When an incident of repression occurs or systematic oppression is revealed, people who were not repressed or do not live with a particular form of oppression are repulsed by what they see. They want to help fight repression and oppression. In recent days, many white people watched the nine-minute clip of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and felt a need to do something.
Certainly, empathetic white people can go to a protest if they are able, but there has to be more. After all, what we are dealing with is not just a single lynching of a Black man or the hundreds of police killings that preceded Floyd’s murder. The problem is that white supremacy and 400-years of racial oppression are central to the history of America. Marching in one or a dozen protests isn’t enough. How can a white person help fight white supremacy? One of the answers is allyship.
Oxford defines an ally as “A person or organization that cooperates with or helps another in a particular activity.” Contrast ally with the definition of partner, “A person or group that takes part with another or others in doing something.” At first glance, the definition of ally and partner seem very, very similar. Now, compare the verbs. The main verb cluster for ally is “cooperates with or helps”; for partner, “takes part.” Note the different power dynamic between cooperation or helping and taking part.
When someone cooperates with or helps another person, the cooperator or helper (ally) performs either as an equal who takes direction or a subordinate, and in doing so surrenders power and privilege in that moment. In contrast, when a partner engages, he takes part in the action, in the responsibility, in the decision making, in the power. Partnership is power sharing. In any society where one class of people dominate another, power cannot be shared equally. As Jo Freeman explains in her seminal essay, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” as long as there is a dominant class, all power defaults to that class.
In White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo uses the Suffragist Movement to explain how power dynamics retard liberation movements. A principle concern of American Suffragists was securing the right to vote for women. To secure that right, the Suffragist needed to change the law. However, they could not change the law themselves for they could not vote either on changing the law, amending the Constitution, or for someone who would advocate for them. The only thing that they could do to change the law was put pressure on the men who made and maintained the laws and hope that men did the right thing.
Another way to look at this is through the eyes of an employee, something we all are or have been. In the workplace, the dynamic is pretty simple: Employer dominates the employee. Yes, the manager is more powerful than the assistant regional manager, who is more powerful than the assistant to the regional manager, who is more powerful than the assistant to the assistant to the regional manager, but all are subservient to the employer/owner. If an employee wants a raise, only the manager can grant it, but the manager cannot grant a raise without permission from the employer. The boss rules.
People of color fighting white supremacy face the same dilemma as Suffragists did in their struggle and workers do in the workplace. Those in the position to make changes, to smash white supremacy are the people who made and maintain and benefit from that system of oppression. How, in that power dynamic, can a partnership work? How can change be made if there is no engagement between the dominant and subordinate? The answer is allyship, which calls for cooperation between two classes of people.
Allyship seems simple enough. I am a white guy, I want to help smash white supremacy, I don’t want to perpetuate the existing power dynamic, so I embrace the role of ally, and I ask people of color what I can do to help. Errrrrttttttttttt! Stop, scratch that last one! If I am to be an ally, one thing that I do not do is pass my puzzlement on what to do or how to do it to people of color. The minute I ask, I do what therapists call spilling. I transfer my stuff to someone else, in this case the people who are already carrying all the fallout from my privilege.
Okay, so maybe I take an active role in destroying white supremacy and police my own. I identify racism and acts or words that I see as harmful to people of color and I call people out. I explain to my fellow white people what people of color experience when we are racist… And, right there you should see a problem. How can I, as a white man, speak to a person of color or a woman’s experience? I can’t: I haven’t experienced the same oppression, but also, the minute I try to speak on someone else’s experience, I take ownership of their experience. I become a self-selected spokesperson for Black pain, something I can try to empathize with but will never experience.
So, what does an ally do? To start:
Listen: Stop talking, stop pointing, stop everything and listen. Listen to what people of color have to say about their experience. Listen to what women have to say about misogyny. Listen to what differently-abled people have to say about their lives. Seek out histories of the Queer liberation struggle and read. Share the words of others without editorializing. And, while you are listening, remember that what you are hearing or reading is not about you, and that is fine.
Relax and let this new information settle. Think about it for a while. Then ask yourself what part you play in these power dynamics. Read about power dynamics. Think about it. Get together with other white friends who are struggling with the same thing. Talk about these issues among yourselves. Find books like White Fragility, Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, or Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race and form a reading group around the books with your white friends. If you have questions, ask each other. Research. The info is out there.
Recognize white supremacy is about white people. We act out white supremacy when we ignore white people to focus exclusively on what white supremacy means for people of color. We must examine our privilege, not just the harm our privilege brings. We must turn the discussion to us.
