Kelsey Smoot, The Guardian, June 29, 2020
In the days immediately following the widespread media circulation of the video displaying George Floyd’s tragic killing at the hands of Minnesota police officers, my phone buzzed incessantly with text messages from White friends and colleagues. As protests erupted around the nation, in the wake of additional incidences of state sanctioned violence towards Black Americans, these messages too increased. Some texts featured a preamble of apology, well-wishes and a disclaimer that “no reply was necessary”. Others were phrased in the form of questions: “Is there anything you need? What can I do? Do you have a money transferring app where I can give you something to ease your troubles?” A few made the offer to have me redirect other White people to them for educational purposes while I “protected my energy and emotional labor”.
Though the digital age has been pivotal in the swift dissemination and visibility of the blatant racism and violence that have marred the nation’s culture since its inception, these most recent incidents of heinousness, coupled with an increased online emphasis on silence, inaction and complicity, seem to have been able to infiltrate the collective conscience of White liberals. Beyond the assertion that Black lives matter, which has been the battle cry of contemporary racial justice movements, advocates and activists have now undergirded their messages with a charge aimed at White Americans broadly, however well-intentioned: your silence is noticed. You are complicit. You are guilty too.
Unabashedly calling attention to White silence and inaction during a time wherein many White Americans are at home, still awaiting the green light to resume their daily activities on the other side of the Covid-19 pandemic, seems to have tapped into a nuanced well of guilt, shame and, notably, confusion. In my direct circle, it has become obvious to me that many of my White peers are at a loss for what to do in this critical moment to prove themselves different from the ones they have come to view as the true agents of White supremacy. I imagine them, phone in hand, scrolling on social media and seeing messages of disdain and moral indictment pointed at them directly. They think to themselves: “I am not the type of White person who would murder someone in the street. I don’t use racial slurs. I voted for Obama. I have Black friends.” Unable to reconcile the dissonance of their allyship being broadly called into question in the digital sphere, these White individuals turn to me, to us, the proverbial “Black friend”, as a cathartic release of such inner turmoil. They want us to vindicate their longstanding inaction – their culpability in White supremacy – by accepting their monetary donations, their well-wishes and genuine feelings of sympathy at what is only now crystalizing in their minds as another sort of pandemic; one which has only ever kept racially marginalized individuals quarantined away from enjoying the liberties promised to all Americans in the governing documents of the nation.
However, neither the sudden compulsion toward acts of kindness, nor a genuine concern for the experiences of people of color, constitute true allyship. As a subscriber to (and regular circulator of) a number of online and academic resources geared towards institutional, educational and social change, broadly referred to as “diversity and inclusion”, I have seen countless definitions for allyship, and “how-to” guides created to steer White people down the path of racial solidarity. Social justice practitioners often point to allyship as an opportunity for sympathetic White people to get involved in the fight for social equity – to use their privileges to call attention to injustice by utilizing the channels which are generally inaccessible to people of color without penalization. Allyship has been diluted conceptually, to be the metaphorical equivalent of the older kid in the schoolyard who might stick up for you when you’re being bullied. It is the identity touted by White people who brand themselves “one of the good ones”, as they do in fact recognize racial injustice, and when convenient, are happy to enact good deeds to support their marginalized counterparts.
Unfortunately, good deeds will not dismantle systemic oppression. White kindness was unable to spare the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, nor any of the countless other victims of White supremacy in our nation’s history. White kindness does not reconcile the vastly disparate social and political vicissitudes experienced along racial lines, nor the undeniable gap in access to healthcare greatly illuminated by the ongoing public health crisis.
The truth is, genuine allyship is not kindness, it is not a charitable act, nor is it even a personal commitment to hold anti-racist ideals – it is a fall from grace. Real allyship enacted by White Americans, with a clear objective to make equitable the lived experiences of individuals across racial lines, means a willingness to lose things. Not just the extra $50 in one’s monthly budget by way of donating to an organization working towards racial justice. I mean palpable, incalculable loss. The loss of the charmed life associated with being a White person in America. Refusing a pay raise at one’s job and insisting that it be reallocated to co-workers of color who are undoubtedly being underpaid. The loss of potentially every close relationship with other White friends and family members who refuse to acknowledge or amend their behaviors that reinforce systemic oppression. The loss of bodily safety, by way of physically intervening when violence is being inflicted on to Black bodies.
This notion, one of true allyship, extends so far beyond the purview of contemporary White engagement with racial justice that it seems fanciful; almost laughable. I hardly ever allow myself the mental space to contemplate it. To wonder, if the White people in my life could hit a button and instantly remove the privileges afforded to them along racial lines, would they hit that button? Would they truly want to wake up tomorrow, in an America in which my life mattered just as much as theirs, if it came at the cost of all they have come to know and enjoy in the vein of White privilege? To expect true allyship from the White people in my life would be to ask them to be willing to sacrifice the thing that they covet most, though they may never be truly conscious of it: their Whiteness. So, I don’t. I respond to each message I receive with “thank you for thinking of me”, place my phone face downward on my desk, and prepare for another day of navigating White America.