Holy shit, being an ally isn’t about me!
How I learned being a white liberal doesn’t make me a good ally
What a difference five months makes.
Five months ago, I was as effective a white “ally” as Trump is a president.
Five months ago: In Pantsuit Nation, a black woman posted a thread asking for input from other people of color (POC). It seemed innocuous enough a request. Surely in this liberal sea of white, the melanin-deficient progressives would allow the POC one lousy post without intrusion, right? Wrong. Angry white commenters hijacked and derailed the post, accusing the black woman of everything from racism to “separation politics.” Clambering at the opportunity to chime in (because I also felt the pain of being silenced while white), I rushed to her defense, asking my own skinfolk to sit out one solitary post directed at, and for, POC. Serendipitously, a black woman replied to me and asked if I wanted to become a member of an intersectional feminist group led by WOC (women of color) and for WOC. Heck yes, I wanted to join because I was not a racist — not this white woman. That is how I found myself in a WOC-led, intersectional feminism group — a group to which I still belong.
I started there as a clueless woman, who thought she knew everything. I’ll give you a little bit of my background. I’m a small-town Midwestern Spanish-German cis straight Christian American white woman. I couldn’t wait to prove to myself and everyone else that I was one of the good white people and definitely no racist. Nope. Not me.
I attempted to get the WOC in the group to like me by trying my usual online friendship tactics: complimenting each one on her intelligence, her hair, her profile picture … and of course, hitting “like” on every comment and post. However, my effort went unrewarded. No one paid any attention to my efforts, and no one praised me.
Like a determined toddler, I decided that surely, if the WOC understood all of my good deeds for POC (smiling at black and brown people on the metro, telling POC that I was not racist and didn’t care about skin color, and actually having 2 Muslim and 2 black friends), that they would like me. They would finally understand my feelings. Well, when I mentioned these things, I was told to stop asking for cookies.
I really didn’t understand what cookies were. Much of the language in this group was new to me — “privilege” this and “appropriation” that, “centering” this and “reparations” that, “derailing” this and “white tears” that. I figured, if I started asking lots of questions, the WOC would realize my good intentions. They would see me as the white heroine who was trying to “get it.” But no. “Look it up on Google,” they said again and again.
I huffed and puffed and at one time considered leaving the group. They rolled their eyes at this (I could feel it through my computer screen).
What was I doing so wrong? And more importantly to me, what was I really getting out of this group when the WOC neither wanted nor needed my help, my praise or my opinions? Why didn’t they want to stop and teach me how to do better?
This was me five months ago:
- Defensive when I wasn’t the center of attention or felt ignored.
- Constantly worried about whether I was liked and accepted.
- Always asking myself how things benefited me.
- Refusing to listen or feel anything when POC shared their truths, simply waiting anxiously for my turn to speak.
- Asking POC to educate me over and over again and not understanding when they told me to educate myself.
- Balking at questions left unanswered, but when POC did volunteer their labor, I disrespected it by not really believing what they said.
- Feeling a nearly overwhelming urge to exclaim, “But I’m not like that!” when they expressed anger or frustration at white people.
White women (WW), have you ever been there and done those things? Most of us have.
That person I was five months ago — good intentions and all — was extremely dangerous to POC and their fight for liberation. I’ll admit that I joined the group for validation. I wanted to be told, “You’re the right kind of white person.” This is the kind of bullshit that makes me and progressive WW like me (and maybe you, too?) just as scary as abject racists who seek to destroy POC.
I have realized just how much we exhaust POC. We don’t listen. We think so highly of ourselves, that we refuse to change. We deny being part of the problem. We believe everything is about us and for us because we are white. As tough as it is to admit, it has always been this way.
That was me when I joined the group. I was a menace. Begrudgingly, I stayed. I listened. I learned. As I heard WOC express their unique struggles, pain, accomplishments and joys, something dawned on me.
Hey, what if — just what if — WOC didn’t need to be grateful for my attempts at being an ally? What if this one thing was actually not about me?
I am embarrassed to say this, but in my ignorance, this notion was astounding. I suddenly became acutely aware that everything in my life had always been about me. In my 40 years of life, people mostly sang my praises. When they didn’t, it had nothing to do with the color of my skin.
This is White Privilege. As white people (WP), society generally loves — or at least accepts — us. We are never made to feel unsafe or unwanted because of our skin color. We are never silenced and stereotyped because we are white. Many of us WP feel a jolt to our very being when someone doesn’t seem to care whether or not we join the party.
Once I gleaned this tiny bit of enlightenment — it wasn’t about me or for me, my feelings are not all that important here, do the work or hit the road, no pats on the back for treating POC as worthy human beings — this became my “He’s Just Not That Into You” AHA moment of clarity.
I saw with new eyes. Instead of asking what I was getting out of allyship, I began asking what POC were getting out of me as a potential ally. De-centering myself, I went from “How can I make them like me?” to “How can I be better by them?”
I realized that posts about the horrors of whiteness were not necessarily directed at me personally but more at the systemic injustices of a white society. Where many of us white folks were flabbergasted by the election results and had begun fighting only after Trump was elected, POC were not at all surprised by the election and had already been fighting for several hundred years. My own white resistance was in its infancy. These eye-opening realizations have enabled me to show up and to keep my promises; to join the battle for POC liberation in real life instead of just as a keyboard warrior; to put my money where my mouth is; to lay down my defenses when I am called out; and in turn to call out other white so-called “progressives” with a kind but stern heart.
I learned these lessons precisely because WOC in this group knew that I wouldn’t learn these lessons if they spoon-fed me my allyship. When I missed the mark and WOC gave me nothing, they actually gave me everything. They knew what I did not: That we as WP have to walk our own path to gain understanding. We need to get to a place where we are dismayed at the ugliness of racism and how we contribute to that ugliness.
WP, we must walk this road if we are trying to help POC fight for liberation. Sometimes white Baby does indeed need to be put in the corner. Only then can she see beyond her own nose, feel the raw truths of POC, and begin to face the systems of oppression that break their spirits and take their lives.
So here I am five months later, aware of these truths and comfortable with POC leadership. Now can I finally say that I am an ally?
I do not get to bestow that title upon myself or claim that I am “woke.” As WP, none of us get to do that. Just as a recovering alcoholic is always recovering, we will always be allies-in-training. Even though I hope to be part of the solution, as a well-intentioned WP, I must recognize that I will always be part of the problem. I may have learned from POC about how to glimpse my better self, be a better friend, and stop needing recognition for being a “good ally,” but I can never fully understand their world or experience their truths.
The past five months have taught me this: If we are to really do the work to fight against racism and oppression using our allyship, we must realize that our learning — both in white society and in our own racist hearts — will be a lifelong endeavor. As WP, we have to commit to this work for the rest of our lives. We owe POC at least that much.
*This is the collective product of women of color and allies. This piece specifically comes from the voices of a group of allies.