When You’re Feeling Like an Ineffective Ally

Warning: This post involves some self-pity and defensiveness coming from a white woman. If you bear with me ’til the end, I think you’ll find comfort in the fact that I snap myself out of it and try to encourage others to do so as well. But if you’re in no mood to hear about the frustrations, insecurities, and good intentions of yet another “woke” white person right now, I’ll completely understand if you close the window and continue on in your search for something to read. Be well! For all those who are willing to give it a go, I hope you’ll find some amusement from, comfort in, or renewed motivation after reading this piece. Let’s begin.

I’ve spent the last few weeks feeling despaired and angry and powerless in being able to effectuate meaningful change. The police officer’s killing of George Floyd reminded me so much of Eric Garner’s untimely demise, and it showed me how, once again, almost nothing has changed in terms of police brutality, discrimination, and aggression towards the black community. All of the efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement, the protests (and yes, riots as well) in Ferguson and elsewhere, all of the documented unjustified and disproportionate violence of police officers aimed at so many unarmed, nonviolent persons of color—where does it get us? Officers looking on as one of their own asphyxiates a human being for nearly nine minutes, past the point in which the suspect and onlookers have made it clear that the man can’t breathe, past the point in which Mr. Floyd loses consciousness, and continuing after paramedics have already arrived to render aid. Not that it should matter why this officer committed an unjustified killing of an unarmed human being who presented no physical threat to the officer or others, but the alleged crime for which George Floyd was arrested (and subsequently lost his life over) was using a suspected counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes.

The fact that it took until now, the year 2020, for the majority of Americans to recognize and finally believe that there is a systemic problem regarding how law enforcement officers treat persons of color fills me with rage.

The fact that, following George Floyd’s death, Rush Limbaugh has the sheer audacity to tell The Breakfast Club and its millions of listeners that white privilege and white supremacy don’t exist, but are, instead, recent social constructs perpetuated by today’s Democratic party? It’s that kind of statement, especially when it’s coming from a person in a position of power and influence, that makes me feel like I’m being gaslighted. I know that history is written by the victors, but even white America’s version of history includes an (albeit brief) overview of hundreds of years of slavery, denial of the rights to property, liberty, equal protection, and to vote. These violent, despicable, pathetic acts were committed by whites against indigenous persons first living in America when it was first “discovered” by colonizers, against Africans and then African-Americans genetically traumatized by the repeated selling of, raping of, lynching of, subjugation of their people, against Asian-Americans denied naturalization and then, at one point, interned within their own country. I don’t give a shit what school Limbaugh went to as a child—you’re telling me he’s never heard of slavery? The Civil War? The Civil Rights Movement? The history behind the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution? No? Bueller? Bueller?

You don’t have to be “woke” or liberal or a Democrat or a high school graduate to recognize the fact that whites have been privileged in this country since the moment we came and took it away from a bunch of non-whites. And you don’t have to currently hold feelings of white supremacy to recognize the existence of a little group known as the KKK (with many affiliated with the group’s belief now going by what they most likely assume (wrongly) is a stealthier name, “White Nationalists”). The Birth of a Nation, anybody?

The fact that people like Limbaugh (and our Commander in Chief) hold such powerful and influential positions over others and can spew such ignorant, factually-incorrect and uninformed bullshit with a straight face, often with a smirk? When they know that they are influencing the minds and hearts of so many others? If I didn’t believe so strongly in the First Amendment, I’d advocate for the criminalization of such damaging, inciting, evil words.

This shit honestly made me feel defeated. How do I, as an individual, help effectuate or hope for meaningful change when there are human beings out there telling themselves that we’re post-color, post-racism, that white privilege and white supremacy doesn’t exist (and apparently never has)? Who are in positions of power and influence and are telling their followers to ignore human history and basic facts, all so that they can tell themselves they’re not racist and are good people? I’m sure slaveowners didn’t think they were bad people either. I bet they really convinced themselves to believe that black people were property, not human beings, and it was only natural to treat them as such. I bet segregationists told themselves they had nothing against persons of color—they just didn’t want to live near them, go to school with them, share public fountains or restrooms with them. No offense. Separate, but equal.

