Dear Women of Color Who Are Told to Be Nicer to White “Allies”
This is a love letter to every Black and Brown woman who has expressed anger or even rage, and has been told by another Black or Brown woman that we should be building bridges. This is addressed to every woman of color who has ever been told, you need to be less angry, less “bitter,” that “hate isn’t the answer,” that we should “talk to the other side,” that we should in some way change who we are, change how we behave, so that white people might actually want to help us.
Whiteness in the name of “grace”
I used to belong to one of those hundreds or so anti-racist secret Facebook groups that popped up right after the election. It was a WOC-centered space but the number of white women in that group outnumbered us by about 4 to 1. We told white women to shut the fuck up when they’d fucked up. And they had fucked up. I saw white women saying “I see them as strong, ‘I don’t take no shit’ women,” and using that as an excuse to not treat us like human beings. And I’ll never forget reading a long thread where white women were explaining that they didn’t see our work (our anti-racist writings and calls to action) as being worthy of sharing within their precious networks and implied that they must be of lesser quality because women of color were writing them. We told them to sit down, shut the fuck up, and clean up their messes when they made them in that group.
And then the WOC leader of that group decided that it was us, her fellow women of color who were the problem. She decided that we were being too mean, abusive even. She and a few other women of color decided that they would give the white women “grace.” Because after all, building bridges. Getting allies. Being nice. Seducing them away from oppression. That was the most important and prudent thing.
What’s worse — this was not an isolated incident of WOC fuckery. A prominent women of color recently told her audience that, among other things, our job is to give white people grace, that we WE have the power to silence white people by telling them to shut up, that WE, by virtue of our rage in response to their racial violence, perpetuate the system of racism.
That’s the thing I’ve noticed about women like this — they love to throw out the word “grace.” For white people. And in particular white women, but Grace never comes for the women of color who are hurting. A white woman cries and the whole world stops. A woman of color cries and it’s just another day. The women of color are pathologized and turned into the problem while the white women get to go on their merry way, continuing to do violence and being coddled as they go.
This is total bullshit.
WOC policing other WOC
Contrary to what some would say, this is not merely a difference of opinions. This is about lives. We are dying. People of color are constantly being murdered and that’s not because we’re not nice. Pretending that one of the things standing in our way of liberation is not being nice enough and encouraging white people to do the same isn’t just disrespectful — it’s dangerous. It devalues our humanity and provides even more motivation for white people to place us on a spectrum of lives that matter and lives that don’t.
This is about a failure to see our humanity that comes not only from white people but also white-adjacent people of color, those who have gained entrance into elitism and tell us that in order to fight white supremacy, we must become closer to white supremacy. That we need white people to help us dismantle whiteness; that we need to be nice to whiteness in order to stop whiteness. This makes about as much sense as being asked to be nice to murderers in the hopes that they won’t murder us. This makes about as much sense as a woman being told to be nice to well-meaning men so that they won’t rape us. This is essentially telling victims that if only we would be nice to our oppressors, maybe they wouldn’t oppress us so much.
Fuck that respectability nonsense
There is a long history of what’s known as respectability politics, which basically says that if people of color behave in a way that white people deem respectable, white people will stop being racist.
The problem with that logic is simple: It doesn’t work.
Trayvon Martin went to Experience Aviation camp and was sweet and shy.
Breaion King is an elementary school teacher.
Sandra Bland, as part of her anti-racism work, encouraged Black people to befriend white people, even those that might be racist, to “show love to somebody who can hate you for no reason.”
Margie Carranza and Emma Hernandez were delivering newspapers when they were shot by police.
And respectability politics sure didn’t stop an Asian doctor from being assaulted by police and then dragged off a plane.
People of color are being attacked not because of what we say or how we behave, or even how we look. We are being attacked because of the color of our skin. Our race. Our ethnicities. And telling us to be “nice” sounds like telling women not to wear certain clothes, not to behave in a certain way so that we won’t be assaulted. Fuck that noise. The rule is not: “Don’t get raped.” The rule is: “Men, don’t rape.”
