Where I’m from we have a saying: don’t talk about it; be about it.
Recently, I got into a Facebook kerfuffle (as I do) when a cohort (let’s call him Ike) who consistently perpetuated racism and sexism in the classroom refused to take accountability for that when excitedly posting about the work of his all-white, anti-racist campus organization. When I declined to have a personal discussion with him about it because of his own racist behavior in the past, he resorted to the typical, passive-aggressive, derailing tactics (warning for ableism) he always had in class. And, I found myself in the sticky position of having to threaten to take our personal conversation public if he didn’t stop messaging me.
While I’m not at all surprised by his behavior given his classroom antics, it did get me thinking about how good ol’ Ike is representative of a larger issue. Being an anti-racist ally or paying lip service to one’s privilege in one’s work has become all the rage for Good White People™ who want to show off their social justice credentials without actually putting in the work (or, alternatively, without taking real accountability). It’s become super easy to exploit and benefit from the struggles of people of color while simultaneously expressing concern about it, the very epitome of the old saying, “to have your cake and eat it too.”
And, frankly, I’m goddamn tired of it.
We’ve all seen instances of social justice posturing. We’ve seen the Facebook statuses that challenge people to reblog a status that 99% of people won’t reblog in order to raise awareness about some cause or another. Or, how about asking people to change their icons to support their pet cause? And, we can’t forget the many, many people who share pictures of themselves surrounded by Black and brown children while they ~slum it~ in the name of humanitarianism. After all, what’s the purpose in engaging in social justice work if no one’s around to see your big heart and noble spirit at work?
The problem with this sort of posturing, besides the obvious (I will write about the imperialistic implications of “humanitarian” work at some point), is that it tends to marginalize or outright erase people of color actually experiencing racism. It crowds us out from our own spaces while allowing so-called allies to profit from racism, become the “experts” at our lived experiences, and dodge responsibility for the racism they wrought.
Take a Tim Wise for example. Tim had an infamous Facebook meltdown a while back because people of color were, rightfully, questioning his usefulness. We questioned the oppressive irony inherent in a man who professes to fight racism and call out white privilege benefitting from that white privilege by being hailed as an “expert” on racism and taking up space that should be occupied by, you know, those of us who actually experience racism. We questioned why Tim Wise appeared on CNN, on campuses, and on bookshelves speaking about racism and white privilege instead of people of color. Predictably, when actually confronted with people of color with a lot of critical and important questions about his work, he reverted to the same, racist script of the people he claims to critique. (My personal favorite was him telling an Asian-American person off and demanding to know what they had done for the cause besides actually living it, I guess.)
Or, let’s talk about Macklemore. Many have written about how he has made a career appropriating the stylings and very words of Black folk, and queer Black folk in particular, while paying lip service to his white privilege. Recently, he made a big show of how he “robbed” Kendrick Lamar of the best rap album Grammy. Of course, he could have said that during the award show or, if he was feeling particularly brave, refused the award. But, he figured why not have the award and the accolades while still showing off his anti-racist cred and went the route of screencapping his own conciliatory text to Lamar.
This? This is not anti-racism. This is being passive-aggressive and exploitative in the guise of respect and anti-racism. And, I challenge so-called allies to do a hell of a lot better than that.
Let me tell you a story that might help illustrate what I mean.
A few years ago, I attended a campus talk by Hank Thomas, one of the original Freedom Riders. People opposed to their mission firebombed Hank’s bus at one point and, at another point, beat him and other Riders at a bus depot. This was dangerous, life-threatening work for which the Riders trained extensively, and they paid for their protests of the Jim Crow South and structural racism with blood. A handful of those original Freedom Riders were white. I don’t know their names, and they weren’t prominently featured in the documentary we watched except a few snippets, including one man who was badly beaten.
These people did not ride into the South to challenge segregation because they expected accolades. They did not make a production of having participated and of the injuries they sustained. They didn’t demand everyone stop and pat them on the back and devote an “ally week” to them. They participated because they thought it was the right thing to do. They, in the most real sense, put their asses on the line, including their physical safety and their social standing, for the cause. And, we don’t even know their names. Those are allies.
Tim Wise? Macklemore? Good ol’ Ike? Those are people who want praise and profit.
I don’t expect Freedom Rider type commitment of every white ally. I don’t expect you to put yourself in a position to lose your life and your livelihood. But, I do expect that you’ll engage with these issues because you care about them and not because it sounds good. I expect that you’ll not profit from my oppression. I expect that you’ll not just talk about it; you’ll be about it.