How to not be a “Karen”: Managing the tensions of antiracist allyship
by Danyelle Dawson, Yara Mekawi, & Natalie N. Watson-Singleton
Dear White Allies,
Engaging in antiracist work is complicated. An increasing number of you are trying to do more and trying to listen more, and in that process, become exposed to a variety of ideas about what you can “do” to support Black folks and other people of color (POC). Let’s say you jump on board and give it a shot, trying to do the “right” thing by speaking up and sharing your visceral disdain for racism. Next thing you know, you are criticized for “centering yourself” or “talking over POC.” You might notice feelings of anger and the burning sensation of, “But, but…you just said to-.” You might feel frustrated and confused only to find yourself labeled a “Karen” or “Chad” and your emotions labeled as “white tears.” In moments like these, you might react in one of two ways. One, you might dig your heels in and insist you are being a good ally. Two, you might say “Forget it — everything I do is wrong because people are too sensitive!” and just give up because you are tired of the “mixed messages.” Both options, at the end of the day, are not helpful for people of color (or for you!). We think there’s a better way.
What we’re proposing is a third option centered on the idea of dialectics — the notion that two seemingly opposing ideas can be true at the same time. We are not here to provide you with educational resources about anti-Black racism (others have done that work here and here) or to tell you what to do (others have done that work here and here). We are also not here to tell you which organizations to support (others have already done that work here and here). Our goal is to help you navigate antiracist tensions, that, when left unresolved, can undermine your efforts to support Black folks and other POC, and hinder your growth, journey, and commitment to antiracist work. Specifically, we want to name some key tensions and use dialectics as a way to offer a “middle path” forward.
Dialectic #1: “Speak out (loudly) against racism” and “Don’t talk over Black folks.”
Based on Martin Luther King Jr.’s reflection that “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends,” the idea that White silence is violence has gained traction. Using your privilege in this way is, in fact, important given research showing that when Black folks speak out about racism, they can experience social costs (e.g., perceived as more hypersensitive) and receive more negative and antagonistic responses. So you take initiative, grab the mic, get into the middle of the stage, ready to be as loud as possible about racism to a huge audience. What can possibly go wrong?
Well, one big thing that can go wrong is “centering,” aka “making it about you.” As exemplified by Ijeoma Oluo’s story about a White woman whose response to an antiracism talk was to complain about how it did not seem to help her gain Black friends, centering happens when you lose sight of the goal. When you center yourself, it makes it hard to hear the voices of POC who are already doing the work. The priority, instead, becomes what you want and what you think is effective. This is likely how, for example, White women shaving their heads for BLM was even considered as an action step — even though Black folks never asked them to do that. These types of actions, which center the speaker (e.g., “wow, how brave of you to shave your head”) are not only unhelpful but also harmful because they detract attention away from dismantling racism.
In the way that back-up vocals expand a song and eventually make it more popular, effectively balancing this dialectic is similar to the steps you might take to be an effective back-up singer, including: “Learn to harmonize,” “Listen closely,” “Find the proper modulation” and “Never stick out.”
Your voice can be clearly audible and important without making the “song” about you.
Dialectic #2: “Black folks are the authority on their experiences of marginalization/racism” and “Black folks are not an ideological monolith.”
The path to allyship is littered with the ghosts of “well-intentioned” attempts to center Black voices, attempts that ultimately failed as a result of treating Black people at best, as an ideological monolith, or at worst, as a prop. As an ally, your role is to advocate for the liberation and uncontested humanity of Black communities. This task is only viable when your advocacy genuinely centers the voices of those for whom you advocate. However, too often “allies” center voices that simply serve to fill the echo chambers of their own opinions. If you have ever found yourself justifying a stance by citing the few Black voices you can find that speak to your view (perhaps even a particularly prominent Black voice), you have not centered Black voices. You have weaponized Black voices in service of your own agenda, and in doing so ignored the heterogeneous nature of Black communities. You may find this tension difficult to hold. How can one center Black voices and avoid treating Black people as a monolith? How does one go about deciding which voices to center? Is not the very act of advocating for a community and centering Black voices treating said community and voices as a single unified body? The answer is complicated, but the directive is not.