We do worse when we ask people of color to end white supremacy or ask them what we must do to end it. This is much like centering the conversation about rape on women when rape is almost exclusively a thing men do. Rape is a man’s action, a deliberate action that only men can stop. When the focus shifts to women, we quickly find our way to “She shouldn’t have been drinking,” “What was she wearing,” or any number of Republican talking points.
So, if white people are responsible for white supremacy then white people must act, and this is where things get a bit tricky. Our actions must not reinforce the power dynamic of white supremacy, but at the same time, only white people have the power to destroy white supremacy. If we reject our privilege, don’t we also give up our power? And are things as simple as rejecting privilege, or, can we really reject privilege?
I am a racist. I wasn’t born that way, but because I grew up in the United States in the late 20th Century while racism flourished, there was no way I could escape racism. My parents were not actively racist. My brother and I were constantly told that “everyone is created equal” and that “we are all the same under the skin.” Fortunately, my parents added a but to the well-meaning liberal sentiment. “Everyone is created equal, but some people aren’t treated that way.”
My parents taught us who Martin Luther King was and my family’s admiration for Muhammad Ali went beyond his athletic dominance (though we were also taught that on an “equal playing field,” Black athletes could equal or dominate the performance of white athletes). Our house was one of racial tolerance, at least on the surface.
My parents were not actively racist, however because they were raised in a racist society, there was no way for them to not to become racists. In our home, racism expressed itself in humor. I grew up in a very funny house. Both my mom and dad are funny people and the repertoire between them was hilarious. Sometimes they riffed off each other, often falling into character. Other times, they ribbed each other. The ribbing was almost always based on ethnicity. My dad is of Italian descent, my mom, Polish.
Halfway into grade school, my brother and I had a full arsenal of Dago and Pollack jokes. We also learned a lot of Spook, Spic, Kike, Kraut, Mick, Jap, and Chinaman jokes. There was no venom in my parents telling of ethnic jokes, but the jokes themselves were venomous, always based on stereotypes. Blacks were lazy, stupid, horny and hungry. Mexicans were lazy and even lazier. Jews were greedy. Germans were stiff and stupid. The Irish were drunks. Asians were sneaky and manipulative. Italians were stupid, criminal, and corrupt. And stupidest of all were the Poles.
Stereotypes also were part of my parents riffing, particularly when my mom fell into impressions. She had a voice for every ethnicity, including Poles (she’d imitate her grandmother), but her favorite was of Flip Wilson’s Geraldine.
Now, my parents did not realize that the ethnic humor was racist or that many white people were laughing at and not with the Black, Latinx, Jewish, or Italian comedians who made fun of their ethnicity. Had they realized this, chances are they’d find other things to joke about. But ethnic humor was one of the prevalent forms of comedy at the time. Nearly every major comedian, including “clean” comics like Bill Crosby, did bits that reinforced stereotypes. Ethnic humor was on TV, in cartoons, variety shows, and prime-time sitcoms. We all thought like Don Rickles: If everyone was a target and the audience laughed, what was the problem?
My mom thought it very important that my brother and I have Black friends. The problem was that there were only two Black families in our neighborhood. There were the Busters, across the street, who were in their sixties and had a teenage daughter. She fled the neighborhood at first opportunity. I mowed the Busters lawn for spare change and iced tea, which I’d sip with Mrs. Buster, while I asked her the kind of “innocently” racist questions kids ask. At the other end of the neighborhood lived the Stewart’s, a widowed mother and her daughter and son. The son, Tony, was my age and to be my newest playmate.
We were both five years old when we were thrown together. The color of Tony’s skin didn’t mean anything to me; I was too shy and innocent to notice. My only concern was that he was nice and fun, and he was both. He was also shy, which was great, because there is nothing quite like the bond between two shy kids who finally get to share an inner-world of fear with someone who understands.
A few weeks into our friendship, Tony came over to play. We headed into the backyard and started digging up the sandbox in the corner. We were intent on turning it into a hole, which was to become a mud-hole, which was to become the best thing ever to play in. After an hour of jumping in and out of the mud-hole, Tony and I were caked with mud.
When we were done, my mom grabbed the hose to wash us off and said, “Scott, now you look like Tony! He’s your new brother!” My mom laughed. Tony’s mom laughed. Tony, who had been picked on by racist neighborhood kids, burst into tears. There was no anger from Tony’s mom or defensiveness from mine. There was only sorrow. Racism had invaded the bond between two kids. That was the last time I saw Tony.
My mom tried desperately to repair the damage and, while she remained good friends with Tony’s mom, Tony didn’t want to expose himself to racism or hurt. I know this because after it happened my mom sat me down and explained it all to me.
