This Is Us
Chapter 1 of the There Is No Such Thing as a “White Ally” Series: Racism is not mine, it’s yours, and it’s not called “help” when it’s your mess we’re cleaning.
I never use the term “White Ally” when I talk with family and friends. That’s because I detest it. A little twang of dissonance echoes every time it comes my way. My animus is not directed toward the misnomer, but toward its attending mentality. Moreover, the sobriquet itself implicates one of the most insidious sleights-of-hand in mankind’s history.
The logic behind the expression “White Ally” makes about as much sense as me going into your room, folding your affirmations and putting them neatly away, cleaning all the introspection off of your mirror, gathering your feelings for the laundry, and then you pick up your golliwog, put it away, and announce triumphantly, “We’re in this together, and I am totally committed to helping.”
Mmmm, not so much with that.
In my circles — Black or White, family or friend — I rarely discuss my rejection of the “White Ally” label’s underpinnings. I am hugely ambivalent about doing so, and have been for years. Why hurt people you love who are fighting very hard to do a really important thing?
Well, because Black folks are dying as we sustain this illusion, dying for a factual impossibility. Let me repeat that: Insulating you from feeling horrible is killing us. Saying it’s not personal sounds ridiculous, but, as it relates to you, it’s not. As it relates to anyone who looks anything like me, it’s the very essence of personal. And while I can live with your inner strife, I cannot live with black skin as probable cause. I cannot live with my son being hunted.
In a way that has never been more clear, the nation insists on paying for this lunacy of logic with the lives of Black women and men. There is nowhere left to even hide our babies. I will fight to the finish for my children. And I am not special — we all will fight for every brown baby. So listen carefully: We are done dying on our knees. If the “White Ally” pseudonym must fall, then fall it will. Let us say our farewells here with grace, then.
Do you have a story to share? I’d love to hear it.
If the very idea of what’s coming makes you feel attacked, I get that — that’s fair. You’re going to want to pace yourself, though. This is just the preamble. The water gets a bit choppier up ahead. I will say this, however: I am viciously allergic to centering a discussion about me around someone who is not me, so I will say this only once, and only here. I know amazing people across the entire spectrum of the human experience. People who are good, and who do good, in profound and genuine ways. There is no avoiding the discomfort around what we are going to contemplate. Know that I love you deeply. Know that I do not do this casually. And should it reach a point where it is too uncomfortable for you, know that I am doing this anyway.
This is not about nomenclature. This is not about contribution. This is not about your heart, or your hard work, or your good deeds. This is about — and only about — the damage behind defining as “help” a thing that is your duty. Because racism is not mine, it is yours. What you do is not called “help” when it is your mess we are cleaning.
Racism Is Yours. 1–2–3, Not It!
Racism is not “ours.” It is yours. And it is yours exclusively. Black folks did not build Black hate, and we certainly did not build it with you. Black folks are not The Bad Actor in Black hate. We can only work to convince The Bad Actor to stop acting badly. Black folks cannot kill Black hate in its cradle. Black hate breeds in places we cannot reach. If we could have killed it, we would have killed it. Trust that it is not our apathy about our own lives that keeps us dying in the streets.
Worse, racism disappears when we try to look it in the eye, lost in a sea of nonsensical protestations:
- “I don’t see color”: Why are we talking about racism then?
- “I’m not racist”: Ooookayyyy, whatever it is you call this, you’re still getting fired for it.
- “I have Black friends”: Me too. Go figure.
- “Property destruction isn’t the way”: Just pretend it’s Black, then it won’t bother either of us.
- “Stop spreading the hate”: Stop giving it to me.
- “Racism goes both ways”: Yeah, I don’t follow.
- “All lives matter”: Not so much. If all lives mattered, you wouldn’t still be in that chair. “All” requires more engagement, not less, because stupid isn’t really how math works here.
And while this back and forth can be quite entertaining, it’s almost never productive.
Black folks cannot reach this race hate, cannot catch this race hate, cannot kill this race hate. But there you are, insisting that you do not see this race hate in your home, at your job, or among your family and friends, yet it must be hiding over there, somewhere. Think about it — race hate has not just survived, it has thrived. It had to thrive to endure for centuries and still feel shiny and brand-new. It is not invisible, not silent, not odorless, not stealthy. And it sure the hell is not hiding over here. The call really is coming from inside your house, behind a door to which Black folks have never had the key. Seriously.
