One of the many beautiful things about the left is that it has the ability to enlighten white people about the systematic oppression that our non-white friends, neighbours, colleagues and even family members face on a daily basis. Although we will never understand what people of colour go through we have the opportunity to be enlightened about white supremacy, and how through many forms it is harmful for not just them but us as well. The problem is many of us are faced with a crisis, we don’t know where we stand and how we should act in certain circles. Most of all we are out of place and are forced to adapt to unfamiliar settings, which can be both uncomfortable and testing based on how we react.
Personally, as a CIS heterosexual white male, I have never been a fan of the term “white ally”. It is just not something I identify with. I can’t wear it with pride as a patch on my spiritual biker cut. The term “white ally” is often surrounded by a set of unwritten requirements and expectations which can often over complicate a white activist’s thought process and in turn their sense of direction. More importantly it complicates how we define our sense of belonging within activist groups, and that ilk. The word “ally” implies a level of “distant friendliness and empathy”, although we as white people are not oppressed we seek to reach out and help those who are. This can be problematic as most “white allies” have no idea how to do this in a way which can actually benefit oppressed peoples of colour.
All too often amongst left wing groups you come across the overly eager white members, indiscriminate of age, who are almost bouncing in their seat to show how different they are to their ‘oppressive counterparts’. I’m sure some of you can think of a few large socialist organisations in which this is fatally rampant. The problem is many of these self professed “white allies” who have been allowed into spaces created by peoples of colour, unknowingly commit their most carnal of sins, talking over oppressed peoples and inadvertently dominating the narrative set by oppressed peoples during discussions. This is a total calamity in itself, and ruins numerous organisations. I have lost count of the events I have partaken in, or observed, where white members would talk for what seemed like hours about oppression they had never faced, and either knowingly or unknowingly, shut out the voices of minorities who had suffered oppression and as a result had perhaps more valuable contributions to the discussion. I can vividly remember the countless rolling eyes of non-white listeners when this took place. These listeners were probably glad at first to realise that a white person was taking interest in their cause, but were later regretful that they had been given an opportunity to shut out the voices of those that mattered most, the oppressed. In the spaces the oppressed otherwise feel most safe. The eagerness of the “White ally” to prove he/she is different to their “oppressive counterparts” can be intoxicating. The majority simply have no idea about how to properly direct their enthusiasm. It shows, it really does.
A contemporary example of my last paragraph in action before I advance. Russell Brand can support those at risk of losing their council flats, but he cannot speak for them as Russell Brand is not at risk of losing his council flat. He is a millionaire, he does not live in a council flat. Therefore he cannot speak as someone who lives in a council flat. By talking too much on their forum, he risks stifling the voices of those who are at risk and making it “The Russell Brand show featuring Eviction”. In simpler terms: Russell Brand cannot speak for the people at risk, as he is not at risk. He has to know when to step back.
The most powerful thing a “white ally” can do is step back. In order to do this the “White ally” must learn when and where they need to step back. The key role of the “White Ally” is to be of the best help he can to his oppressed fellows. When does a “white ally” have to step back? When they get too close. What this means is that when a “white ally” finds themselves going “deep cover” (to paraphrase Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg’s 1992 hit), they need to step back. Simply, when they find themselves regularly talking at length about issues which won’t affect them, with a false understanding, they need to step away as they risk stifling the voices of the oppressed as a result of their privilege. These issues often take the form of subjects such as: colourism, genocide, cultural appropriation, tackling religious extremism in foreign countries, racial discrimination, state violence and the legacy of famous non-white activist figures (most notably Martin Luther King). All too often “white allies” will take it upon themselves to write at length about people of interest within the struggle. Choosing to ignore that their role is not to determine the legacy of these people, which is what they’re doing whether they realise it or not. “White allies” must realise that the same applies to their musings on things such as discrimination and cultural appropriation, of which it is highly unlikely they will ever experience. You aren’t needed here, step back and apply your energy more constructively.
How does a “white ally” apply themselves once they have taken the often difficult step back? They research and they learn as much as possible. Once again “knowledge is power”. A “white ally” is useful once they can offer another outlook or understanding of a social justice issue. Which in turn adds another bullet in the arsenal of oppressed people fighting back against an oppressive system. That means that they develop an understanding first, only then do they offer their findings in the form of suggestion. Rather than be at risk of baseless critique derived from a place of scarce understanding. The job of the “White ally” is to assist, not provide for oppressed people. Oppressed peoples of colour have plenty to provide, their risk is being shut out by boisterous voices driven by weak understanding. For example, if a white person looks to set up an organisation fighting oppression they need to make sure that the oppressed people take the forefront. They are not the oppressed people and probably never will be. Assist, not provide. The final way a “white ally” can best assist oppressed peoples of colour is by seeking to spot nasty habits they have inadvertently internalised. You may not recognise them but people who you are attempting to help will. What you then do is take the logical next step, make your best efforts to remove them.
To put it simply, there are only 3 steps required of the White ally:
1) Learn to recognise systematic oppression
2) Do not support systematic oppression
3) Contribute intelligently
A final note, being a white ally does not mean that you have to take responsibility for the actions of all white people in the past and constantly disassociate yourself from white culture and the nasty features of white history. Unless your family directly benefitted from the slave trade or had the facility to end it but chose not to, you do not have to live as if you bare the burden. To quote the late great Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, “it’s not your fault”. You are not making things better for yourselves by refusing to see the beauty in your own culture as well as recognising that in others. Just because you find the Roman Empire and the Crusades interesting doesn’t mean that you can’t appreciate the Fatamid Empire or the Ashanti Kingdom or vica versa, for example. Yes white people have done nasty shit, but you don’t bare the burden. History is far too deep and complex for it to be that simple. Another example that puts this into context is the Iraq war. Tony Blair and the New Labour cabinet of 1997-2001 bare the burden of the Iraq war, not the British public.
To conclude the greatest thing a white ally can do is; step back, breathe in, breathe out, put your ego aside and learn to find a way of being yourself and supporting the oppressed. In such a way which doesn’t compromise your being.
By Louis Earle @
These views do not represent the views of all Rmovement members but individual members.