The Uncomfortable Art Of Being An Ally

The struggle to be one of the “good ones”.

Steve QJ
Steve QJ
May 24 · 5 min read
Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

From time to time, Robert P George, a professor at Princeton University, runs an experiment on his students. He asks them to imagine what they would have done if they were white and living in the American South during slavery.

You guessed it; they’d all have been abolitionists!

Even though slavery was worth more to the US economy than the railroads and manufacturing combined. Even though anyone caught providing food, shelter or aid to escaped slaves risked crippling fines, jail, and even death. Even though Abraham Lincoln himself once “expressly disclaimed all intention to bring about social and political equality between the white and black races,” these students all claim they’d have fought for justice.

And even though it’s hopelessly naive, the fact that they believe this is a good thing. 150 years ago, hardly anybody openly opposed slavery. Today, it’s hard to imagine that anybody wouldn’t. 150 years ago, some saw slavery as a “divine institution". Today, we all see how evil it was. 150 years ago, being an abolitionist meant risking everything. Today, it’s so easy that a bunch of starry-eyed kids at a $52,000 a year university believe they’d have had the courage.

This is how progress always looks.

To begin with, being an ally is so frightening that hardly anybody dares. But as more people speak out, the balance starts to shift. Instead of avoiding uncomfortable questions, we answer them. Instead of ignoring injustice, we confront it. Instead of dehumanising each other, we find common ground.

This difficult, painstaking work continues day after day, month after month, year after year. Until eventually, nobody can imagine doing anything less.

It’s fair to say that anti-racism is having a moment. People across the world are affirming the simple truth that Black Lives Matter. Books about racism are flying off Amazon’s virtual shelves. Social media is awash with BLM hashtags and black fist emojis. Civil rights activism at this global scale, even a decade ago, was almost inconceivable.

But while this enthusiasm is wonderful, it’s led to a lot of confusion about what it means to be an ally.

While some say that allies need to speak up, others demand that they be quiet. While some say that allies should reach out to their black friends, others tell them not to bother. While some say that allies need to educate themselves about the black experience, others insist that understanding is impossible.

The inevitable result of these mixed messages is that many would-be-allies switch off their brains and follow the crowd. Instead of engaging with racial issues critically, they assume that anything claiming to be “anti-racist” must be helping.

So when a “Jeopardy!” contestant holds up three fingers during an episode, 595 former contestants sign an open letter demanding an apology, even while admitting that “we can’t know his intent” (and even though the idea that the “OK” symbol is racist is a joke).

When legislators introduce an “anti-CRT” bill preventing schools from teaching that “one race is inherently superior to another race” or that “an individual should be discriminated against […] solely or partly because of his or her race”, these same “allies” condemn it whilst somehow failing to notice that the bill doesn’t prevent schools from teaching about racism, it simply prevents them from teaching racism.

When, in 2020, a total of 18 unarmed African Americans are killed by police officers, “allies” argue that mentioning the 51 black children who died due to gun violence in Chicago alone is a “distraction".

But is any of this what being an ally means? How does demonising innocent people promote racial equality? How does promoting racist ideas lead to a less racist world? How does ignoring the leading source of black homicides support the idea that black lives matter?

In today’s topsy turvy world, these are uncomfortable questions. But aren’t they precisely the questions that allies should be asking? Shouldn’t we be making sure we’re focusing on the right problems? Shouldn’t we be concerned about the ideas we put into our children’s heads? Aren’t these the kind of questions that, 150 years from now, our starry-eyed great-great-grandchildren will believe they’d have had the courage to ask?

It’s not lost on me that these arguments cut both ways. Whilst I’m against teaching CRT in schools, some black people support it. Whilst I believe that black lives continue to matter when they aren’t taken by white police officers, some black people see things differently. Whilst I think that the current hypersensitivity about race undermines us, some black people…actually, it’s mostly white people who are to blame for that.

But that’s my point. There’s no “black consensus” on CRT or gun violence or affirmative action or how to deal with your racist uncle. There’s no “black experience” that captures how all of us feel. There is no all-knowing spokesperson to tell you how black people see the world.

Being an ally isn’t about treating black people as a monolith. In fact, it’s not about black people at all. The abolitionists didn’t risk their lives because they wanted to be allies to black people, they risked their lives because they opposed injustice in their society.

This is an important distinction.

Being an ally isn’t about dividing humanity into “us” and “them”. It’s about affirming that black people — that all people — have as much right to dignity and safety and opportunity as everybody else.

Being an ally isn’t about seeking out new and ever more obscure forms of “racism”. It’s about solving problems that impact people’s lives. It’s about righting wrongs that have persisted for far too long. It’s about heeding the calls of grief-stricken communities over op-eds written by people who don’t live in them.

Most importantly, being an ally is about telling the truth, even if some people don’t want to hear it. It’s about having good-faith conversations, even when it’s exhausting. It’s about being willing to change your mind, but refusing to be bullied into doing so. It’s about standing up for what’s right with compassion and integrity and humility.

This difficult, painstaking work continues day after day, month after month, year after year. Until eventually, nobody can imagine doing anything less.

Introducing The Commentary. A selection of weird, wonderful, and wacky conversations about race, politics and culture.

Steve QJ

Written by

Steve QJ

Race. Politics. Culture. Sometimes other things. Almost always polite. Find more at https://steveqj.substack.com

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Steve QJ

Written by

Steve QJ

Race. Politics. Culture. Sometimes other things. Almost always polite. Find more at https://steveqj.substack.com

ILLUMINATION-Curated

Outstanding stories objectively and diligently selected by 40+ senior editors on ILLUMINATION

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