When Risk and Harm Meet: He Who Owns the Problem Is More Driven to Find the Cure
This is not about blame. This is about ownership. A person holds one state of mind when she is at risk, and another when someone close to her is. Facing the former, she makes proactive choices to lessen her risk. Facing the latter, she makes reactive choices to lessen the other person’s harm. Her risk is anticipatory, and their harm has already come to pass.
There are two people in play here, but the actions belong to just one.
When risk and harm converge in the actor, the actor owns her kerfuffle. As the owner and the one now at risk, she ditches the “let me know if this is a problem” passenger seat, and takes the “this is what I’m not doing wrong today” wheel. She owns her duty and she owns her risk and, thus, she drives the cure like she’s in an Indy. And that, not coincidentally, is the beginning of racism’s end; self-preservation changes everything.
We Are Not in This ‘Together’
Racism is yours, and “we” are not in this together in the way you tell yourself “we” are. Let me rephrase that: I don’t know who the “we” is in “we are in this together.” I’m pretty stumped by the “in,” the “this,” and the “together” too, come to think of it. I know what we all pretend that means: We share a burden. But really, we don’t. The most egregious parts of the burden are impossible to share, and impossible to shed.
Look at your horse. Her back is straight, her canter is frisky. She faces each glorious day like the gift it is. Now look at my horse. My nag, really. Her back is not just bent, it is just this side of broken. Her pace is slow, when she moves at all. Some days she trots. Most, though, she just starts and stops. Your filly, with her unencumbered back, is glorious. My faithful nag, bowed by centuries of baggage, is all but dead. And progress here is slow going because my nag is pulling the cart your mare is sitting in. That’s not “we.” That’s “me.”
The most egregious parts of the burden are impossible to share, and impossible to shed.
I can hear you now: What do you mean we have no horse in this race? Focus. There are two races at play here. Like the oncologist, you have no horse in your patient’s race, but you’re riding a thoroughbred in the race for the cure. I’m really going to need you to dig in here, folks.
Yes, you grieve. Yes, you rend and gnash. You shout down an aunt. Block a racist neighbor. Help your local Archie Bunker find his Jesus. But when you rest your head at night, you do so fairly confident the police won’t kill you. And when it is too much for you, you turn off the TV or close your browser and give that pain some space.
I, too, shout down your aunt, Black Twitter your neighbor, and hide in the cut for Archie, who is — without a doubt — avoiding me. But when I rest my head at night, it is always with one eye open. And when it is too much for me, I must still don my armor, I must still sprint to the front line, I must still form an impenetrable wall of I WISH A MF WOULD to protect my children, my sisters, my men.
Now, you are free to exhale. Now, I can no longer breathe. In the end, you are still alive. In the end, there is no “we” in “me.”
Racism is yours, and the fact that Black folks are dying still does not make it “our” “thing.”
One, it is not “ours.” At the end of the day, Black folks are almost always the only ones dead.
Two, it is not our “thing.” The fact that we do not want to die and you should not kill us does not mean we co-own whatever it is that’s going on here. Black folks’ deaths do not vest us with shared ownership, much in the same way the survivor of an attempted murder does not share ownership of her would-be killer’s crime. Of course it is in our interest to get in front of this. Let us deal with that. But the attempted murder? Your crime, your time, and we are not partners there.
Racism is yours, and you keep sticking me with the bill. You benefit from racism but I am burdened by it, like an expensive all-you-can-eat buffet where you gorge yourself while I have yet to eat. You can dive deep into the pasta, and pass on the carrots and peas. You can pick what you want, ignore what you don’t, and leave when you’re finished. Sometimes I can see the food that I’m not allowed to touch, but I am never permitted to leave the joint until I’ve paid both bills. I pay with my life, I pay with my limbs, I pay with what even the most random of persons can hunt me down for and take from me. I pay and pay and pay and pay and still there is no “we.”
Racism is yours, and you keep sticking me with the bill.
Racism is yours, and saying you are colorblind is not helping anyone— it is not helping you; it is not helping me. First, you do see color… yeah, you really do… yeaaaaah, you really, really do.
More to the point, “I don’t see color” has always been such an odd olive branch of “relatability.” Odd because it is untrue. Odd because of its dissonance — its actual meaning is the opposite of its intended meaning. Odd because those tropists seem to miss, in their private teachable moments, the huge reveal “colorblind” brings with it.
