When Allies Struggle

To begin a serious discussion on how to challenge people who are broadly anti-racist but say something inappropriate, let’s start with something silly:

What do we demand of people who are trying to do the right thing? It’s easy to decry Donald Trump as a racist jerk; he says things that are clearly racist. But what is the best way to respond when an ally says something that’s not quite right or someone you know supports racial equality does something inappropriate? Challenging allies when they are wrong is important, but it’s also important not to alienate and attack people who are trying to do the right thing.

The vast majority of posts on this blog have condemned appropriation and presented compelling claims about artists, designers, and performers appropriating the cultures of others. From Kylie Jenner’s braids to the “Chinese” Met Gala to Selena Gomez, we’ve talked about the injustice and damage caused by appropriation. The Amherst Uprising made it clear that racist incidents and discrimination exist on our campus as well. These cases of racism are relatively obvious and should be broadly condemned and resisted.

What seems more difficult to me is how to deal with people and actions that are trying to help but actually are harmful. What is the proper response when a group of white people begin to dominate a discussion about race? How do you respond when someone is genuinely interested in understanding how to care for black hair, simply because they don’t know?

I do feel like I’ve been on both sides of this, a little. I’m a woman and have thought about how to treat men in feminist discussions and I’m trying my best to be a white ally to fight racism. But, I’m sure at some point this semester I’ve done something racist. Per the video, everyone’s a little bit racist. So, here’s how I would like to be treated if I do something racist and how I try to respond to good men when they are sexist.

  1. Don’t just let it go: It’s easy for an ally to make their advocacy part of their identity and it’s hard for them when that’s challenged. But, being a good ally requires recognizing one’s weaknesses and being willing to change. If someone is a true ally, the want to get it right. Allies don’t get a free pass based on identifying with a movement.
  2. Ask questions until you understand the issue: did the person simply use the wrong language or did they actually mean to say something? Sometimes, people do or say something different than they mean, so understanding the issue can be important.
  3. Distinguish ignorance from maliciousness: with issues of race, ignorance can be a real problem. If you’re like me and don’t grow up thinking about race, there are some things you simply don’t know or understand. Have no tolerance for maliciousness, but patience for ignorance. Ignorance is far more easily solved.
  4. Help them understand why they were wrong: slowly explaining why a behavior was inappropriate is essential. If someone understands why what they did was wrong, they can improve. If they are simply silenced, that can make them feel unwelcome, attacked, and alienated from an issue.

Obviously, this is a lot to ask of “the black friend.” It requires maturity, patience, and a lot of effort. But, at least in feminist discussions, I’ve found helping allies to be worth the effort.  You’ll either make them a better ally or show that they were never a good ally in the first place.

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