It is important to remember that when you seek out the opinions of Black individuals, Black people are each experts on their individual experience. This does not inherently mean every Black person is an expert on the Black experience broadly. Black people are not a monolith, nor are the experiences of Black folks. There is a litany of activists, scholars, and community organizations who have devoted their lives and careers to the liberation of Black people, gathering insights from the ground up, and advocating for that which will address the heterogeneous nature of the needs of Black communities. There are many resources (like here) that compile this work, and model how to amplify Black voices as an authority on their own experiences without relying on broad generalizations. Engage with and cite this work (and hit up Google before asking your Black colleagues).
Listen to and lift the voices of those around you, while also remaining vigilant about the ways in which internalization of oppressive ideologies may be influencing which voices you choose to amplify.
Dialectic #3: “Listen to POC directly” and “Don’t demand free emotional labor.”
As companies, organizations, and universities scramble to address systemic racism within their own spaces and structures, the call for marginalized voices to educate these systems and individuals is drenched in complexity and often extends into our interpersonal relationships. We offer this dynamic to bring attention to the balance between listening to Black voices in their expressions of pain and identification of levers for change and demanding the free emotional labor of your Black friend or colleague in your quest for education. We want you to join in the fight for social and economic justice, but we also want you to respect Black folks’ autonomy in deciding when to offer White allies direction.
Have you found yourself reaching out to ask a Black person in your social or professional network to explain the longstanding frustrations, pain, and anger motivating the current uprising? Have you found yourself reaching out to ask, “What can systems do in response?” or perhaps, “What can I do to better support you/your community?” If so, you may be unknowingly wrestling with this dialectic — struggling to hold both your quest for understanding and your respect for the community you seek to support.
Continuing the metaphor about back-up vocals, to be an effective ally you must learn to listen and learn the lyrics before you sing along. Please note, that there are multiple ways to listen from a place of privilege and few (if any) begin with a demand for the marginalized to educate you. Listening to Black voices does not have to occur in real-time interpersonal conversations; chances are your questions have already been answered to some extent over the course of the 400-year fight for equality and justice. In the event no one in your social or professional circle is freely offering their insight, your task may simply be to seek out sources that answer your questions. Listening can be reading the work of antiracist scholars; listening can be consuming art that amplifies Black voices and speaks to the Black experience; or listening may even entail reading through popular hashtags and threads on Twitter cataloguing collective struggles (see #BlackInTheIvory, #BlackInSTEM, #KarensGoneWild…).
In the face of historical and current harm, Black folks are already fighting to swim against the vicious currents of white supremacy. Please don’t ask us to stop swimming to teach you, too, how to swim. As noted by Renee Graham, “If someone is drowning, do you stand on the shore and ask that person, who has more than enough to contend with, what you should do? Or, out of a sense of common decency and humanity, do you reach out to help?”. Would it be helpful if the person drowning said, “Hey can you grab that branch and extend it to me so that I can grab on, and you pull me out?” Of course! But it would be just as helpful (and less burdensome) to assess the situation and act in accordance with what is immediately obvious as helpful. Similarly, we encourage you to think dialectically about your ventures for education on how you can understand and/or contribute to liberation efforts. There are a host of educational avenues at your disposal; it is completely possible to both listen to Black voices directly and avoid treating Black people in your life as your on-call racial and economic justice experts.
Dear White Allies, you may want simple, straightforward guidelines about how to do this work in the “right way.” We understand that receiving seemingly contradictory messages can make it hard to know what to do and these messages may cause some missteps along the way. This uncertainty can result in confusion, anger, and frustration. Yet, know that being an ally means not only dismantling the White supremacist systems of power and privilege that threaten Black lives, but also, learning how to effectively navigate the tensions of antiracist allyship across contexts and situations. We encourage you to stick with it and find the “middle” path forward. You (and our world) will be the better for it!
About the Authors
Danyelle, Yara, and Natalie are the co-creators of the DEAR (Dialectical Engagement in Antiracism) Project, an organization that facilitates emotion-focused and behavioral change-oriented antiracism training for white people. For more information about the DEAR project or about how to bring antiracism advocacy to your organization, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also keep the conversation by engaging with us on social Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram!