If You’re a Real Ally, You’ll Keep It to Yourself
I say this with love, in the spirit of allyship and friendship, and fully knowing what you mean when you insist that you are an ally to me, to Black people, and to the Black Lives Matter movement, either as a formal organization or just in the spirit of what those words mean: Stop proclaiming yourself an ally, or at least remember that if you truly are an ally, you won’t need to say so in almost every relevant context.
Please, don’t get me wrong. I value our collaboration. I want to work to build a better future for all of us with you and anyone who wants to move our world forward. I would never reject anyone’s willingness to do the work. A proverb recently popularized by Sen. Cory Booker says, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” We have far to go, and we must go together or not at all. I just ask that how we frame our alliance be carefully considered.
I know you always mean well. I understand why you do it. Mostly, you want me and other Black people to feel safe and protected from the potentially threatening components of your whiteness or other variations of non-Blackness and from the racism of others, should you see or be made aware of it.
“Ally” is a noble title. You’ve borrowed the term and all its loftiness from the LGBTQ movement. It even brings to mind World War II and the alliance to defeat Nazi Germany — another bastion of racism. It seems fitting that we should ally ourselves, given how much work the world still has and will have to do to affirm the mattering of all Black lives and how many hands we will need on deck to do it. But it doesn’t always convey what you believe it does, especially if the words aren’t backed up by concrete, repetitive, and intentional inward and outward action.
Here’s the thing about allyship: I don’t think I or any of the other Black people I know think the vast majority of white people and other non-Black people are very good judges of their own racism or anti-racism.
There Is No Such Thing as a ‘White Ally’
Chapter 1 of TNSWA Series: Racism is not mine, it’s yours, and it’s not called “help” when it’s your mess we’re…
I sometimes have trouble accepting where white people believe they are on the spectrum from KKK-supporting racist to “would have been a Freedom Rider” anti-racist ally when that stands in contradiction to how I have seen them speak or behave. I think this is partly because of the number of times white and other non-Black people—even people I previously believed were safe—have engaged in acts of racism, from microaggressions to casually or vitriolically using the N-word, or worse, who have turned around and told me and/or the world that they don’t have a racist bone in their body. This produces cognitive dissonance on an individual scale and on the wider scale in which I understand anti-Blackness to have been indoctrinated into every living person in the shared social world to varying degrees for the past 400 years, via bottles of pancake syrup, nursery rhymes, and media representation of Black life.
It’s worse when it’s personal, and some have even expected me to validate their goodness when the evidence to the contrary was plain on its face. I always question how far that allyship extends beyond me. I know I feel safe to a lot of well-intentioned non-Black people, but I question inside whether your stated allyship extends to less socially accepted Black people, people who don’t speak or dress like you or live in a neighborhood like yours, or to the trans community. If it doesn’t, then I don’t accept your use of the term. You can’t be my ally without being the ally to all Black lives. I’ve learned that to know for sure whether you are an ally, I’m sorry, but I can’t take your word for it. I have to see it for myself. You have to show me.
Allyship does not give you carte blanche for the rest of your life. It’s not static.
Another reason why stating that you are an ally makes me and other Black people skeptical is that even if you haven’t done anything explicitly racist to precipitate the declaration, it comes across as virtue signaling. Whether you are conscious of it or not, it seems like people use the word “ally” as a way of donning a piece of armor that they seem to hope will hypothetically deflect any present or future accusations of racism, when, in practice, there is no armor that can do that. Your allyship will vary situation by situation. In some situations, you may indeed be a true ally; you will be exemplary. In others, you may fall short and hopefully learn and move forward. Allyship does not give you carte blanche for the rest of your life. It’s not static. Engaging in allyship must be phrased as a verb, and the work needs to be done every day for the rest of your life that you have the energy to do it. So, if it can shield, that shield is only as good as the situation, and the situation is only as good as the work, and the work never stops. It’s going to be exhausting.
