Dear white allies: We’re tired of white people asking us how they can do better, so it’s up to you to teach your friends.
By Aaminah Shakur
I began this essay two days before Charlottesville, VA imploded. I originally opened with two scenarios that I have witnessed of white self-described “allies” asking how they can influence their fellow white people in their social circles to do better for Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC).
It seems like every time something happens, white people wring their hands and ask “what can we do?” This places the onus on marginalized people to provide suggestions, lists, links, and handholding (i.e. literal and emotional labor) at a time when we are already trying to cope with and survive the given situation.
It has been my experience that even when we offer the labor of suggestions, most white “allies” will ignore (or argue) every suggestion we give. Marginalized people can literally name “this is what I need from you right now” and be told that isn’t really what we need.
While we are frequently treated as a monolith, where one of us is supposed to answer for our entire community, in the face of specific actions we ask allies to take suddenly they remember that none of us can speak for all of us, and they tell us that whatever we are asking for is unreasonable and does not represent our community’s “real” needs. So many lists fly around every time a crisis is happening, and when a new crisis happens we have to create a whole new list — even though it looks eerily like the last list that people should have been familiar with and applied to the new situation.
Related: HEY, WHITE ALLIES? IT’S GAME TIME.
For the purpose of this piece, I’m going to assume you really want to know how to support marginalized people, with a focus here on BIPOC, but understanding these suggestions can be applied to LGBTQIA issues, disability issues, fat libration, immigration issues, and more. I am also assuming you utilize social media as one of your primary methods of communicating and sharing resources and information. This is absolutely not to suggest that there aren’t real world applications and ways you can also influence your in-person social circle. You can amend these suggestions and strategies to fit that need as well.
Social media is amazing for the ways it allows people to connect, share links and information, and have conversations with either a wide audience or curated list. Social media has become an amazing educational access opportunity because it is so widely available across most of the world and provides such a wealth of information through the click of a Google search, or through simply scrolling one’s own newsfeed. Many of us spend more time engaging with friends and family on social media than in real life, and according to a study in early 2016 there is an increase in Twitter and Facebook becoming the primary source of news for many of us.
It is now Sunday afternoon, almost 48 hours into the white supremacist descent onto Charlottesville. Which means 48 hours of Black people and other people of color having to deal with white “friends” posting things like:
“I can’t believe this is happening! / “These are not my country’s values.”
Response: It’s a privilege to be shocked. Believe me, Black people and other people of color are not surprised at all and we warned you this was coming. Also, there is a long history of these situations, it is absolutely part of what the U.S. was founded on and has always valued.
“I’m poor too and can’t afford to donate to everyone asking for money. There’s nothing I can do.”
Response: White people find money for so many things, and we see you posting about those choices on your social media too. It is, therefore, insulting to read that you can’t support very real human needs. Even in the cases where we are familiar with your financial struggles, suggesting that this is the only way you can support us and refusing to consider any other strategies is a slap in our faces.
“This is so sad and just makes me more depressed. I wish people would stop posting about it, or I need a social media break.”
Response: I don’t want to dismiss very real mental health issues, but I do want to point out that Black people and other POC do not have the luxury of avoiding or ignoring these issues. Do engage in self-care — everyone needs and deserves it. But don’t make everything about yourself or talk about how hard things are for you when the rest of us live with this every day of our lives. You should be uncomfortable about white supremacy and how you benefit from it.
“What can we, white people who care, do?”
Response: See below, and refer back to the many many links and lists you’ve already seen floating around. Don’t ask this question as an excuse to not ever act.
So here’s what you can do — even if you can’t afford to donate money, even if you can’t attend marches due to disability, even if you’re also anxious, even if you don’t think you’re the most articulate person, even if you can’t risk being arrested, and even if you can’t personally punch a Nazi in the face:
– Think about the things that have helped YOU awaken to these issues, and try emulating those methods! Was your awareness spurred by posts by friends on social media? Share those posts. Did volunteering for a local grassroots organization change your perspective? Recruit others to join you, or at least talk about how volunteering has impacted your outlook. Did it help you to be reminded that your faith practice places an emphasis on social justice? Share that reminder.
– Share links just like this or any other you read and found so helpful. If it was helpful to you, it will be helpful to others. It was outrageous to me seeing someone tell a friend “I have benefitted so much from the links and education you share, but I don’t know how to share what I have learned with my own social circle.” It is literally as simple as sharing the very resources you are benefitting from with others.
– Talk about the work you are doing on yourself — how you realized you needed to do it, what steps you are taking, what has helped you along, where you’re still struggling but how important it is to push on. Setting an example for your social circle helps — lead by example. It is also valuable for people to see how change is an evolution and what that evolution looks like. No one is asking you to be perfect, we are asking you to keep growing. Talking about how that has looked for you encourages others that they too can begin to evolve.
– Create Facebook lists with only white friends where you can post things for a white audience, allowing for white discussion you moderate, but where your friends of color do not have to be subjected to the inevitable nonsense that your white friends and family will respond with. Here’s a handy tutorial on how to create lists.
– You can start to set boundaries in your social circle where you say certain things are not ok/acceptable in your space/home/etc. and start gently mentioning why things are offensive in real life. There is a point where you need to stop being gentle about it. Have the difficult conversations. Engage even when it is uncomfortable.
– Share links and testimonials for businesses, fundraisers, and organizations led by Black people and other POC. Talk about why they matter, how you have benefitted from them, and why people should support them. Support them directly when you can, and even when you can’t financially do so, at least spread the love and actively encourage your friends with means to support them.
– Get comfortable with discomfort. By this I mean, stop sitting silently when you witness bad behavior, racist language, and tacky “jokes”. Be willing to be the one who speaks up. You may find that you have more people on your side than you realized, but no one was willing to be “that person” who brought it up. Be that person. Someone has to be, and no one will be until someone takes it upon themselves. Stop waiting for someone else to do it. And if you claim this circle of friends or family is a brick wall of toxicity? My question to you is: then why are you still comfortable breaking bread with them at all?