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People protesting the death of George Floyd hold up placards in a street near the White House on May 31.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

How to be a good white ally, according to activists

Three experts on what it does and doesn’t mean to be an ally, now and always.

There are good ways — and there are less good ways — to be a white ally right now. Do take cues from black leaders and create space for their voices to be heard. Don’t think a performative emotional post on Instagram about your knowledge of racism does the trick. Do not center your feelings during this time of social unrest — an uprising that’s about racist violence against black Americans.

“Antiracism is about doing and not just knowing,” said Leslie Mac, an activist and a community organizer.

In light of the widespread protests against police brutality in recent days, there has been much conversation about what it means for white Americans to enact antiracism in their everyday lives — not just when there is unrest across the country. Because while the protests are directly tied to the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, in Minneapolis on May 25, they are also an expression of widespread anguish within the black community. Centuries of inequality and racism have brought to bear acutely horrific consequences for black Americans in 2020. The global pandemic has disproportionately sickened and killed black people, and the accompanying economic crisis has done outsized damage to people of color. In recent weeks, multiple stories of black people killed by white violence and police have hit the news.

In turn, allyship and antiracism have become popular terms among white Americans wanting to help out. But what do they mean, and how does one really undertake them?

“Allyship is language, and being a co-conspirator is about doing the work,” said Ben O’Keefe, an activist and former senior aide to Sen. Elizabeth Warren. “It’s taking on the issue of racism and oppression as your own issue, even though you’ll never truly understand the damage that it does.”

I spoke with three activists about what it means to be an ally and what cues white Americans should be taking. Their thoughts, edited for length and clarity, are below:

Ben O’Keefe, former senior aide to Sen. Elizabeth Warren

One thing that’s really important here is that we define what we’re talking about when we discuss being an ally, because it’s a term that many supposedly woke white folks wear now like this badge of honor, but the term doesn’t really hold its weight always. We need people to be co-conspirators, and when I say that, I say that because allyship has become this emotional performance — well-intended as it may be, it’s still sort of a pontification of their allyship and their emotions and their sadness. It’s become performative.

Allyship is language, and being a co-conspirator is about doing the work. It’s taking on the issue of racism and oppression as your own issue, even though you’ll never truly understand the damage that it does.

There are a few important things to think about as we’re having that conversation. Don’t put your burden of your sadness or your fear onto your black friends or onto black leaders that you follow, because the truth is it’s not the job of black people to educate you or to make you comfortable. Antiracism isn’t comfortable, just like racism isn’t comfortable for black people and people of color.

Listen more than you speak. Do your research. Ignorance by very definition is a lack of knowledge, so the only way to break down ignorance and your ignorance and the ignorance of others is through education. It’s really important to learn the history of the struggle you’re putting yourself into, to learn about the systems of oppression that exist and how you’re complicit in them, and then, again, remember that it’s not our job to educate you. It’s not hard to educate yourself. You can literally google it.

Around the protests, how you show up is incredibly important. When white people show up to protests for the Movement for Black Lives, they are our guests. They are new for this. This might be exciting to them now, but this has been something that we have been living for generations and fighting for generations. So, you are showing up, and we’re happy to have you, you are our guests.

A white person’s job at a protest isn’t to spray paint “Black Lives Matter” on a building. It’s not to destroy stuff. It’s not to loot stores. Their job is not to mess with the cops and throw stuff. Their job at that protest, what they are there to do, is to do everything they can in their power to put their bodies between the bodies of black people and police. They should know if they’re there that they have the privilege of at least knowing that there will be more action taken if they die than if a black person does. Because not only is it disrespectful to disrupt our protests, but it actually is also doing direct harm to the black lives that these folks are supposed to be there to try to protect.

When you turn on cable news right now, what you hear is that black folks are burning buildings down and looting stores, all these terrible things. And we’re hearing the president say, if they loot, we shoot. And if you turn on Twitter for different stories, there’s an entirely different reality in which countless times it’s white people who are doing this provocation, who are escalating this, and it’s not them who are suffering the consequences, both physically there in person and with tear gas and pepper spray thrown in our faces, but also they’re not doing service to the narrative that we’re trying to build. They’re continuing to give fodder that will be used and is currently being used against black people.

If you show up to a protest, you’re there to be an ally, you can say. You are there to listen and to learn and to follow the leadership of the black folks, to follow the leadership of the marginalized.

If you could only see my DMs right now, they’re flooded with well-intended wishes of, “How are you doing?” But let me be clear, asking a black person how they’re doing right now is bullshit, because you know how they’re doing. We’re doing terrible. We’re struggling. If you’re struggling, we’re struggling more. And the performance of reaching out to show that you’re there doesn’t matter if the intention is the gratification that comes from it.

You can reach out and say, “Hey, I can’t imagine what you’re going through, I’m here if you need it.” Because instead what often we get is this emotional outreach of, “I’m so sad, I’ve been crying all day, I’m really struggling.” And it becomes this really selfish thing where it’s like, wow, if you, a white person, are sad and scared, ask how a black person feels. They’re going out knowing that they could die as they protest the death of another, and we’ve just seen that again, another black death, [David McAtee, a restaurant owner who was shot and killed in Louisville, Kentucky, on Sunday].

It’s very crucial that people respect the black folks around them and not look to the black folks in your life for condolence, for support. You’re not impressing us by doing the bare minimum. This is the way it should be. It’s not impressive that you care. You can check in and that’s fine, but there’s a way to do it, but it’s to acknowledge that you’re there and take the lead of that person on how they want to reach out to you.