Shortly after the Mom/Tony incident, ethnic humor in our household stopped, at least any joke not pertaining to Italians or Poles. The stereotypes also flipped. Blacks became brave, strong, noble, and well-spoken. Latinx people, hard workers. Jews, resourceful and passionate. Asians, smart and reliable. I learned a whole new set of stereotypes to augment all the negative ethnic stereotypes that had been presented to me in the past. The damage being done to me was not the content of the stereotypes, but that I was being taught to think of people in stereotypes.
A stereotype is not a person, but a shallow description of an object based on the subject’s impression or inputs. The stereotype is based on what I think you should be, not who you are. My stereotyping you turns you into The Other. Once you are The Other, I deny you all power to define yourself. I shut you out; however, curiously, I do not stop my peers, strangers or institutions from defining you.
So, as a kid, I watch TV and, year after year, I see dangerous, threatening Black men, either on cop shows or in the news. The characterizations are so persistent and the emotions they trigger so primal that attempts to subvert them in the media fail to do much more than temper my thoughts. Yes, Gordon on Sesame Street is a great guy, but Dragnet tells me that there are Black men out there ready to kill me. Yes, Good Time’s Florida and James Evans are nice, upstanding people, but they are the good ones. They aren’t lazy, stupid, horny and hungry, but brave, strong, noble, and well-spoken.
The fact that I am aware of this dynamic and have a pretty good understand not just about how it works, but how it works on me, does not “cure” me of racism. My understanding only informs me of what is inside of me, what my challenges are. It also tells me that if this is what is always happening inside me. I’d bet that many white people are dealing with the same stuff. No matter how hard we work at it, we all deal with internalized racism, which manifests itself in assumptions and bias.
Now, it is pretty easy to stop right there, to say to myself that I just cracked the code and that everything I do going forth will be helpful and wise. All I have to do now is partner with my brothers and sisters across the racial aisle, and all will be good. I will tell other white people what’s up and we will blah blah blah… Realizing I am racist and that racism will always inform me are baby steps. The “adult” step is to stop making it about me, while realizing it is all about me as a white person.
So, when I say white people must act to destroy white supremacy, I mean that we must destroy and reinvent ourselves. That is a difficult job, one that I (and we) will never succeed at. The ask is too big. I am not just demanding that I take on 400+ years of American racism, but that I lay waste to the core of who I am. Ah, but, again, I am making it all about me, I am framing myself as the white savior. How about this? How about I walk a better path, one in which I acknowledge the ugliness inside me, accept it as part of who I am, and humbly work to change things in my world using the power that I do possess.
I can be an ally by listening and forming a consciousness-raising group. I can show up to protests and marches, not as a hero warrior, but as a member of the crowd. I can research the history curriculum at my kid’s school (that is, if I had a kid). Are they teaching American history, the history of all people who make up this country, or White American History with a month dedicated to Black folk (and another month portioned out for women)?
I can dedicate a percentage of money that I spend to “minority-owned” businesses. I can, when possible, vote for anyone other than white men, and if it is to be a white man, that he be an ally to people of color, women, the LGBT community and others. I can volunteer at organizations that are run by, advocate for, and serve people of color, not as an expert, but as a worker bee, willing to shut up, take direction, and work hard. I can use what I learn to be an ally in the fight against misogyny, hetro-normalcy, and other forms of bigotry and hate.
I can emulate my dad’s relentless insistence on fairness and my mom’s frank honesty, vulnerability, and willingness to change. I can talk with my fellow white people, not to lecture or shame them but to engage them in discussion, knowing that I must meet them where they are and never expect them to be where I am. I must acknowledge that I don’t really know where I am in this process and enter into dialogue with humility and questions.
I can understand that there is a limit to what my actions can accomplish and that I must encourage others to join in this struggle, without being a dick about it. I can dedicate myself to this long struggle, accepting that defeat will come, but persistence and hard work is the key. Two weeks of protest is not enough. Our work will take a lifetime, and I can commit myself to that.
I can get angry at racist police, but always know that they are protecting my privilege as well as their power. I can keep trying to find ways to use my privilege to destroy my privilege. I can go hard at Nazis, white supremacists and the far right, but without any illusions that they do not come from the same wretched system that influenced me. I give them no excuses and their hate no quarter, though I always leave open the possibility for redemption.
And I can do all of this – and more – without drawing attention to myself or making it about me (even when it is about me and us). It is in doing what I can humbly that I can contribute to change. By spurning the spotlight, praise and reward, I can work to be the best ally I can be while together we burn this cruel and ugly system to the ground and build something better from the ashes.