentally, white people need to understand that whenever something happens that makes them angry or upset, the same thing is happening wherever they are located. The best thing they can do is to look for ways to make sure there is no Ahmaud in their city, and to learn who and how to support the Ahmauds that live where they do.
Effective allyship — and this is not just true for white people, but for cis people who want to be good allies to trans folks, and for able bodied people who want to be good allies to disabled people — is rooted in the needs of those most affected. Accountability and partnership is built into good allyship work — ensuring the action you are taking has not only been vetted by the community you are serving, but that it also works in concert with the work they are already doing.
The sooner white people understand all the internal voices that stop them from taking action are rooted in white supremacy — and a basal distrust of black people and blackness — the easier it will be for them to start getting to work. Stop using “they, them & those people” framing when talking about white supremacy and racism, and instead root their thought processes in “me, we & us”.
A few examples of good white allyship are pushing your PTA to require anti-racism and anti-oppression training for all parents in a school system, a direct white outreach campaign to support bailing black mothers out of jail, creation of a list of black women to hire for everything from resume help to graphic design. All these examples are rooted in two things: 1) they are actions white people are able to take without black labor and 2) they have direct benefit to black people. Effective, accountable action is the goal.
White people should leverage the privileges they have at all times, specifically financial ones towards those doing direct on the ground organising work. They need to consistently ask themselves how they can remove as many barriers for support as possible. When in doubt, give your money to black women, especially black trans women. It’s the very least you can do, and still be incredibly effective in taking that action.
White people will fail in their attempts to be good allies, and they need to prepare for this in advance. This is critical to their path of becoming an anti-racist person. Black people are not expecting perfection from white people. We know it is not a question of if they will mess up but when they will mess up. What I have been saying over and over is, when white people mess up, what will they do then? Will they retreat? Will they give up? Will they lash out? Will they push blame onto others? Or will they use this as an opportunity to learn what not to do and commit to doing better?