Oh, I understand its purpose. Believe me, we all do. We are just being nice when we let you explain it to us for the fifty-eleventh time this week. At the risk of landing on the wrong side of humble, I am not, shall we say, untutored. I do not strike even the most casual of observers as lacking emotional literacy. But even if I were both dumb and tone deaf, this isn’t the utility of the Superconducting Super Collider we’re contemplating here.
The speaker of the phrase “I don’t see color” aims for “I respect you, I accept you as a person and I do so with no judgment.” The speaker lands on “I do not consider your race so that I do not judge you.” The speaker drives right past “Seeing your race triggers me to say I do not see your race, which I must erase so as not to judge you.”
I know that you employ this phrase because you fear that we judge you and find you lacking. Okay, we judge you — good call. So, here’s a pro tip: If you center around you a thing you are doing for me, you’re doing it wrong. If this is just for me, you need only convey, in word or deed, “I respect you” and leave it there. You don’t, of course. You keep speaking, yet you do so without knowing you are talking to yourself about yourself for yourself. You don’t really need us for your pep talk, darlin. For this, there is definitely no “we.” In fact, for this the “we” is all you and none of me.
Racism is yours, and leaving us to carry your water is not what good men do. I raise this last because it hits me hardest and leaves no room for banter: In no other venue of the modern American experience is the target charged to end the abuse. Corner any Black person and they’ll rattle a racism rap sheet with disturbing ease. Yet our national plan for race relations conditions our survival on our ability to convince our rapists to rape us no more.
You look us in the eye with a clear conscience and an untroubled soul and say:
Let me tell you how to teach me not to rape you. No, not now, I will tell you when I am ready. Comfort me first so that I can hear your lesson, and the lesson ends when I feel like a bad person. And understand that if I don’t get it, you’ll just have to try harder until I do. And now lay back. Close your eyes. This won’t hurt a bit. And if it does, never forget that it is your fault that I still do what I do.
I say this again: this is not what good people do. You are done breathing your cancer into my lungs. I will shepherd your humanity no more.
Racism is yours, not mine, and I return your chains to you here, my friend.
On the rare occasions when I discuss the fallacy of the “White Ally,” the most common question I get is this: If not “White Ally” (always with the caps) what do we call White folks who go at racism with both barrels?
Me: …Ummmm, people? …Good people?
It would seem that my sarcasm is less than illuminating. I have learned, instead, to answer that question with one of my own: What do we call cops who fight against police brutality with every fiber of their beings?
Right. I get the visceral dissonance on both sides of the equation — all dissonance matters. This whole thing demands not an enormous paradigm shift, but a complete paradigm schism for the only model of “race relations” (read: race abuse) we’ve ever known. This thing we have always done to frame an extraordinarily good thing in an extraordinarily bad way has been 400 years in the making. But I think the world is speaking to us right now, don’t you? I also think it’s time we listen. The death of our perilous self-deception is finally at hand.
Liability: You Are Not Helping Me
Are we crowdsourcing accountability for Black hate, insisting you share in your brother’s scorn? Do we suggest White folks are interchangeable, answerable for the crimes of any bad actor, and name you the ambassador for all?
Don’t be ridiculous. That’s not our team, that’s yours. Stop projecting.
We are not stupid, or even spiteful. Nor do we act from that weirdly altruistic Stephen King thing (I love you Stephen!) of Black folk who use their mystical “shining” powers to help White folk. And, as my fire and brimstone shero said just days ago: be content, it is not revenge we seek. It is a simple matter of self-preservation: making you Bubba’s crime-proxy leaves his threat free to roam the streets. Nothing about that is of any value to anyone here.
So no, you are not vicariously liable for the acts of strangers, your clan, or your kin. Deal with them as I assume we all do: shepherd from risk those who matter to you. Don’t you worry, we’ll handle Bubba. You just pay attention to your game here. You are singularly and directly liable for your acts, and given how it’s not exactly uncommon for your folk to trip over a racist rock and fall into a racist puddle, that alone should scare you enough to keep you busy. Still unsure? Here are hundreds of examples of what I like to call “I Am Not Your Gramma’s Negro” Seasons 1, 2, and 3. Have a look to bone up on things that are taboo.