The respectability violence to ourselves
Here’s what we think the worst part about respectability politics is: This ideology comes from our own marginalized communities. We police ourselves. We try to elevate ourselves so that we don’t seem like we’re one of those people of color. The people of color who play respectability politics and tone police other people of color are purposely and with intent cozying up to white supremacy so that they reap the benefits of proximity to whiteness, whether it’s through a book deal like Luvvie Ajayi’s, John Ridley’s screenplay deals, Salma Hayak’s movie deals, and the countless politicians of color who have pointed the finger at communities of color and ordered them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, an ideology linked with the politics of respectability.
These type of “be nicer to white people” arguments are based on some weird alternate reality where people of color have all the power (which does not exist), and is built on the false premise that holding white people accountable is “oppressing white people.” Power, privilege, and oppression are not about just individual interactions — they exist within a broader white supremacist and anti-black social context that is constantly catering to and centering the needs of white people.
Walking over POC to get closer to whiteness and white people
Michelle Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness wrote that during Jim Crow,
“In many cases, the relatively privileged black elite turned against the black urban poor, condemning them and distancing themselves, while at the same time presenting themselves as legitimate spokespeople for the disadvantaged.”
Similarly, there are modern-day elites with social capital that turn against those with less social power. In the group I belonged to, this looked like the group’s owner and loyalists turning against the very women of color who had helped uplift their voices to begin with. In other cases, women of color have prescribed notions of how money should be earned, and how it should not. Much like financial power, social power can be used against us.
This is nothing new.
To be closer to whiteness means to be closer to capital. Maybe they’ve decided to throw you under the bus because that means they’ll be closer to resources like jobs. Maybe it’s because they really want white approval and validation. Or perhaps it’s because their internalized racism and white supremacy makes them yearn for white approval and validation, and it unbearable to see white women cry. But it is never — let me repeat, never — to fight for anti-racism. It is to position themselves above you.
A note about white people
It’s worth reminding ourselves that if white people’s allyship requires people of color to be nice to them, they are not an ally. If you ever seen a white person clap for a WOC giving her people of color the old “get off your lazy ass” spiel, know that white person is not an ally — they are a complicit bystander. Remind your white friends that if POC “anti-racist” educators speak to white people to give white people a voice, they are no ally. If a white person’s first impulse, when a person of color tells them to shut the fuck up in an anti-racist space is to feel offended or claim they’re being silenced, then we need to tell them to get the fuck out of our way so that we don’t mistake them for someone who might actually help when shit gets real.
“An ally should be personally gaining NOTHING through their activism. In fact, if you are an ally, you should be losing things through your activism; space, voice, recognition, validation, identity and ego.”
White allies should be losing their voices, not gaining them. White people need to stop whining every time things get uncomfortable because we people of color don’t want to cater to and coddle them anymore. Despite what they have been taught, white people are actually not the center of the universe, and are not entitled to feel good about everything all the time and avoid accountability, responsibility, or discomfort. They’re not entitled to us.
Let me repeat what many have said before: it’s not the job of the brutalized to comfort their oppressors. Women of color do not owe it to white people to tone police ourselves. If white “allies” take away or threaten to take away their “allyship” because people of color are “too mean” to them, and they would prefer that we “educate and not alienate” them, then they were never an ally to begin with.
The work we actually need to do
I’ve come to believe that white people will never be a force in dismantling white supremacy. I’ve come to believe, as others have, that we must build bridges with each other. Our communities of color are in conflict within each other and with each other. I believe that as people of color, we need to show grace to ourselves and our own people first before we can build bridges with other communities of color. Every one of our communities — our Asian communities, our Latinx, our Mexican-American communities, our undocumented communities, our Native communities, our LGBTQ commnunities, our Muslim communities, and all the ways they intersect — needs to confront our own patterns of lateral oppression, our own patterns of anti-Blackness, our own patterns of colorism and classism and xenophobia, Islamophobia, Hispanophobia, and then reach our hands to other communities that are also marginalized.
Our liberation will not come from white people. No matter how nice we are to them, white people enjoy too many advantages in this white supremacist society to ever mobilize en masse to dismantle it. Our liberation and the end of our oppression will only come from us.