After the shootings of Philando Castille and Alton Sterling in July something inside me snapped. I could no longer stay silent about the racism that is overtaking this country. I was just beginning my career as a freelance writer and I wanted desperately to use my newly found voice to speak out. The problem I didn’t know I had was that I was clueless about how to use my voice to speak about racism, white supremacy, privilege, or police brutality.
The majority of my writing has come from my own experience as a white, middle class woman. I am comfortable writing about feminism, body image, eating disorders, and pop culture because these are part of my own experience. I don’t have to reach far to articulate my thoughts; I simply have to write honestly and vulnerably about things that have happened. When it came to writing about the struggles black and brown people face in this country, I always assumed it wasn’t my place. It wasn’t my experience. I should let other people write about their experiences. I shouldn’t presume to talk about something I didn’t know.
When the shootings happened, I reacted with my gut and my broken heart and decided it was my place to say something. Unfortunately, I said all the wrong things. I talked about my own feelings and how much the shootings had affected me. I spoke without recognizing my own privilege. I spoke without first understanding my own implicit biases. I spoke as if my voice was special and would bring change when other voices had not. I spoke about my experience without acknowledging the experiences of people of color, who were actually being traumatized.
Luckily, I have friends who have existed in activist and social justice spaces much longer than I have and they spoke to me about the problems with what I was saying. They were kind enough to direct me to articles and books I could read. They taught me about amplifying the voices of people of color rather than speaking out with my own voice. They asked me to look at my thoughts and beliefs to identify how they were problematic. These friends spent their time having conversations with me about recognizing my own racism and privilege. They directed me to groups of white people who were having similar conversations and struggling with how to help without hurting.
I began to see that I held racist thoughts and beliefs, just like most people in this country. This is a result of a culture that subtly reinforces how we should think about people of color through public conversation, news coverage, media representations, and economics. This culture of insidious racism is powerful enough to have an effect on all of us, whether we can see it or not. I never would have thought that I was racist. I was raised by exceptionally liberal parents who promoted the concept of colorblindness. I have black and brown friends. I even dated a black girl once. I was that white person who says “I like people of color, therefore I can’t be racist, right?” I never bothered to look deeper than that.
Instead, like so many of us, I pushed down racist thoughts and feelings when they arose. I derided myself when I felt uncomfortable driving through “bad neighborhoods” mostly populated by people of color. I felt ashamed when I dismissed the experiences of people of color with thoughts like “well that doesn’t happen to all black people” or “that doesn’t happen where I live”. I barely gave it a second thought when I justified police shootings by villainizing the victim or assuming they had a gun. I was unwilling to acknowledge that these thoughts and feelings existed within me and that they made me racist.
I couldn’t see my own privilege as a white woman. I’d never had to think about all the things that were easier for me because of the color of my skin. When I was up to no good late at night as a rebellious teenager I never worried about being beaten or shot if I ran in to the police. My parents never had to teach me how to interact with police officers so I would be safe. I had access to good public schools because my parents could afford to live in a wholesome, mostly white, Connecticut suburb. When I applied to college I never worried that I wouldn’t be accepted because I didn’t fit some demographic requirement. If I get pulled over I do not fear for my life or my safety. My life is and has been significantly easier because I am white, and that is the definition of privilege. I need to be able to acknowledge this privilege so that I can truly listen to the experiences of people of color and understand how different their experiences are from my own.
I was also unable to recognize the white supremacy in the United States. Whenever I heard people talking about white supremacy scenes from American History X flashed through my brain. I assumed they were talking about the KKK or neo-Nazis; things I had very little experience with as a woman who’s only ever lived in liberal New England towns. I didn’t realize that white supremacy refers to the way the country is structured to benefit white people and not people of color. White supremacy is about the fact that American society is built to make it easier for white people to move through the world. It refers to the reality that people of color do not have access to the same resources as white people, even if policy and legislation says they theoretically do. Even our assumptions about activism and social justice are based around whiteness. We believe that being equal means having access to the same life as a white person, which doesn’t even take in to account what people of color want or need. What if they want a world created in their image, not mine?
Looking deep within myself and gaining all this insight was extremely uncomfortable. I felt like an awful person. I was humiliated by my feelings. I was ashamed of the systems that benefited me and hurt others. I felt dumb. I felt ignorant. I sat with these feelings. I talked about them with my friends who had already been through this processing. I got together with groups of other white people struggling with this process. I read a lot of articles. I read some books. I listened to people of color. I began to really understand what it means to be a white ally.
Being a white ally means really listening to the experiences of people of color. It means being willing to educate other white people about racism, privilege, and white supremacy because the responsibility of education should not fall on the shoulders of people of color. They are already too exhausted from experiencing racism in their everyday lives. Being a white ally means speaking up when someone says something racist, even if it means other white people not liking you. It means being willing to make mistakes, own them, and change. It means being willing to attend meetings, rallies, and protests to show your solidarity. It means shutting up when you don’t know what to say and it means speaking up when you do know what to say.
Becoming a white ally in the fight for racial justice is hard. It’s not comfortable. It’s emotionally exhausting and sometimes it’s traumatizing. But it’s nothing compared to experiencing systematic racism on a daily basis. As white people, we should be willing to take on this journey in order to dismantle the injustice people of color face constantly.
I realize that I’m not saying anything new here. Many smarter and more aware people have said these things before. I still think it’s important to talk, among white folks, about how hard it is to confront privilege and become a true ally. It’s hard because racism is hard and white supremacy is pervasive and white folks need to take time to process how hard it is. But we should not be taking that time and space from people of color. They don’t need to hear us whine about how hard social justice is; they’ve known for a long time. It’s about time we shoulder some of the burden.