Activism · Organizing · Race

On Being an Ally

I’ve been struggling lately with how to be a successful ally. I feel an enormous amount of guilt stemming from my own privilege as a white woman partnered with my own ineptitude when it comes to discussing race with other white women. Which isn’t a cry for pity, just a confession. I cringe to say that, to admit that my drive for institutional equality isn’t just a symptom of my good nature.

I’ve never stopped to consider the pat on my back when I participate in something progressive. When my white friend expressed admiration for the activism I participate in (while he self-admittedly dissolves in a quagmire of apathy), my cheeks burned red and my heart swelled with pride. My parents just beamed when I protested alongside my fellow women in the Women’s March on Washington, and it felt great to have that parental pride. But perhaps being a liberal in the Deep South isn’t an accomplishment in and of itself and perhaps I need to take a step back and stop thinking of it as such.

This past week, someone in my Dialogue on Race discussion spoke about how their black friend looked on our group as a way to alleviate white guilt. My gut reaction was to be defensive. We’re gathering to learn, to better understand white privilege and institutional racism. We’re here to fight the good fight! But maybe she’s right. What are we going to do beyond our little cohort? Dialoguing with like-minded individuals isn’t challenging. We all speak eagerly to the one or two black women with us, seeming to forget in our zeal for appreciation that they do not represent the black experience in its entirety, that they do not have power or need to absolve us of our crimes. I am guilty of this. I want to be thought of as good, as bereft of prejudice. But this isn’t true. We all have prejudice and we all are subject to institutional racism.

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In all honesty, please check out Dialogue on Race Louisiana. It consists of six weeks worth of readings and guided discussions and is well worth your time.

On Facebook I was invited to join a private group that serves as place for women of color and their allies to come together to engage in discussion. It’s been painful to read some of their threads and not exclaim “but that’s not me! I’m not like that”. Regardless of if I am like that or not (which perhaps sometimes I am more of the “Becky” than I’d like to admit) I benefit from the disenfranchisement of women of color. More than that, it has been eye opening to realize that I am just as susceptible to white-savior-syndrome as the next person rife with good intentions. Maybe my method of activism needs to change. Instead of holding out a hand from above I need to get in the trenches.

I’d be lying if I said I knew what that meant. I think being an ally is a constantly evolving and shifting concept. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about pursuing my PhD. in anthropology. The bare bones of my project would involve ethnographic research with activist groups. It would be experimental, allowing people in North Baton Rouge to tell their stories in their own way, maybe through interviews, dialogues, essays, poetry, art. I think my research and activism needs to allow those with no voice not just to use mine to speak through, but to build permanent bridges so that our voices are equally heard in the near future.

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