Us white allies can preach to our own choir only so much. Telling ourselves we’re woke and we’re informed and we recognize and are ready to reject our white privilege only takes us (and society) so far. To effectuate systemic, lasting change, we’re going to have to dispel the teachings of Limbaugh and Trump, et al.

Which brings me to address my feelings of being an ineffective ally as of late.

I’ve spent the last few weeks consuming movies and docu-series like Selma, Just Mercy, They Gotta Have Us, Queen of Katwe, even rewatching Black Panther for the umpteenth time. [On that note, big ups to Prime Video for providing free access, at least to Prime Members, to works like Selma and Just Mercy, which you’d normally have to pay extra to rent. Netflix has also featured a lot of docs and movies on Black History and activism, which is great. I hope other allies are taking advantage of any free time to at least dig in to some of these really moving and informative pieces.]

I’ve listened to podcasts discussing the issues at hand and featuring powerful black activists. I’ve read pieces and books by black authors and BLM members to make sure I’m better understanding the context and history of such entrenched racism and hatred and systemic subjugation of all those designated non-white by society, and to try and learn how I, as a white woman, can do my best to end this shit, once and for all.

I’ve also been discussing these issues with some of my friends, some of whom being fellow allies, others being persons of color. I’m thankful that my husband and I, as an interracial couple, have always felt open enough to discuss race relations and our COMPLETELY disparate backgrounds, and we’ve obviously been discussing it a lot more as of late.

And yet, all this consumption and conversing has left me feeling really selfish and ineffective as an ally to a cause I feel so strongly about.

Sure, educating myself and staying informed on the many complexities and opinions surrounding this issue makes me feel connected and satisfied as an ally. But other than making me feel good or soothing my soul a bit by staying current on black experiences and perspectives and immersing myself in the humor, strength, and heartbreak within black culture, is all this wokeness doing anything for the cause? Is crying or shouting at the TV or applauding what I’m hearing or viewing or reading helping anyone but myself? Nope.

I’m proud to identify as, among other things, a feminist, a civil rights activist, a criminal justice activist, an activist for diabetes-related and differently-abled issues, and an ally of anti-racism movements and the LGBTQIA+ community. I’m deeply passionate about fighting for others who are being mistreated or misjudged or discriminated against or undervalued as human beings.

I’ve spent the last two decades learning about and being cognizant of my privilege as a middle-class suburban white cis straight woman. Throughout this process, I’ve experienced plenty of white guilt and had to learn how to deal with that. I’ve also had several moments in which I’ve uncovered prejudices and biases I didn’t even realize I’d been holding onto. Many well-intentioned whites get defensive when they’re confronted with their own biases or prejudices or racism, especially when they assume that being racist or prejudiced or biased means you’re a bad person. “I can’t be racist! My best friend is black!” type of thing. It takes years of unpacking what society and school and your parents and mentors have taught you, rethinking what your values are, and questioning what you believe and why you believe it. You’re not born racist, and as a young child, you’re usually just looking for someone to play with—you have no concept of certain groups of people being seen as less-than until you’re told by others how the system’s set up. Even if your teachers and parents aren’t overtly racist, they can still send you signals that still get the message across. “Stay away from that neighborhood, it’s filled with drugs and guns.” “Don’t you want to play with someone . . . more like you?” Etc.

During my formative years, I received both covert and overt messages regarding persons of color, those of lower (and higher) socioeconomic status, LGBTQIA+ individuals, those of different ethnicities, and more. I didn’t perpetuate all of those messages unto others, and some I reject (or at least questioned) immediately. But others did seep into my subconscious, and damn, have they been tricky to uncover and dispel.

