“White women need to learn how and when to follow — not lead. They need to do their part to uplift, learn from, follow and support Black and Indigenous women in dismantling white supremacy. But again, not lead.” Amanda Svachula.
Here’s a hard pill to swallow: racism is a global problem in which all white people are complicit in. Yes, all. It is a simple truth that you must acknowledge as an ally, but for some it’s a truth that simply is too ‘difficult’ to face. As an activist, it is hard to admit that I, as a white woman, have something to gain from patriarchal white supremacy. When I first began my antiracist activism work, I found myself trying to appear to be ‘the good one’ and as such threw myself into sharing posts, making comments and outwardly trying to prove that I was on the ‘right’ side of the fight. I look back now at my efforts to distance myself from the system and recognise a lot of what we see as activism is mere performance; in trying to remove myself from the system of white supremacy and indicate to others that I was ‘different’, I like many others, was making myself the centre of attention rather than actually doing anything to bring about change. As exemplified by Neil Thompson, there are a lot of people who oversimplify antiracism as being in narrow psychological terms; it is an issue of personal prejudice and as such should be tackled on an individual level. By this logic, if the ‘I’ believes themselves to not be prejudiced, racism is not a problem for them. Those who live with this viewpoint defend themselves with the determination of ‘I am not a racist because’ but never consider the implications of ‘I exist and benefit by living in a racist system’. Within ‘white antiracism’, there are a lot of cases where righteous white ‘activists’ armed with some antiracist knowledge seek to police the actions of others, explaining that their behaviours in calling out others make them a good ally. In actuality, the only thing they achieve is bolstering your own smugness and ego.
A big part of allyship is the understanding that you likely never will ‘understand’. Often I see people seeking to empathise with people of colour, citing their own experiences of oppression and discrimination despite their Whiteness. I regularly see and hear white people equating their own suffering with the suffering of others, saying time and time again ‘I know how you feel.’. Creating your own pity party only prioritises your own discomfort over the discomfort of others. The responsibility of White people who work within antiracism is to tackle and combat their own whiteness; engaging in difficult conversations, recognising your own biases and unlearning harmful practices. You don’t fix the problem by trying to appeal to and appease those who you have wronged; you have to change yourself and your patterns of behaviour. There is a clear indication of an impulsive desire to fix the problem and be forgiven. The thing is, Black people don’t need to be rescued or saved by white people. They just need to be listened to.
‘It’s interesting because I talk to all these white girls and they talk to me like “we’re all women, we’re all women who need to come together” and I’m like listen girl, I am Black first… There’s so much oppression to deal with by being Black and being a woman that I have to break my oppression down.’ – Dulce Sloan
While she says a lot of this in a comedic context, Dulce Sloan hits the nail on the head. Feminism has a long and tumultuous history of being told from the perspective of the ‘damaged and oppressed white woman’. Think of all the heralded historical women in the fight for women’s equality. What do a number of them have in common? They are well-to-do, educated white women. Throughout history, no single feminist movement has been for the bettering of all women. White women, particularly those who are heterosexual, ablebodied and cisgendered benefit from the white supremacist aspects of the same patriarchy from which they experience oppression. Consider for a moment the Karen phenomenon. Trevor Noah simplified it perfectly: ‘This year’s biggest trend for white ladies is calling the cops on Black people.’. The Karen phenomenon has recently taken social media by storm; I can remember hundreds of videos of middle class white ladies being held under the microscope and lens of public scrutiny as they behave abhorrently in front of a camera. ‘Karen-ism’ previously was just associated with bad highlights, Ugg boots and demanding a manager but in recent years it has been made clear that there is something else that links them all together; racist attitudes. While the likes of you and I might consider the women in these viral videos an anomaly, they illustrate not only the different types of racism exemplified by white women, but also go to show the privileges that white women have in society. Whether it’s vibrating Victoria Secret Karen who screamed and charged at a young black woman or the Karen who called the police on a child selling water in the street, all demonstrate and make use of their privilege with the aim of bringing punishment to Black women around them. Many of the women in these videos explain ‘I am not a racist but I feel threatened’. The ability to have this attitude is a privilege. It’s not something people like to admit, but if you are white, you are listened to, regardless of whether or not what you’re saying has any substance or validity. All of the women in these videos indicate that systemically, despite them being in the wrong, they are listened to and privileged over others. Their ‘suffering’ and oppression is legitimised whilst the discrimination of others is dismissed and ridiculed. Tears and drama are the weapons of white women; when we cry we are given support. What happens when we make others cry? I am listened to not because I deserve it, but because my voice allows for the continuation of the oppression against others.
Allyship is difficult to understand and difficult to get right; often those with good intentions don’t realise the consequences of their actions and in their attempts to do the right thing actually further perpetuate the problem. Lots of people, women in particular, decide to avoid the subject of racism and activism altogether for fear of ‘saying the wrong thing’ and talk about how they as white women have to ‘walk on eggshells’ in order to participate in allyship. The thing is though, the fear of ‘messing up’ is miniscule compared to the constant fear experienced by people of colour. As an ally, you have to recognise that you will make mistakes and that the only way to improve is to stop being defensive. The nature of antiracist work as a white person is that it is a life-long commitment to unlearning and recognising that you live and benefit from the system that oppresses others.
It’s important that I recognise that even as I write this piece, I am still performing In many ways, this piece only goes against the argument that I am trying to make; I am further indicating that ‘I’m not like those white people. I’m a good white person’. It seems nonsensical that I am talking about how white women need to put the microphone down whilst holding that very microphone. The reality is, if my allyship includes me in the narrative, it achieves nothing. Whilst I try to demonstrate that ‘trying to be an ally this much is counter-intuitive’, because it is coming from my mouth and my position of privilege it is immediately undermined. Acting in allyship is not about the outward presentation, but is about the work you do inwards. Allyship is not about shouting the loudest, but showing up and listening to those who have less power and privilege. As a white person, it is vital that I recognise that I am part of the problem. I cannot solve racism by trying to indicate to others that I am not racist. What I can do is address and take steps to tackle my participation in the white supremacist patriarchy.