Australian aboriginal activist Lilla Watson said it best: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us struggle together.”
There are many examples of great partnership, solidarity, action and support by white allies in Black struggles. There are also just as many examples of disasters created by white allies.
Despite our best intentions, white people from outside the Black community, especially lawyers, who join in black struggles often make serious mistakes which harm local organizing work. We mean well, isn’t that enough? Actually no, it is not. When we outsiders are challenged on our mistakes, our feelings usually get hurt. We then have the option to leave. And many do. Meanwhile the local struggle, from which locals cannot leave, has even more work to do to fix the mess we made.
This leads to the hard truth that well intentioned white advocates can often provide much better help to black struggles not by coming and working in the black community but by working on the same issues in their own communities.
We are always told to respect the leadership of people of color and we all say we will. But what does that really mean and how do we do this? Here are five basic principles which should guide us. There are many more than five out there, of course, but these five are good places to start and re-start, and start over.
First, liberation struggles push us outside our comfort zone. Dante Barry challenges us to get over our anxieties. “Black folks are readily risking their lives every day purely by existing” and one of the challenges of whites being in solidarity with black liberation is “getting over that uncomfortable feeling.”
The second job for us is to join in the hard work of dismantling structural and historical racism while checking our own privilege. We know we have all spent a lifetime living with and profiting from our privilege. But it is hard for the fish to understand the water. As Khury Petersen-Smith and Brian Bean write “Racism persists as a central feature of US society, not because the population is made up of bigoted individuals whose attitudes are reflected in social and political institutions, but because racism is an indispensable tool for the ruling class to specially oppress black people and divide the working-class majority.”
Job three is to listen. Listening is much more important than speaking. If you have not been a longtime member of the community which is struggling, do not just show up and expect your good intentions entitle you to anything. There are a lot of people with a lot of history who are already involved and who have learned a lot about what works and what does not. Respect that. We have to actively learn about the people and the community and the work that has gone on long before we got here. Good intentions do not provide us a pass for ignorance. Opinions, suggestions or contributions, however well intentioned, are not helpful from people who do not understand the struggle. And even if we have been a working partner of the Black community for some time, it is still wise to keep listening.
Job four. Liberation is not possible without real commitment. Working to upend the racist status quo takes time, serious dedication and a willingness to accept risk. Activist Feminista Jones said, “I am not interested in white allies. What we need are co-conspirators.” Jones continued “What I need is for people to come and work with us in the trenches and be there alongside us. It’s not about being on the outside and saying ‘yes, I support you!’ It’s about ‘not only do I support you, but I am here with you, I am rolling up my sleeves. What do I need to do?” This is not speed dating. This is a real relationship with give and take, joy and sorrow, tragedy and inspiration.
Five. Respect the community. We absolutely have skills and talents and life experiences which can be helpful. But the community we engage with absolutely has skills and talents and life experiences which can help us as well. As partners we should never make verbal commitments or raise expectations in the community without first fully discussing these with organizers and leaders. Unmet promises and unfilled expectations seriously undermine and discourage local organizing and justice work. And how do we know if they are realistic or not? Reflection with the community absolutely must precede action.
When respectful meaningful relationships are built, real partnerships and solidarity are possible. And when white allies truly work in partnership in black struggles, liberation for all of us is possible.
For more see: Rose Hackman, “We need co-conspirators, not allies: how white Americans can fight racism,” http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/26/how-white-americans-can-fight-racism
Khury Petersen-Smith & Brian Bean, “Nothing Short of Liberation: Ally-ship isn’t enough. To confront structural racism, we need a politics of solidarity,” https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/06/black-lives-matter-police-brutality-allies/