Reading and Tweeting Are Not Enough, but Neither Is Protesting
Sustaining white antiracism requires real cross-racial connection and relationship
Don’t worry. This will not be yet another essay lamenting the sometimes performative nature of white antiracist activism since the killing of George Floyd. First, we already have enough of those, most of which amount to the woke-scolding of racial justice newcomers by those who think making folks feel shitty for an admittedly simplistic Instagram post will help grow the movement. Hint: It won’t. Neither will insisting that white outrage now is meaningless because it didn’t emerge in sufficient amplitude five or 10 or 20 or 400 years ago. However justifiable that frustration—it is entirely so, and I share it—such sentiments are 0% effective at changing anything or anyone, so I won’t be adding to that despairing genre of commentary anytime soon.
But second, even the things typically considered more substantive, like protesting, can be performative. Marching with a sign that spells America with three Ks, while perhaps cathartic on some level, doesn’t transform law enforcement or bring about a different system of public safety. Placards adorned with the word “fuck” (because to hell with respectability politics) are entirely, flabbergastingly performative. It might be good for the ’gram, and it might even be valid in the moment, but if you think such a thing is more impactful than a well-thought-out Facebook missive, you’ve fallen for the spectacle of radicalism without regard to the narrative-shifting substance of the thing. You probably also think the Chicago 7 meaningfully affected the trajectory of the Vietnam War. Spoiler alert: No.
Don’t misunderstand: Protest can be meaningful, and it’s something in which all should be willing to participate in the face of injustice. But it is not necessarily any less performative than posting on social media, especially since the latter can shift public narratives no less than pamphlets and books would have a half-century ago. While the lyricism of James Baldwin’s prose will likely never be matched by anyone, least of all someone operating with a 280-character limit and hashtags, the function of both sets of words is precisely the same. Both raise and shape consciousness. Dissing social media in favor of “real activism” overstates the efficacy of protest and undersells the potential impact of online commentary.
That said, I do worry that in the past year we have often asked what makes a real ally and answered with performative solutions: Read this book, or perhaps that one; follow these Black activists or public intellectuals and amplify their voices. All are good ideas, by the way, and white folks seeking to contribute to the struggle should do them all. But these are also the things we need to tell white people to do because we tend to be so isolated from Black folks in our day-to-day lives. They are actions we take to compensate for that isolation, but they are unlikely to alter it, because real allyship is neither dependent on nor likely sustained by the ingesting of abstract information, attending a workshop, or purchasing every volume on someone’s list of must-read books.
Over the years, I’ve amassed a collection of several hundred books on race and racism. I haven’t quite read them all, but even if I had, none could explain why I do this work and have done it for 30-plus years. No book, no matter how well written, could provide an answer as to why I have willingly invited regular threats of violence upon myself and my family as a price for challenging white supremacy. Nor could any similar volume explain why, even when I screw up as an aspiring ally—as I have many times, and no doubt will again—I get back up, dust myself off, and get back in the fight.
The reason for that commitment is not to be found in a sociology class, however valuable those can be. Nor is it the result of some inherently greater moral calibration on my part. And it surely isn’t due to bravery. Whatever risks I take in this fight, though real, pale in comparison to those taken by Black and Brown folks, pun very much intended. And although my anti-racism connects to my politics, it didn’t originate there, as I fear it does for most white people who enter the movement.
I say this not as a criticism of those white folks, by the way — wherever someone enters is better than not entering at all — but rather as a warning. When your anti-racism is a product of your progressive or left-wing political commitments rather than an outgrowth of your lived experiences, it can easily prove transient. Politics and ideology can change, but the shit you’ve seen is the shit you’ve seen. And that is forever.
Many years ago, my mentors at the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond asked me why I cared about undoing racism in America, since, as a white man, I didn’t have to. I could easily go about my life indifferent to inequity and accepting of systemic white supremacy as most of us have been for many a century. At the time, figuring it best to offer some deep philosophical answer to the question, I did the whitest thing one could: I offered up some Martin Luther King Jr. quote about injustice anywhere being a threat to justice everywhere. In response, I was informed that my movement literacy was high but that I might want to come up with a more original answer—and more to the point, a more truthful one. Because, as it was explained to me, my interest in the subject had nothing to do with Dr. King.