My entire adult life, I’ve identified as über liberal. I have a massive bleeding heart and a rather unhealthy need for things to be fair and just for all. I know most of that need for fairness and justice originally stemmed from growing up privileged and relatively sheltered background, but it’s grown into a real passion and drive to learn about others’ upbringings and backgrounds, how power systems are established, justified, and perpetuated, and what the fuck has made whites of European descent feel so goddamn confident for thousands of years that they are the rightful leaders and tippity top of the human food chain. I’m well aware life’s not fair, but we don’t have to worsen the lives and experiences of others just to feel better about ourselves.

In college, I found myself drawn to African and African-American Studies classes (in addition to Women’s Studies, Criminology, and Sociology courses). During one A/AA Studies class, I read my now favorite book of all-time, Assata, the autobiography of Assata Shakur, and fell deeper in love with Common once I better understood his lyrics in “Song for Assata.” After I took the essay test covering the book, my instructor let me know that she felt as if I’d cheated on the test, given how detailed I’d been in my answers. She couldn’t prove it (since I didn’t cheat), but still, she wanted me to know that she found it highly unlikely that I absorbed and retained so many details about Ms. Shakur’s life.

By the time I graduated, I was just three classes shy of earning an A/AA Studies minor. I was tempted to go for it, but I was already overdoing it being a student athlete who missed two-to-three days of classes most weeks of the spring semester, being a teacher’s assistant and a research assistant, and pursuing a double major and a minor.

In the fifteen years since my college graduation, I’ve continued on with an informal education of black history and perspectives, reading what I can on racism, black history, and the black lives that have ALWAYS mattered to me.

And while I’m drawn to learning about and appreciating any group of people who’s been discriminated against or subjugated by society, anyone who knows me knows that I’ve been particularly drawn to black culture and black history ever since I was a teenager. Soul music, gospel, R&B, hip-hop—it’s always touched my soul in a very specific and fulfilling way. In my humble opinion, those genres (which are almost exclusively created by black artists) display more emotion, more hurt and struggle and pain and desire and love than any other kind of music. I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed movies and TV shows and documentaries and literature that have focused on black lives and the multitudes of black experiences.

Now, I’m not on some Rachel Dolezal transracial shit. My affinity for art and literature and educational materials created by or focused on black individuals does not mean I consider myself to be black. I am and will always be a nerdy white woman who grew up in a middle-class suburb, mostly surrounded by other white middle-class suburban kids. I will NEVER fully understand what it’s like to be born and raised black in America (or in any other country), no matter how much I connect with or consume black culture.

Furthermore, I am in no way trying to fetishize blackness or black people by submersing myself in the culture. I’m not out here trying to collect cool points by appearing down with the cause. Just because I love films and shows like The Brothers, The Best Man, Think Like a Man, Being Mary Jane, Do The Right Thing, Black Panther, She’s Gotta Have It (both the film and the Netflix series), and so many others, doesn’t mean I’m trying to “act black” (whatever that means) or misappropriate black culture. Just like my diehard affinity for RuPaul’s Drag Race (I’m a Day One fan of the show, B-T-dubs) and UNHhhh with Katya Zamolodchikova and Trixie Mattel doesn’t mean I’m trying to act like a drag queen or misappropriate drag queen culture. If only I was as fierce and funny and fabulous as some of my favorite queens! I’ve immersed myself in LGBTQIA+ culture and history, but I’d never presume to fully understand what it’s like to be transgendered or gay or queer.

Of course, I’m sure there are people out there who’d suggest I am fetishizing or misappropriating black culture, and I’m happy to discuss the issue with anyone willing to have that uncomfortable conversation.

I must be giving some sort of impression to others regarding my affinity to black culture, because it absolutely shocked one of my teammates to learn that my college boyfriend (and later, first husband) was white.

After my divorce, I then moved to Texas, where I met, fell in love with, and married a black man. More specifically, a man from Haiti who moved to the US at fifteen and had the additional challenge of having to learn English and start high school as an ESL student and immigrant with an entirely different childhood experience than his new African-American classmates.

I can speak for the both of us when I say that we married because we fell in love with one another, not because of the color of our respective skin. But that doesn’t stop the fact that others question whether black men fetishize white women (and vice versa), that some believe a black man who marries outside his race is abandoning the strong black women who’ve loved and supported black men in this country for centuries.

Unfortunately, one of my very favorite artists of all time, Jill Scott, has publicly stated her mixed feelings about an African-American man marrying a white woman in America. When she sees a “seemingly together brother with a Caucasian woman,” she feels betrayed. She recognizes that people of all races and ethnicities “find genuine love in many places,” and she seems to suggest that she’s not bothered by interracial couples outside of America (or not involving an African-American male), but when it comes to men who’ve endured American-specific racism and discrimination going back generationally to the time of slavery, for them to abandon black women and build lives with white women who were placed on a pedestal by “Massa” while black women were enslaved, beaten, and killed right alongside black men? She finds it hurtful on an emotional level.

There are varying opinions regarding this issue, and there’s merit behind most of the ones I’ve heard. While I disagree with Ms. Scott’s opinion on the issue and believe it could perpetuate separatism among all races (and be used to advocate for re-criminalizing interracial marriage), I appreciate and respect the fact that she’s acknowledging her opinion is emotionally charged by generational trauma, not by feelings of hate towards white women or interracial couples in general. Racial issues, especially in America, almost always bring with them a mix of emotion and rationality.

Just as Jill Scott can’t help but “wince” and feel betrayed at the sight of a black man in America with a white woman, I can’t help but feel hurt by anyone who believes I have no right to be married to my husband. Sure, he’s technically Haitian (American) and not African-American; he didn’t grow up in America or descend from American slaves, but if Ms. Scott ever saw us, would she know that? Or would she assume, since we’re living in America, that Yvens had betrayed black women by marrying me? I’ve caught several glares and side-eyes from black women over the last five years. How many of them drew that conclusion about my relationship?

I am fully aware that white people have a lot of work to do on their own privilege and racist/prejudiced/biased beliefs and actions, but at a certain point, every single human being is going to have to confront their own prejudgments and disapproval of others on the basis of skin tone, nationality, ancestry, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

So what’s to be done? As an eager ally of a group that has been mistreated in this country for hundreds of years, what can I, as a disabled white woman, do? My health and physical disabilities make it impossible for me to march, but as of now, I still have the power of my voice, my writing, and my listening ears.

I can try to spread the message to others that we need to have these uncomfortable conversations about race, the broken criminal justice system, our current power structure, ideas to effectuate equity, everything. Not just with likeminded liberals and fellow allies, but with those who might’ve been influenced by Limbaugh’s recent comments and alllllllllllllllllllll the other comments and uninformed, hurtful opinions that have been passed down for generation after generation.

If I’m able to speak with others who feel differently than I, I’m going to do my damnedest to be respectful, to try and understand where they’re coming from (even if I vehemently disagree with it), to not shame them for their beliefs, and to make them aware of any facts, figures, scholarly research, etc. that could better inform them on the issue.

I’m going to continue to learn about others, empathizing without judging other people’s experiences and cultures. I’m going to continue to recognize and understand my white, heterosexual, cis privilege and where it came from, and try my best not to perpetuate that privilege in the future (whenever and however possible). I’m going to continue to advocate for systemic change that would remove eliminate mechanisms of racial or gender or sexual orientation privilege and subjugation. I’m going to listen to the thoughts and feelings of those who’ve actually experienced discrimination or oppression and do my best to challenge anyone who believes we’re living in a post-racial America or that white privilege or supremacy is a recent social construct fabricated by the Democratic party.

I’m going to keep searching for and thinking of new ways in which I can be an effective ally.

I’m going to stop the pity party and the wallowing and get to work!

If there’s anyone reading this who’s also felt like an ineffective ally lately, I hope you’ll join me in figuring out ways in which we can do more and learn more.

It’s time to get back to reading Mumia Abu-Jamal’s incredible book, Have Black Lives Ever Mattered?, which I highly recommend. Shit, the introduction is enough to demolish Limbaugh’s ludicrous claims.

Love you all,

Kate

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s