Racism has devastating costs to people of color and to White people, but those costs are not the same. People of color face immediate survival-level threats to their health and well-being, and most White people don’t. White people who consider themselves allies see the injustice and want to do something—but what? The answer is complicated.
Here’s the conundrum: If we get involved in racial justice work only because of racism’s costs to people of color, that activism is based on “helping them.” The work then becomes a form of charity and affirms Black people as needy and White people as having it together, knowing the answers, and being righteous. Essentially it reinforces White superiority. And in this case, I would argue that when we believe we are “helping” people of color, we are acting out of self-interest, not out of a sense of compassion, moral integrity, or an understanding of our true interconnectedness.
A different way to look at racial justice
I believe our motivation to pursue racial justice needs to come from an understanding that there’s a mutual benefit. In fact, we all—Black and White people alike—have a tremendous stake in building a society based on inclusion, equity, caring, and justice. This understanding is the only thing that can lead to long-term, sustainable multiracial alliances for justice.
Look at it this way: Our society tells us that through hard work, personal responsibility, individualism, competition, and choice, we can succeed even if most others can’t. However, we are all in the same boat, and racism is a huge hole in our aspiration to create a democratic, multicultural ship. I may have the benefit of being on a higher deck, and people of color may literally drown before me, but ultimately, we will all go down together.
Being the right kind of ally
Acting as an ally to people of color is one of the most important things White people can do. Ally is not an identity; it is a practice. An ally is someone who not only shows up but someone who also sticks around for the long term. Acting as an ally means recognizing that we are interdependent and have a mutual interest in building a healthy and caring society that provides for people’s needs.
It also recognizes that we are not all in the same place in the struggle. In the work to end racism, for example, people of color, Native Americans, and immigrants of color are on the front lines. They take the most risks and pay the highest costs—every day, their lives are at stake. They are the most knowledgeable about racist oppression and how it works, and therefore, White allies should look to organizations led by people of color to take the lead.
An ally is not a hero or savior
This is where things often go awry. If we are working from an understanding of mutual interest and responding to what people of color say they need from White people, it should be clear that the struggle for racial justice is not about White people saving, rescuing, or “helping” people of color. That further reinforces inequality in an insidious way.
We’ve been taught that White men built, produced, discovered, or created everything of importance in the world. We’ve been taught that people of color have been lazy and unambitious. We’ve seen or read about all the great White male saviors—from Jesus to Medieval knights, from Columbus to the Founding Fathers, from Western gunslingers to contemporary comic-book, movie, and video-game superheroes. It is always White men and Western civilization who protect the family/town/nation/women/children from danger.
This constantly reiterated cosmology of saviors bringing salvation can make it hard for individual White people not to assume that we are leading the salvation effort to bring democracy, humanitarian aid, equality, justice, and safety to “those in need.” In fact, a lot of the violence initiated by White people and by the United States globally has been and continues to be in the name of misguided efforts to “help” people.
Other people don’t need to be rescued. Allies aren’t heroes. They are members of the community who understand injustice when they see it and do what they can to work with others to redress it.
So, what’s the answer?
There is no simple formula, no one correct way to act as an ally because each of us has a different relationship to social organizations, political processes, and economic structures. It is an ongoing strategic process in which we look at our personal and social resources, evaluate the environment, and collaborate with people of color and other White allies to pursue justice. What is a priority today may not be tomorrow. What is effective or strategic right now may not be next year. How do we put our attention, energy, and money toward strategic priorities within a long-term vision?
This task includes listening to people of color so we can support the actions they take and the risks they bear in defending their lives and challenging the status quo. We can then evaluate the content of what others are saying by what we know about how racism works and by our own critical thinking.
And while every situation is different and there are various ways to proceed, White people should always keep a few things in mind. The main thing is that racism is everywhere, every day. It affects whatever is going on, and one of the privileges of being White is not having to see or deal with it all the time. We need to acknowledge this, notice how racism is denied, minimized, and justified, and take a stand against injustice, even in small ways.
That puts us on the right track, but there’s more work to do—and it involves honestly and continually examining ourselves and our situations. We need to look at the ways we may be acting from assumptions of White power or privilege, which will allow us to see our tendency to defend ourselves or to assume we should be in control. It is only then that we can start to break the cycle and better understand how we can truly work with people of color to bring about real change.
For more on this important issue, see our guide to the Fight Against Racism.
Paul Kivel is a social justice educator, activist, and writer. He is a co-founder of the Oakland Men’s Project, part of the group that started the organization Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), and the author of many books, including Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice.
Editor’s note: The opinions here belong to the author. To submit your own idea for an essay, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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