Saturday, 27 June 2015 00:00

'We need co-conspirators, not allies': how white Americans can fight racism

Written by Rose Hackman | The Guardian
 Hundreds gather for a protest rally against the Confederate flag in Columbia, South Carolina, on 20 June. Hundreds gather for a protest rally against the Confederate flag in Columbia, South Carolina, on 20 June. Photograph: Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

Some white people may be sitting on the sidelines out of discomfort over making faux pas – but they may need to get over that anxiety to help defeat injustice

In America, where 62% of the population identifies as Caucasian, white people are easy to find.

But white people have not been as visible in the aftermath of the Charleston massacre last week, where a young white man and his white supremacist ideals entered a historically black church and shot nine churchgoers dead.

“People who are not black can no longer sit on the margins. They can no longer just express their sympathy: those are shallow words,” Arielle Newton, a 23-year-old black blogger said at a rally in Harlem in New York City on Monday.

“They have to act intentionally, from a point of pro-blackness. To work to make sure that black people are given the equity that we deserve.”

About 100 mourners and #BlackLivesMatter protesters attended the rally.
Despite the protest area explicitly being defined as a “black-centered space” by organizers , much of the dialogue that ensued was focused on white people, white ideologies and conversations white people may – or may not – be having at their dinner tables.

Standing towards the back of the gathering, carrying a poster that stated “Black Lives Matter” on one side and the names of black women and girls killed by police on the other, Babbie Dunnington, a 29-year-old white teacher, was one of just a few white faces in Tuesday’s majority black crowd. She said that the change had to come from white people.

“Black people didn’t enslave themselves. It shouldn’t be on them to correct that. White people have the responsibility to understand that they live in a racist society, a racist society they have created.”

“I am not interested in white allies. What we need are co-conspirators,” Feminista Jones, a 36-year-old social worker and writer shouted into a bullhorn. Her solemn audience cheered her on.

“The definition of ally-ship is to mutually benefit and support. Black people are not obligated to provide support to people who are dominant,” Jones said. “We are not working together on a mutual goal. My goal is to live. You don’t have that same goal.”

But the disparity in realities does not mean Jones wants to exclude white people from participating in rallies and civil action, quite the contrary. Jones wants more, not less.

“What I need is for people to come and work with us in the trenches and be there alongside us. It’s not about being on the outside and saying ‘yes, I support you!’ It’s about ‘not only do I support you, but I am here with you, I am rolling up my sleeves. What do I need to do?’”

Annie Schoening, a 33-year-old social media manager for Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, a black- and brown-led social justice organization created to protect and empower young people of color, is white, and has been put in charge of the mission to engage white supporters.

Her organization has put up a set of rules online, inviting non-black people to take the pledge for racial justice.

The rules outlined in the pledge involve acknowledging the existence of racism whether or not one is a regular victim of it, to denounce new forms of it, including the use of words “thugs” and “riots” to define black people and their protest, to identify the exclusion of black perspectives in many forms of media and seek them out, to confront anti-black racism within closed circles (including schools, friendship circles and families), and to pledge to participate in the overall black-led fight to end racial injustice.

“Look to black leaders, listen to what they are telling you,” she says of potential mixed messages white people might feel they are hearing as to when to step back and give space versus when to proactively intervene and help.

Discomfort, or anxiety about making faux pas, may be a reason some white people are still sitting on the sidelines in terms of uprooting racism, but Dante Barry, executive director of the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, points out the disparity is so stark, white people may just need to get over their anxiety.

“Black folks are readily risking their lives every day purely by existing,” he says, while the risk being taken by white communities to be in solidarity with black liberation is “getting over that uncomfortable feeling”.

If whiteness is the source of the problem, little time tends to actually be spent on understanding what that means, says Nell Irvin Painter, a historian and professor emeritus at Princeton University.

Painter says whiteness is currently defined by what it isn’t: blackness. It, in turn, tends to be taken for granted.

Beyond simply being majority white in terms of population, the US is a white-centric society: 80% of Congress is currently white, over 95% of Fortune 500 companies are headed by white CEOs. In 2011, 84% of full-time professors at American colleges and universities were white.

Whiteness might be so dominant that it is, in fact, not picked up on at all.

Painter says that whiteness as a concept is a constantly evolving thing, and white people need not be afraid of becoming aware of their heritage. Such a coming to terms might then lead to further transformation that can be pro-black.

“You can stay white and be for racial justice and against racism,” she said.

Also standing towards the back of the crowd on Tuesday was Joe Blankholm. At 6ft3in, Blankholm, a fair-haired, blue-eyed, athletic-looking white man, stood out a little, but his demeanor was discreet.

He said he couldn’t find anyone to come to the vigil with him, but still wanted to attend, so he came alone. He was still figuring out how to be a white ally, or “what that even meant”, he said.

“Being happy to leave rights and privileges on the table,” was one thing, he ventured tentatively. Another might be “acting as a Trojan horse” in (white) spaces where he seemed to be listened to more than others, he said.

Blankholm says being white and male has helped him tackle unconventional, radical topics in front of an audience, and still be well received.

The 30-year-old has just finished a PhD at Columbia University and is about to take up a professor position at the University of California, Santa Barbara in September.

Towards the end of April, Blankholm, who was teaching a literature and humanities class at Columbia University at the time, sent a somewhat unconventional email to his 22 undergraduate members.

There was a protest happening downtown, he wrote, in solidarity with the protests in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of police that coincided with his scheduled class.

Blankholm found the irony of teaching that week’s scheduled book, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, written by an African American man in the mid-20th century, too much to bear.

His email explained he would be heading to the protest instead of class, and invited his classroom to join him, making sure to add that those who did not join would not be penalized in their grades.

Did any of the Columbia freshmen make it?

“Half of them showed up.”

Link to original article from The Guardian

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