Weak Allies

Weak allyship, when coming from the oppressing class, is based on reaching for the ideals of equality while still desiring to hitch your star to the wagon of privilege.

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If you, as a white person, would be happy to receive the same treatment that our black citizens do in this society, please stand. – Jane Elliot

For a good portion of my life, I believed the problem was knowledge. If growing up black taught me anything, it was that knowledge was power. For people that had been stripped of the right to even read and write for 240 years and denied adequate and equal education since their emancipation to the present day, that’s a completely reasonable belief.

My parents stressed upon me the importance of paying attention in school and reading, so that I could use my education to further my place in the world, and so that I could be more educated than they were. Unfortunately, I thought this also applied to racism.

When I saw misattributed MLK quotes on people’s Facebook walls, I thought of the crumbling school systems in some of America’s rural cities and towns. When I saw authoritarian impulses surrounding every police shooting, I thought they simply weren’t aware of the history I was taught when I was a child. I knew that many didn’t have the opportunities that I did, like college, and I didn’t look down on them, because I thought of times when I had learned things that I previously had not known.

Blood Done Sign My Name

In his memoir/crime drama about a racial murder in 1970 in Oxford, North Carolina, Timothy B. Tyson lays out the foundation of white moderation, and it’s not ignorance.

Tyson recounts that any conversation between white men with one pushing “progressive” agendas like letting black preachers speak in white churches could be brought to a full stop by the question, “How would you feel if your daughter came home with one?”

Weak allyship, when coming from the oppressing class, is based on reaching for the ideals of equality while still desiring to hitch your star to the wagon of privilege.

The point he’s making is that the racism that infected the more flagrant members of the town infected the ones trying to fight it, as well. They were all diseased – it’s just that some were fighting for a cure and others were down with the sickness.

Weak Allies

This is indeed the problem with weak allies. Some examples include:

The women in eras of America who didn’t approve of their husbands’ participation in lynch mobs, but coddled them just the same when they came home.

Members of the Senate speaking about Jeff Sessions’ abhorrent record, but saying they were charmed because of the fact that they’ve worked out together.

Bernie Sanders, standing aside to let black women protest at his own event during the campaign trail, but three days after the election exhorting a grieving America to consider the pain of the white working class.

Weak allyship can also lead to confused op-eds like Trevor Noah’s in the New York Times, in which he says, “We can be unwavering in our commitment to racial equality while still breaking bread with the same racist people who’ve oppressed us.”

I respectfully disagree.

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Protest for refugees in Rochester, NY

Weak allyship, when coming from the oppressing class, is based on reaching for the ideals of equality while still desiring to hitch your star to the wagon of privilege.

And when it is coming from the oppressed class, just like my idea that knowledge could cure racism, it is rooted in giving credit where it has not been earned, and assuaging guilt for actions that are not accidental, but deliberate in every possible sense of the word.

Weak allyship is fundamentally misguided, and will not lead us in the direction that we need to go from here.

It is not a mistake that Martin Luther King,  Jr. talked more about the problems of white moderation and apathy than about the vicious racism of Bull Connor and George Wallace. It is because he knew that the true destruction of minority communities comes from people that pretend to care, but don’t want to be called nigger lovers. From people devoted to racial equality until an Syrian family moves in next door. It comes from friends who abhor sexism, but refuse to admit that it plays a decisive role in any given scenario, situation, or outcome.

…who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. – Martin Luther King, Jr., 16 April 1963

As Dr. King  also said, “In the end, we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

If the word “resistance” is to mean anything in the age of the Trump, it has to mean white people that are willing to carry the stain of the oppressed with them. It has to mean white people who are willing to fully engage in the struggle for equal rights, not simply when a photo-op presents itself. It has to mean a forceful re-examination of race in America, and a new breed of explicitly anti-racist ideals.

In short, we need white people who are not afraid to be black.

But as long as, nipping at the heels of progress, we have white “allies” willing to undercut every effort made, and we have swaths of minorities willing to cede ground where they should not, justice will remain out of reach.

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4 thoughts on “Weak Allies”

  1. With all due respect, I feel like Muslims will need more support than the black community during Trump’s term. And since people have limited time and energy, shouldn’t they put their efforts in supporting the group which is the least protected and most hated?

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    1. I don’t play suffering Olympics. There are a lot of people that need a lot of different things.

      Depends on what you mean by “least protected.” The way we structure our nation, for example, creates perfect conditions in some neighborhoods for a school-to-prison pipeline. Some of our lack of criminal justice reform leads to people unfairly being in, having commuted sentences but unable to leave, rich kids able to stay out easier than poor kids, and in most cases, we have state-sponsored incentives to encourage recidivism.

      Those are some pretty dire consequences, and those people will continue to languish in prisons and broken systems instead of being helped because of an administration that cares about none of this.

      We’re all hurting. It’s not a competition, is what I would say.

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      1. “We’re all hurting.” That sort of goes against your entire argument in this article, that there are privileged people who want to keep their privileged position. If these people are privileged, how exactly are they hurting? And if they are hurting and if its impossible to compare the relative suffering of two people groups, then how are they privileged?

        Whether you like it or not, you are already playing in the suffering Olympics. You are implicitly saying that people in the white community suffer on a smaller scale (and thus are privileged) than people in the black community. But this where my comment came in, if a more privileged group (the white community) should be encouraged to help a less privileged group (the black community), then shouldn’t the black community be encouraged to help groups less privileged than themselves? And that’s where I saw you’re article as lacking. You could’ve just included one line, “We need white people who are not afraid to be black. And we need black people who are not afraid to be Muslim, or who are not afraid to be illegal immigrants.”

        It doesn’t really matter whether any of these groups are the Most Oppressed. If we’re all hurting, shouldn’t we all be allies to one another? As it stands, your article comes across as implying that white people are the only people at risk of being weak allies. Can’t black people be weak allies too?

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  2. To be fair, I consider it a foregone conclusion and not really a novel point at all to say that black people can be bad allies. Ben Carson, for example, is no friend to black people. They’re not confused about that. Malcolm X gave a whole speech called “The Field Negro and The House Negro.” where he outlined what he thought about black people who weren’t great allies (King was on that list.) Obama is on Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ list. Diversity of thought surrounding the issue of black allyship has never really been a problem for me.

    Further, advocating for black issues doesn’t mean that I’m saying the others matter less. Once again, not a competition. I more often comment on black issues because I have the most familiarity with them, the most connection to those stories, and the most valuable things to say from that perspective.

    Also, that wasn’t the focus of my article. It was directed at the liberal portion of the white community that prefers to help in limited ways, while still trying to keep the stink of “black” off them.

    If you’re asking whether or not I recognize the privilege that I have, the answer is that I do. Not everyone, white or black, has the things I do, the education I do, or the opportunities I do. It’s not a hard thing for me to admit. It does, however, appear to be a very difficult thing for white people to admit, which you’ll know if you ever turn on Fox News.

    The question: “Shouldn’t their energy be focused on…?” is just as non-sensical as asking why a cancer group’s focus is not on the opioid epidemic, another public health crisis. It implies, “Hey, black people, why don’t you take it down a notch because Muslims are in trouble?” I think with positive intentions, it is misguided, and that with negative intentions, it’s a tool to pit the oppression of one group over another to keep them both silent (not unlike when people argue that since there are homeless vets, we can’t take refugees.)

    Thanks for commenting!

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