When white allies cause harm

A lack of humility almost cost me the person whom I love and the thing is, until it was brought to my attention, I had no idea that I was so deeply lacking in humility and that this state of mind was translating into questionable behaviors. In our case, I had entered into a relationship with a man who was a decade younger than me and, without malign intent, I often engaged in behavior that left him feeling like he was not my partner or equal—I left him feeling disrespected.

When he brought this to my attention and noted my actions and behaviors, I was initially in a state of deep disbelief. So, I ended up having a conversation with my only sibling and my former husband, both of whom confirmed everything that he told me. It took me doing some deep soul searching, prayer, and talks with my therapist to see how I often engaged in harmful behavior with those closest to me.

It was hard because in my mind, I did not see myself as hurtful. In hindsight, it is clear that my lack of humility played a significant role in the demise of my 20-year marriage and other close relationships. It is not something I am proud of—and I continue to be a work in progress—but I am grateful for my partner feeling strong enough to call me out about this behavior. 

I find myself thinking of this situation as I survey the landscape of white anti-racism allies and the ongoing harm they often create—but fail to see. In recent years, as more white people have become involved in anti-racism work, that has been a good thing. But the uncomfortable truth is that a lot of harm has been done and continues to be done. 

In large part it is because white people struggle to be humble and actually listen to Black folks and other people of color involved in racial justice movements. I am talking about the type of listening on a deeper level that requires white people to give up some of their privilege and actually heed the directives of non-white people. The type of listening that acknowledges that you don’t understand the full impact of various issues and actually trusting that Black and brown people do have answers. The type of listening that requires humility and true respect for others, without the patriarchal “othering” that is inherent in the culture of whiteness. 

As I have been recently writing and posting about, Maine—where I currently reside—is experiencing a serious uptick in neo-Nazi organizing. It’s serious enough that our highest elected officials are actually attempting to address it. Everyone is looking for answers, but a strange thing is happening as local Black and brown activists speak up: Allies are questioning them. I wish I could say this is an isolated experience, but in my almost 10 years of running an anti-racism organization that works with white people, I have encountered this a multitude of times. 

Several days ago, a local group, Project Relief, formerly the BLM Chapter of Portland, Maine, announced plans for a rally to protest the Nazis. However, after getting reliable information that the Nazis were planning to show up to oppose them, the group decided to cancel the action. Project Relief is made up primarily of young Black immigrants and, frankly, no one should expect them to put their literal lives on the line when they are organizing against full-on white supremacists. Well, they received some pushback, and they shared with me several of the messages they received in response to their decision to cancel due to safety concerns. Including one that said, “This is whack as fuck. How are you going to organize against white supremacists and then cancel it for fear of them showing up? What kind of message does that send to people like NSC 131? We are too scared to even organize against you?” 

I have been organizing since I was 23. A group of unarmed, peaceful Black people and their white allies showing up en masse with no tactical strategy—when a group of people who have a strong propensity towards violence and want a race war are threatening to show up—is a bad idea. A very bad idea. Frankly, I had no plans to attend that rally because I know I have to walk back to a ferry terminal and making myself a sitting duck is not on my 2023 Bingo card. 

These people are itching for a fight. There are ways to counter them but not foolishly.  I won’t be sharing those potential methods here because, unlike our side so often, the other side does not give away its strategy. That’s why they are here now. They had a plan; they moved largely in silence. Meanwhile, there is an expectation that we are supposed to plaster our strategy all over Facebook. Suffice to say that at the time Project Relief made its decision, having an effective anti-Nazi plan wasn’t an option.

Project Relief is raising funds to prepare the Black immigrant community to deal with these racists. Their plans include self defense and other strategies for Black and brown folks. While the group has received support, they have also received a lot of questions that from what I have heard boil down to white folks not trusting these folks of color. 

There is no single task in anti-racist work—there are many. White people have their work, Black and brown people have their work, and we have work that gets done together.

The uncomfortable truth is that Black and brown people rarely have the space to do our work around race—most particularly how we internalize racism and how we heal from that. The reason: white allies often take up a lot of room. They frequently aren’t willing to step back a bit or self-examine. They want their voices and ideas to have precedence; they desire to be center-stage.

The other truth is that a large part of the work of white people should be resource mobilization. White people as a collective have the means—the access to money and access to people and institutions with influence in particular. Not every individual white person, of course, but by and large, white people hold a disproportionate amount of the resources that are needed—because of … wait for it … racism.

Movement work and movement building require money. Someone has to supply it or organize the means to get it. Unfortunately, because too many white people fail to grasp that unfortunate reality, Black and brown people are reduced to begging for our needs in this work.

How often are we asked to explain and make the case for why we need funding, whether it’s crowdfunding or institutional funding? We essentially must prove ourselves “worthy” enough to the white ally gaze. We have to dance for the money, as it were—and often we are expected to dance quite extravagantly. It’s demoralizing. It is a barrier to progress and as long as white people don’t have the ability to just trust, how do we plan to move forward with integrity and a shared vision of justice?

One of the things sorely needed across the board in racial justice spaces, regardless of location, is for white people to have the humility to truly hear Black people without the need to ask a million questions. If Black organizers cancel an event out of safety concerns, listen to them. Ask how you can support them moving forward. If Black organizers ask for funds and you have the ability, give with a cheerful heart and trust that they know what they are doing and how to do it. If your education is being supplied by Black and brown creators, educators, and activists, pay them and support them. Don’t just steal their knowledge. Understand that social media, for all its downsides, created the platforms for people to share and create without the gatekeepers of yesterday. Which was a direct byproduct of … wait for it again … racism.

For many white people, this behavior is just a cultural default but it’s a troublesome one because it says that you don’t trust Black and brown people. When you question us incessantly or push back against wisdom we have gained dealing with racism directly for our whole lives, you are saying that you don’t respect or believe us. And ultimately, we cannot build a movement together without trust.

The majority of Black and brown people know more about racism due to the embodied and lived experience than a white person will ever know. No amount of reading will ever equal what it is to live as “other” and experience it daily in life. Therefore, what is needed—particularly in this moment—is for white people to come to the work with a spirit of humility and a willingness to learn beyond the books or the checklist. Even when you offer well-intentioned suggestions, ask yourself: Is this truly helpful or am I doing this just to seem “helpful” or “productive” or “knowledgeable?”

A lot of creating justice isn’t just the legalistic and practical aspects of stopping Nazis. It is a paradigm shift that honors the full humanity of all with humility and respect.  As for something to do, consider supporting my friends at Project Relief and their anti-racism organizing efforts in the immigrant community. Also, sign up for Community Change, Inc. mailing list—we will be announcing our fall/winter plans soon. And, as always, if I made you think, consider supporting my work via one-time donation or on a recurring basis.

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Image by Liza Summer via Pexels.