White Allies Shouldn't Be Anti-Racist. They Must Be Pro-Black.
In a show of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, white people want to know how to be anti-racist allies. They need to be pro-Black.
June 03, 2020 at 5:44 am
The horrific video showing the murder of George Floyd in police custody has sparked a worldwide outcry. Both online and offline; through social media posts, donations and local protests that have transnational resonance, people of all ages and races are making a stand to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. The death or abuse of innocent and unarmed Black people at the hands of the police is unfortunately nothing new and has a long history. However, what is striking about the case of George Floyd is its mainstream recognition. White people are now asking how they can go beyond just being “not racist,” to becoming “anti-racist” or “allies.”
This is an important moment in the sun for the BLM movement, and moreover an opportunity to draw attention to the underlying institutional and cultural racism in society more broadly. Yet, like so many other people of African descent, I have had to enact my own blackout from the world and switch off. The bombardment of social media posts and news clips showing the last eight minutes of George Floyd’s life and the sudden outpouring of mass grief takes its toll.
On the one hand, life constantly reminds us of the immortality of whiteness (mostly men) through statues, buildings or their stories of historical and contemporary greatness being told and retold. On the other, popular images tell us of the fleetingness and insignificance of blackness. Though critically raising awareness, the negative impact of videos of racism on the mental health of Black people is finally gaining attention. I am also wary that this moment of uproar will be just that — a moment of visibility. A Black History Month that reverts back to the white default all year round — a whiteness that is both visible and invisible because it’s all we see. What happens after #BlackoutTuesday?
Why is it only now after the death of George Floyd that Black lives are starting to matter on a larger scale? BLM sentiment has taken over mainstream media coverage and even major corporations have responded by supporting racial justice initiatives through official statements and philanthropic donations. Whereas previous cases of police brutality and, most recently, the disproportionate number of people of color being affected by COVID-19 were chiefly the concern of Black communities, the sudden white shock at the video of George Floyd’s murder has pushed the cause of BLM to a level of urgent global concern. The sad reality of this is that Black lives, then, only matter in relation to white outrage.
Charlamagne Tha God’s interview with Joe Biden on The Breakfast Club, where the presumptive Democratic nominee pontificated that “you ain’t black” if you don’t vote for him, is yet another expression of Black lives only mattering in relation to their utility for white institutions. In this election year, Joe Biden is desperate to court the Black vote as a ticket to the White House and has positioned himself as an advocate of racial justice in opposition to a Trump administration that is heightening racial tensions. This lesser of two evils dilemma has long been the bargaining chip of moderate Democrats. Although change is promised on the campaign trail, when in Washington, immediate action to address racial justice is relegated to the “not yet” of history’s march towards justice. Malcolm X famously warned of the Northern sly fox as being equally menacing as the Southern howling wolf.
To be sure, white solidarity is necessary and welcomed. After all, racism is a white problem and white people have a responsibility of using their white privilege to speak up or act in white spaces to solve it. However, it’s also vital that the emerging shift from “not racist” to “anti-racist” is clearly understood. There is a real danger that “anti-racist” is only being conceived in terms of how white people should now actively speak up against unenlightened “racists” that commit acts of violence or verbal abuse, rather than examining how Black lives may or may not matter in their own daily experience. In this reckoning, the uneducated racist “Other” is epitomized by Trump and the global spread of right-wing populist nationalism that is fueling more racism in society. But we mustn’t forget that BLM was a movement born under an Obama presidency.
Perhaps we should read the popular show of white solidarity through activism in the wake of George Floyd’s death less as a eureka moment of “wokeness” in regards to the importance of Black life, and more of as an “appropriation” of the BLM movement to vent their own anger and opposition to right-wing politics — especially in the ongoing context of these governments’ failures to effectively respond to the coronavirus pandemic. Wanting an end to a Trumpian America and race-induced hate crimes is just the tip of the iceberg.
Although, as a Black person, I am encouraged by recent demonstrations of popular solidarity for BLM, I am also left with a bitter taste as I ask: What is it going to take for Black life to matter outside of its relation to white feelings, white political demands or the benefit Black people can provide to white institutions? This question is ultimately absurd, as it goes without saying that Black humanity matters regardless of whiteness. Nevertheless, the insidiousness of racism is that it functions in the everyday to devalue Black life.
As Robin DiAngelo, outlines in the New York Times bestselling book White Fragility, that for most white folk like herself in the Western world, upward mobility will take them away from spaces of color towards whiter environments that are considered more desirable. She writes of a culture of segregation, which teaches “I could live my entire life without a friend or loved one of color and not see that as a diminishment of my life. In fact, my life trajectory would almost certainly ensure that I had few, if any, people of color in my life.”
Yet, white people matter a whole lot to Black people — they are the educators, writers of history, cultural commentators, political leaders, interview panel, managers, CEOs and even god in the image of a caucasian Jesus.
DiAngelo argues that society tells us that Black life matters less. “I was raised in a society that taught me that there was no loss in the absence of people of color — that their absence was a good and desirable thing to be sought and maintained — while simultaneously denying that fact. This attitude has shaped every aspect of my self-identity: my interests and investments, what I care about or don’t care about, what I see or don’t see, what I am drawn to and what I am repelled by.”
We live in a world that is profoundly anti-Black. To white allies I would say, it’s not enough to be not racist or even anti-racist; you must now strive to be pro-Black. Pro-Black business, Black initiatives, Black institutions, Black spaces, Black education, Black employment and the list goes on.
The tough question this leaves us with, then, is what are the implications of pro-Blackness for the concept of whiteness, which gains its raison d'être only in relation to its binary opposite in blackness?