White People – Think Before Using an Anti-Racist Label

Racism Ally buttonAre you wearing a safety pin? Do you have a BLM sign in your yard? Do you consider yourself to be a “white ally”? While these actions may initially appear to be supportive, they can end up re-focusing the message on the white person’s reputation, and away from the work for racial justice.

I understand the intent and the desire to support anti-racism. But the result can be counter-productive and misdirected if it is practiced without self-reflection. Labeling oneself as an ally often serves to refocus one’s energies away from anti-racist work and toward enhancing one’s self-image.  The anti-racist label can deflect from the white person looking inward at their own thoughts and feelings about race.    Does labeling yourself make you feel that you can’t be racist, or that you don’t have work to do on acknowledging and grappling with your white privilege?

There can be value in showing solidarity with people of color by publicly displaying an allegiance to an anti-racist movement or group.  The display could actually create opportunities to discuss racism with other whites who might be curious (or confrontational) when they notice.  But there are reasons to be cautious in this practice.  You’d better be ready to potentially deal with angry or aggressive interactions from whites who don’t agree with what you’re doing or appear to be supporting. You also need to be ready to stand with and speak up for a person of color who is being harassed or discriminated against because of their race or ethnicity.

The idea of whites referring to themselves as allies in the racial justice movement is problematic in itself.  A definition of the word “ally” is:

…a person, group, or nation that is associated with another or others for some common cause of purpose.1

This definition clearly implies a common cause, i.e. ending racism, but my experience with whites is that they frequently define their role in the anti-racist movement as that of “supporter”.  I recall attending a community meeting hosted by a local organization of color post-election 2016 to discuss how to move forward.  Multiple white people in my small group expressed that their attendance at the meeting was inspired by their desire to “help people of color…be supportive…I want to support people of color in their struggle”.  I was bothered by the lack of ownership of the struggle against racism repeatedly expressed by whites.  Whites need to stop seeing racism as a problem for people of color to tackle.   Whites need to see racism as their own problem.  After all, racism and white supremacy are creations of the dominant culture (white/European)  that are perpetrated against non-whites for the benefit of whites.  And, all whites benefit from white privilege.  To speak of people of color, especially blacks, as needing to “overcome” racism is to imply that we need to work hard to move past this tremendous obstacle placed in front of us and meant to disadvantage us.  Or worse, it can imply that racism and the resulting disparities and hardships are somehow a result of our need to overcome inherent inferiorities as non-whites. This is one of the “tricks” of white supremacy – identifying the problem as that of people of color, not whites.

Whites doing anti-racist work need to own the struggle as theirs and engage in work informed by people of color and organizations of color.  When you sign on as a “white ally” you need to think through your intent and your level of commitment.  Doing the work is much more valuable than wearing the label.

  1. Dictionary.com

I'm an African-American, black woman atheist and feminist. My goal is to educate others about racism, white supremacy, racial and social justice in order to exact changes in our system that will lead to true equality for all.