One thing that I’ll add as we’re talking about allyship is that part of being an ally is taking a deep breath and getting past the shame and the guilt that you’re carrying, because white people who are alive today did not create racism. They didn’t choose to live in a white supremacist country, and they didn’t choose to exist in the world that we do today. But what they can do is choose to admit that they benefit from racism and acknowledge that they have the power to change the conditions, and that’s crucial, because this isn’t a blame game.

When we have frank conversations about black lives and the role that every white person plays in systemic oppression, it’s not an insult, it’s not an attack, it’s a reality. And so we can ignore reality or we can face reality, because only when we face that — only when we give ourselves permission to forgive ourselves, to look forward from this day forward for permission to become better partners and co-conspirators in the movement, permission to educate yourself, permission to grow — that is being a good ally. We don’t need you to carry the burden of your privilege. We need you acknowledge it and to use your privilege, promote good, and to fight oppression. And I feel like we’re dealing with this space in which so many people are just finally starting to realize something that so many of us have known for so long. I appreciate that, and I understand the pain and fear because I’ve been living it every day of my life. But we don’t have time for you to reconcile with your emotion.

This is time for you to forgive yourself, to acknowledge your complicity and to do something about it, to move on and to make good.

Leslie Mac, an activist and community organizer

Give your time, talent, and treasure to black-led organizations and black leaders that are doing front-line work in your area. I don’t even think it’s a matter of looking to other cities that might be more in the news — there are black people, black organizations, black organizers wherever you are that are doing the difficult work of fighting for black liberation and against state violence. You need to find out who’s doing that work where you are and figure out what they need and do your best to meet those needs.

Another thing that I would want white people to be doing right now in this moment is to get clear on what being an antiracist means, which is very different than conversations around learning about racism or understanding privilege. This is very specific to action and what changes you make in your life that affect your community in positive ways.

The biggest calls from organizers around the country right now is to defund the police, and so the things that white people can do with the powers that they hold — that their black counterparts do not — includes pressuring electeds around defunding the police. Get clear about where money is going in your community. Do you know how much money is going to police in your area? In the current budget? The one that is probably going to be passed very soon? And what cuts were made in order to make sure that that money wasn’t touched? Arts programs, schools, health care, social services — these are all the areas that every city has taken from in order not to touch the money that goes to policing.

We are in the midst of a global pandemic that is hitting black and brown communities worse than any others. And we’re watching tax dollars be used on the streets to brutalize people, money that was never employed to ensure the safety of people in the midst of this pandemic. I would challenge white people to lift that up — we just watched the government tell us they can’t do anything for us about Covid. They can’t help us economically in any significant ways, they can’t help us for health care, they can’t help us with our rent, mortgages, all of the things that people are struggling with right now. Unemployment is increasing. We have no personal protective equipment for our front-line health care workers and pretty much Avenger-level body armor for police officers to brutalize protesters.

Lastly, they should always center the voices and causes of black, indigenous, and people of color, both online and in their local communities, and amplify their stories and their demands to speak out. It’s also important to be cognizant of how detrimental it is when they lead with how they’re feeling in moments like this. It’s an easy thing to get sucked into, because white supremacy culture teaches white people that their feelings are the most important thing.

So it’s critical right now for them to rein themselves in. If they have feelings to share, they don’t spew that on social media, they definitely do not empty that into the mentions or texts or messages with people of color and black people in their lives. If they need to, they should be creating spaces for themselves to do that that don’t put that burden on those that are most directly affected by what’s happening right now.

Antiracism is about doing and not just knowing. I think that we have had a very long period of time — I would say from Trayvon Martin’s murder up until now — of a lot of white people getting very educated about white supremacy, about how systems function, but they have a position that knowledge is the end result, the goal. “Oh, I know about it, so I’m antiracist.”

But being an antiracist is an action, it’s a verb. It’s not something that you just learn and you stop, it’s about how you change your behavior every day, every week, every month, every year to move your community, your family, yourself toward a more just and equitable society.

Molly Sweeney, organizing director at 482 Forward, an education organizing network in Detroit

For me, being a white ally in this moment means a few things. I think No. 1, it means listening deeply to the needs and asks of leaders of color in your community. Two, it means committing yourself to this work and the work of undoing white supremacy within you and within the systems around you. And it means not dipping in and dipping out just because the moment feels urgent to you now. It means committing yourself to this work ongoing and showing up, not just in these moments that are on the news but day to day.

And I think the challenge for us white people right now is the constant challenge that we need to live with, which is reflection on how white supremacy is using us as tools in our family systems, in our communities, in our schools, in our police departments, and how we’re constantly asking ourselves what we can do as white people to break those systems down and to evolve and learn, how to be different in our white skin.

[As a white person,] I’ve described my journey as an antiracist as I’m a poisonous snake — not inherently bad, but I carry a poison that can kill, and I need to do everything in my power every day not to bite people of color, and I need to, just like a snake, shed my skin, not that I can get rid of my white skin but shed the embedded white supremacy that lives with me and in my community.

And that’s not easy work. It means changing everything about what we’ve always known.

Join your local antiracist group, like SURJ, Showing Up for Racial Justice. Seek out places where white people are doing work to unpack the way they show up in movements for racial justice. And funding — put your money where your mouth is. Fund movements that are led by people of color that are fighting racism and all the ways that it shows up in our society, in our schools. If you’re raising white kids, talk to them about race right now.

There are lots of small things people can do right now. But then there are bigger things. It’s really taking a look at your entire life. Are you talking to your uncles, aunts, your family about race? Are you asking questions about police departments in your town? Have you pulled the racial data? Are police wearing body cameras? Are they disproportionately pulling over black people? Organize parents at your schools to look at the curriculum and what’s being taught about the history of our country.

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