Oprah’s internet has volumes of “White Ally” guides: Becoming an Anti-Racist White Ally; The Challenges of Becoming a White Ally; Guidelines for Being A Strong White Ally; Becoming A Trustworthy White Ally; and, my all-time favorite, The White Ally Playbook.
Really, though? Really? Here is my book: Stop Being Racist; Get Your People, Too. That’s it. That’s the whole book. Available for two easy payments of 20 acres and half a mule.
Consequences: You Are Helping You
A shift in liability brings with it a shift in consequences. I like my mother’s approach here. Mom would always tell my brother and me — fine, whatever, just me — “I am not the boss of your choices, the boss there is you. I am the boss of consequences, though. And I will always come when you call for me.”
And when the Boss of Consequences comes, things just might get ugly. He might strip you of everything you own. He might take your house, your car, your career, your integrity, your reputation, and your self-respect. He might take your inheritance and your future estate. He might drag you into court and drain your coffers. He might eviscerate any chance of a future by making your name synonymous with hate and inhumanity. You can keep your monogrammed towels, he will say, but that legacy is all mine.
Or, you could just not be racist. My husband is a Marine and this is what he loves to call a “self-correcting error.” Harsh? You bet — intentionally so. What good is a consequence that is a gentle entreaty? Again, there is an excellent solution here: Racist you could just not be.
We will no longer curate your humanity for our protection.
If you’re not being racist, no one is going to come looking for you. Blacks have neither the time for, nor the interest in, dragging people minding their business out of their own lane and into ours. Our plates are full with actual racists — nobody here is manufacturing anything special for you, okay?
We will no longer curate your humanity for our protection. It makes better sense to curate it for yours. Put in everyday terms, I do not teach my son to respect women to protect your daughter. I teach my son to respect women to protect my son.
Returning the consequence of race abuse to the lap of the race abuser is the beginning of the end. The motivation to learn about racism becomes profound. The personal investment to avoid racism reaps a richer bounty. The urgency to end racism comes into sharp relief. It’s like that old negro spiritual: When your skin is in the game, the entire game changes.
That is why there cannot be a “White Ally.” That is why we should — and must — abandon the fallacy. Find the lie. I’m waiting.
An Addendum: Patrick Hutchinson, the True Story of a Black Warrior
Patrick Hutchinson is a father and a grandfather demanding a better world for his clan and kin. That world starts with the most basic of rights: that is, the right to live. Friends warned Patrick that hate groups would interfere with a Black Lives Matter protest he was attending, but that was of no consequence to him. After all, what risk is agitation to a man who consumes a daily diet of death? Naturally, of course, a “racist thug” started a fire of race hate, provoking the very catching of hands he received. Patrick saw the hatemonger then, curled up and tight, lying on the stairs in a fetal position.
Our Black father did not pause, and ran into the fire to save this purveyor of hate. Into the fire stoked by a hunger to destroy everything Patrick finds dear. And still he moved toward the danger.
Our Black grandfather scooped that man up, and marched for yet another fire still. And just like the white flames behind him, the blue flames before him could torch Patrick for the crime of black skin. And still he moved toward the danger.
Beaten from his aft, and with the police at his fore, Patrick never faltered, never strayed, never retreated. He abandoned his entreaty for his own humanity and stepped in to save all of yours. He never even paused at his own risk, despite knowing none of you would save him — the only one at risk from fires he had no hand in. While that may escape the notice of some, it is lost on no Black person in the universe. Not one.
If you understood nothing else about all I have written here, understand this: Patrick cannot offer his life as payment for the privilege of protecting you from yourselves. And, his life is not owed to the men who threaten the lives of his children, his clan, his kin. Black lives are your currency no longer.
It is okay, now, Black Warrior; you can put him down, good friend. You needn’t move toward the fire. His burden is your burden never again.
Catherine Pugh is an Attorney at Law and former Adjunct Professor at the Temple University, Japan. She developed and taught Race and the Law for its undergraduate program, and Evidence, Criminal Law, and Criminal and Civil Procedure for its law program. She has worked for the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Special Litigation Section, and as a Public Defender for the State of Maryland.
Editors: Sarah Clifton, Kay Lockridge, Laura Jackson (pro tip: never bet an editor she won’t find any errors). Thanks for your vigilance, ladies. Special thanks to SC for ringing my bell on my unedited and post-publication insert sneak of “shit”… instead of, you know, “shift.” You’re the shift, little homie.