By Forest Richter, Co-Fouder of Uncrowd
Dear Progressive White People,
In the last few weeks, we’ve had a lot of opportunities to demonstrate our disgust with police brutality and our support of the Black Lives Matter movement. We may have posted on Instagram, marched in the protests, read White Fragility, and reached out with genuine concern to the people of color in our network. We probably had conversations at work about what we can do differently to improve DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) and may have even changed policies for the better. For me, I checked all of those boxes. Do I win White Ally Bingo? I bring this up not to be dismissive of these genuine (and important) steps, but merely to show that I am with you. What follows is a commentary on racism that I believe is important for white progressives to understand, but I am not writing at you. I am writing to us.
As a group, we progressive whites are very good at talking about overt racism. It's easy to condemn those that fly confederate flags and use racial slurs. It's easy to consider racists as some “other” group. Typically we dismiss them as backwoods southerners. We’ve even gotten fairly good about recognizing racism as a systemic issue. Many of us understand that white people at large come from a place of privilege. We’ve come to understand that segregation, Jim Crow Laws, incarceration rates, gerrymandering/redlining, etc has created generational wealth inequality. What we’re bad at, and I include myself, is reflecting on our own thoughts and actions. Doing this is hard, uncomfortable work, and it’s never over.
Instead of being self-reflective and open to understanding our own racist tendencies, we’re more likely to get defensive or redirect the conversation. By not being open to this feedback, and actively working to mitigate these behaviors, we’re sending a message that we’re fine with the status quo, but the status quo is not fine. By avoiding uncomfortable thoughts and conversations, we’re maintaining a system of inequity.
I’ve rewritten this article four times. I was originally compelled to write this when a friend of mine was unwittingly used as a part of someone else’s performative allyship. I will still get to that, but anything I wrote focusing just on that one event felt insincere and incomplete. The reality is that I could be just as likely to have been a “performative ally” in someone else’s story. As a progressive white person, this is one of my own insecurities. I want desperately to be seen as better and different than other white people. However, it doesn’t happen that way. There is no accumulation of good deeds, best intentions, or support that earns you a title. There's no trophy for being the “wokest” and no blue checkmark for being a “verified" ally. There is however an opportunity to grow as a human being. There is an opportunity to reflect on things that may be difficult to admit so that we can avoid them in the future.
Did I talk over that person on that video chat?
Did I compare that person’s racist experience to my own life?
Did I treat that individual as less than equal?
Was I acting like a white savior?
What can I do to be a better listener?
That last one is a big one. What can I do to be a better listener? This specific question is my own mantra, and it's what inspired me to write this post.
My friend shared an experience with me about another woman, a white woman, in her industry. The two were connected under the pretense of mentorship and partnership. Since that time, the white woman has undermined my friend for her own benefit, while publicly presenting herself as a supporter, an ally.
There's no trophy for being the “wokest” and no blue checkmark for being a “verified" ally
This white woman either doesn’t care that she’s using my friend or she’s blissfully unaware. Either case is an example of both white privilege and performative allyship. My friend is rightfully upset and wanted to call her out, but she doesn’t want to burn bridges in her industry. I don’t want to burn bridges either, but I am happy to shine a spotlight on the situation and hope more than a few of us hold up a mirror. In the interest of transparency, my friend did read this piece and give her approval for me to publish.
I named this original document Fake Allies before I started writing. I came in planning to write a hit piece on a “Karen”. From there, I planned on calling out the large scale performative allyship we’ve seen since May 25th. I was going to lean into the outrage. As much as that may feel good and is certainly warranted, it's just not constructive. Instead, I hope to shake some bad habits and instill some new ones.
White progressives, we need to spend a lot more time reflecting on the missteps we’ve made, and are still making. We need to get past our own defensiveness, guilt, and insecurity so that we can identify our behaviors that need changing. We need to ask ourselves difficult questions, and we need to commit to this effort as an ongoing education. This means maintaining this same level of introspection beyond the news cycle and beyond the protests. It means doing the work when no one is watching and there is nothing to gain. Racism is so large and so insidious that it can feel overwhelming. Being uncomfortable is not an excuse to ignore it. We need to stay engaged because the people were allying with don’t have the choice. It's time to acknowledge our problem behaviors, improve them, and grow as human beings.