Another challenging aspect of true allyship is that the most important work—the inward work—is the most exhausting work of all. Allyship requires not just seeking out and identifying racism in others and in the outside world. It also requires doing the interior work, usually with the help of books and communication with Black people, that help you identify how anti-Blackness may be part of your psyche as a human being growing up in a hegemony that has historically and subtly promoted anti-Black ideas to all of us our whole lives. That inward work is the foundation of allyship. You can’t effectively do the outer work—the challenging of others and systems—unless you are doing the inward work. People love labels and nouns; I tend to favor action and active verbs. Titles make the issue about you; verbs do the work of addressing the issue. Next time you feel compelled to say that you are an ally, consider saying instead that you are “actively working to be anti-racist” or that you “would like to be an ally.” But only, of course, if you are doing the work. Remember that I said it would be exhausting.
Besides, if you don’t already understand that allies can be racist, have racist thoughts, and respond in racist and anti-Black ways, then you probably don’t understand that other non-Black people of color can hold anti-Black ideas, and that Black people can also internalize anti-Black thinking and act against their own self-interest, and that we have our own work to do. Not understanding all of that works against the ideals of equality for all people of all races and must also be dismantled. That’s why our alliance is so important.
Besides being exhausting in all the ways it is, allyship can be thankless, and maybe it has to be. I understand that within this exhaustion and thanklessness, you may desire to be affirmed. But you can’t ask Black people to affirm you in it, not while we are doing the thankless work ourselves. It is tiring, though. In fact, you may be tormented by people who consciously or subconsciously wish to uphold racism or racist ideas or systems. They will throw articles at you about Black-on-Black crime and, worse, call you a racist for daring to challenge white supremacy, especially when you benefit from it.
Your allyship depends on not being discouraged by their vitriol, by acknowledging your privileges, and by using them to challenge the very system that adorned you with them. It depends on your ability to talk more with white people and non-Black people about racism than to regale Black people with what you’ve done for the cause. It depends also on not being defensive when a Black person or any other person challenges you on what you mean or say or tries to offer constructive criticism on how you are advocating or what you might be missing. It depends on your ability to hear that and use it to do the interior work I mentioned. It depends on being able to sit with and weather justifiable Black anger around these issues — more if you can muster and redirect that anger within yourself toward advocating for justice. It depends on you being willing to amplify the voices of BIPOC instead of your own, which is humbling work, and to challenge the impulse that may exist within you to list your social justice résumé whenever racism or anti-racism is raised.
To do the necessary work, you are going to need Black allies who will be willing to sit with you, challenge you, and guide you on this journey.
Maybe you are already aware of all this. You may very well be an ally, or have been one, or will be one many, many times. You may be the most allied of all allies, but if you really want me and other Black people to trust you and believe it, then be humble and don’t self-identify in word and not deed. If you walk the walk, you won’t have to talk the talk. Respect our agency to decide how safe you are and who our allies are and to name them. I know very well the people I would consider to be my allies. Few if any of them have told me they are my ally, but all have shown me. Let the mantle of allyship be thrust upon you as we work side by side.
From another angle, the term “ally,” when used in this way, deviates from the dictionary definition in that it doesn’t, in our modern usage, seem to imply a mutual alliance, although it absolutely should. The current understanding seems to be that allyship is something white and other non-Black people do to support and uplift Black people—which is, of course, part of it—and not something that benefits all people, including white and other non-Black people, by creating a more just and equitable world for everyone. We must reject the flat and dated notion that the problem of racism is a Black problem requiring allies or something that Black people are cursed by nature to endure. Instead, we must acknowledge that it is a man-made and sustained, unjust system that white people, non-Black people of color, and society at large must take ownership over in order to effectively dismantle. In fact, to do that, white and other non-Black people need Black people’s perspectives and voices more than we need your verbal assurances of allyship.
We must flip the problem on its head. To do the necessary work, you are going to need Black allies who will be willing to sit with you, challenge you, and guide you on this journey. Find them and let them past the point of frustration. They won’t always self-identify as such, because no one seems to think about this work this way, but Black people who are interested in your anti-racism, and whose survival depends on it, are sharing their stories and perspectives and how they have arrived at their thinking on these issues, sometimes at a personal and psychological cost. You desperately need to listen and digest, and then to introspect. Lean in to your Black allies.
As we march forward together, I need fewer self-proclaimed allies. I need more people willing to do the work on themselves and their families and then, too, on our society while the world’s consciousness is receptive, and every day after that when it isn’t. I would love, if you will have me, to be your ally in that work.
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