So I spent weeks thinking about the question they had asked. And then it struck me. Long before I had developed a critique of whiteness, I had attended a pre-kindergarten program at Tennessee State University, a historically Black college. And once I began elementary school, that experience had primed me to notice when my Black friends — real friends, not just people whose friendship I claimed so as to prove how not racist I was — were treated differently. When they were placed in lower-level academic tracks or disciplined more harshly for things we all did, I could see it. And I could see it because that differential treatment was separating me from people to whom I had a real connection.
Long before I knew what intersectionality meant — indeed, when Kimberlé Crenshaw, who developed the concept, was a junior at Cornell — I had a teacher who so despised my closeness to my Black classmates that she told my mother she was an unfit parent for allowing me such friendships.
And at the age of 11, long before I read Derrick Bell and other pioneers of critical race theory, I knew there were those who wished to make me a collaborator with their evil and resented any resistance to that script. I learned it crammed into the car of my baseball coach, along with my Black teammates, as kids from a team we were supposed to play surrounded the vehicle, calling my friends the N-word and me a lover of the same, while threatening us with bats. All of this while their own coaches did nothing.
In other words, my understanding of racism grew from what I saw, not what I read about.
It was seeing my Black roommate come home bloody from a beating administered to him by a New Orleans police officer simply because my roommate had objected to being falsely accused of a robbery. It was learning more about the racialized class system in this country from Black women in New Orleans’ public housing, with whom I worked as a community organizer, than I ever learned from white men with the letters P, h, and D behind their names. More to the point, it was being able to hear what those women were saying, not because someone told me I needed to listen to Black women, but because when I was four, I had been required to listen to Black women who ran that TSU preschool. I had learned to trust and follow Black authority.
In short, my attempts, however imperfect, to act in anti-racist solidarity stem from a real connection to Black folks—from relationships I have been lucky to have and which, sadly, most white people have not. I deserve no credit for those connections, nor do those without them deserve blame. If one lacks them, it is likely due to having grown up in a society that has cultivated our separation for generations. But if we wish to build a lasting level of allyship, we must figure out ways to break down these cycles of isolation that so often exist in our communities, schools, and workplaces.
Sure, we rightly mock those white people who claim they have Black friends to defend against allegations of bias. First, because such claims are often bogus, and second, they miss the point even when sincere. After all, straight men can’t use our dating and matrimonial preferences to disprove our sexism. But still, and as much as cross-racial friendship is insufficient for being a faithful ally, so too is meaningful solidarity far more difficult in its absence. If I don’t know you—really know you—how likely is my attention to remain focused on the pain you’re experiencing?
It shouldn’t be like that. It should be quite enough that somewhere people are hurting and the thing causing that pain is unjust. But humans are what humans are — creatures that understand best what is in front of us, what we can see with our own eyes. “Out of sight, out of mind” is not a statement of what ought to be. It is a realistic appraisal of that which is, whether we like it or not.
Actually knowing people of color, closely working together on projects of mutual community concern, or even better, being subordinated to their authority (as teachers, coaches, or bosses), can have a dramatic effect on how white folks show up in the struggle for racial justice. One of the profound lessons of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was the model it provided of white staff taking direction from Black leadership every day. And even when SNCC decided to become an all-Black organization, the white activists who went on to engage the work with white folks in other settings were better and more complete as organizers because of the relationships they had built.
On a personal level, my own daughters have a far deeper commitment to racial equity than many of their peers, less because I’m their dad and taught them anti-racism and more because they grew up in a multiracial dance company in which one of their principal choreographers for a decade was a Black man. Being a child and learning to respect Black male authority, leadership, and agency at a deep and personal level changed them and how they see the world. And that will carry them further than anything I, as their father, could tell them.
Too often, we on the left dismiss the importance of personal relationships like this because we are hyperfocused on the systemic aspects of oppression. Too often, we view interpersonal connection as less political or transformative and undoubtedly less radical than marching, chanting, or shutting down traffic. But if the marching, chanting, and shutting down of traffic is to have a lasting impact, it will be because after the march is over, those who have been in the streets will return to our communities, workplaces, and schools together to plan for what comes next.
And until we have that kind of connection — the type that allows the development of a truly radical empathy — Black Lives Matter will be something we say, and perhaps even mean, intellectually, but it may remain something we fail to feel in a way that will keep us in the struggle as if our own humanity depended on it. And that failure would be monumental. Because it does.