How allies fail: A true story

A few days ago, I received a message from a reporter at one of Maine’s largest newspapers, asking if we could speak about a possible story that she was working on. Despite my misgivings, given my past interactions with this particular publication, I gave her a call since I was vaguely aware of the story in question. 

In many ways the story is not remarkable, but still it is extraordinary in how it illustrates the deep entrenchment of whiteness, even when white people purport to want to do better. 

A local school district in Southern Maine decided that they wanted to start addressing racism in their community, and they were looking for comprehensive training that would allow that to happen. This particular school district ended up contracting with an anti-racism organization with a 52-year history that offers anti-racism training and development services. The district started the work in 2019 and it was going well, until some members of the community learned that the executive director of the firm doing said anti-racism training with their local school administrators and staff was none other than yours truly. 

The school district started to receive pushback and this spring, after the school district issued a statement in support of Black lives in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing—where the district named the organization I head up as part of their learning—the community tensions around working with our organization grew. The pushback reached the point where the district paused their work with us. 

One of my staff members who had been working with the district in question called me to tell me what was going on, and to express concerns that this situation might open up local harassment for me. At the time, I was in Chicago in the midst of non-stop protests and waiting for my father to die. While I was disappointed to receive the news, the truth is that it wasn’t a priority in that moment. 

Fast-forward to my conversations this week with the local reporter and the aftermath of the district canceling their work with my organization. 

After ending their relationship with my organization, the school district, in keeping to their “anti-racist” commitment, contracted with a Maine-based group to provide services. Perhaps they were assuming that with my name no longer tied to any anti-racist work in their community, the pushback would cease. Guess what? It didn’t. 

It seems that the same vocal opposition that led to my group being ousted is still opposing the work, and those who are making noise have taken to harassing members of the school board to the point where there are board members who don’t feel safe. From what I have gleaned, one particular gentleman is creating havoc, calling school board members at all hours of the night and other acts of intimidation. Apparently the local police department in this community isn’t eager to do anything, which is how the local reporter became involved. 

As the reporter brought me up to speed, I had to ask: What does this have to do with me? 

After all, the school district fired my group in May, so what do I have to do with the story? According to the reporter, the ringleader creating all this havoc keeps mentioning my name, and I am paraphrasing but this man feels that I am the leader of a socialist, anarchist group that is trying to indoctrinate white people. Also, the school superintendent told the reporter that after receiving reports about my political tweets and looking at them, they felt it was best to cut ties with my organization—even though the superintendent had apparently also told the reporter that they had no problems with the work that my team had done. 

I mean, I’ve been called a lot of things in my life as a Black woman. I suppose socialist isn’t too wild—if we are going to be honest, one can’t be an anti racist and a fervent capitalist; they are not compatible when you consider the history of Black folks in this country. But that’s another whole post.

Anarchist is definitely a surprise and I don’t know where that came from though I guess it’s an interesting break from the N-word.

As far as indoctrination goes, I’m kind of used to a fair number of white people thinking that teaching people to recognize, avoid and counteract racism is some kind of terrible form of brainwashing. White supremacy is so central to who they are that any suggestion there might be a better way strikes them as erasure.

But you know, as for my political tweets leading to the district’s decision to cease working with my organization, that’s their choice. The thing is, given that I have nothing to do with our training services at any level—other than occasionally being involved in initial contract negotiations—this feels like our old friend whiteness at work. 

In this moment, white people with any level of decency have embraced anti-racist work; however, many of them with no real desire to give up anything related to their whiteness. In other words, for too many this year has been about putting up the signs, buying the books, tossing a few coins at Black-led organizations and maybe even engaging in training. But on the soul level, they are still fully invested in their whiteness and not invested in actually changing anything. 

While this community thought that they had done the right thing, the fact remains that they fired a Black woman-led firm, went with a Maine-based one in hopes of softening hard feelings in the community, and they are still getting pushback. Guess what? My Black ass isn’t the issue. I was just the convenient scapegoat. And y’all fell for it.

Which is ultimately what led me to writing this post. As the youngsters say, don’t put my name in your mouth. 

No, this is about a community that isn’t ready to dive deep and lean into the discomfort that this work will create. The fact is, there are racists in this town who don’t want progress and they are doing everything they can to disrupt the process. It’s been about six months since my organization was let go and while the district continued the work, there seems to be a profound lack of understanding of the white supremacy at work within their own community. 

If school board members are being harassed for supporting anti-racism work and the local police department is unwilling to assist—well. I hate to break it to you, but this is how white supremacy has been upheld and perpetuated forever. 

Firing the anti-racism organization led by a Black woman only served as a reminder of how weak the commitment to anti-racism work really is. The fact that the pushback to the work has continued, even without my group in the picture, shows how threatened people are about the idea of change. If one is truly committed to anti-racism, you cannot appease or negotiate with racists. By attempting to appease the racists, those racists have been further emboldened and their efforts have only continued and escalated. At some point, I hope that this school district wakes up and realizes that. 

Anti-racism work is a process, it is relational and  it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Certainly one doesn’t deserve to be harassed, and my heart goes out to the school board members who are suffering due to the vileness within the hearts and actions of some of their community members. However, white people need to understand that this work cannot be incremental, segregated and watered down in hopes of not disturbing the status quo. Unlike a lot of diversity, equity and inclusion work—which is often watered down—anti-racism work does seek to disrupt the status quo. Knowing that and being prepared for it is the only way to create community change. 

You’ll note that I have made the decision to not name the town, the school district or even the name of the racist ringleader. No doubt this story will make the rounds within local Maine media and these things will be named, but the story is larger than any one town. It’s about the performative nature of this moment and how performative allyship creates harm.

What started off as possibly just being harmful to my organization by firing us progressed to giving racists a sense of victory. And now they are creating tensions for the white people in this town who had been aiming to do better at being human beings. But if you are really trying to do better, any time that you are failing at some aspect of life, you have to embrace not only change but also the possibility of discomfort.

People who make lifestyle changes for their own physical health and survival often get pushback from family and friends. Why can’t you just eat that anyway? Why don’t you just do that thing for us when you’re around us? Is it really than important to make this change?

So when you are theoretically looking to end something as longstanding and pervasive as racism and white supremacy, you need to expect some reaction. Are you really in or not?

If you are looking to do anti-racism work, the why matters. If it’s just to look like you’re doing the right thing or to feel better in the moment about yourself—if you aren’t willing to stick things out and do the hard work—well, then all you do is invite people to cause you pain and actually do nothing good at all. In fact, it allows you to do more harm to those you claimed to be trying to look out for.

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2 thoughts on “How allies fail: A true story”

  1. Shay, I admire your courage and want to know more about your work. I work with many brown and black young adults and I try to break through some of these barriers, but there is only so much that I truly understand at the heart of it because I am white. I can think that I work hard at this but I know there is so much more. I tell my college students that there is only ONE condition that must exist for learning to occur: DISCOMFORT. Without this, little or no learning really happens, no matter what the subject. I would love to meet with you to talk about all this. Not sure how to do that. Rosemarie

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