Josh Linton works as an Inclusion and Diversity Program Coordinator at ONE Gas, Inc. in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He also serves as chair for the Inclusive Leadership Council of the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice. And when he finds some spare time, he is the Youth Director at Claremore, OK First Christian Church. He writes occasionally at his blog, but it’s probably easier to connect with him on Facebook.
Several days ago, hundreds of people gathered in Tulsa to lament the killing of Terence Crutcher. I was asked to help organize and participate in the event. But I’m white. What could I say at a time like this?
Well, it turns out there is plenty for white folks to say, especially to other white folks, to other allies. It seems to me that even those of us who are well-intentioned, progressive white people still don’t always get it. And often what feels so bad to the black community provides a moment of good feelings for sympathetic white folk, who are more than happy for the opportunity to assuage their guilt a bit.
Honestly, it’s cringe-worthy to witness how fast black pain and anger circles back to a discussion about how white people feel about it. In fact, I’ve sat in meetings and planning sessions for rallies and vigils where the conversation spent way too much time on how to manage potential, speculative reactions from the black community, where the rhetoric of seeking peace morphs into another way of saying we must maintain law and order, which turns into another way of saying this whole thing is starting to make nice, progressive whites feel uncomfortable.
And here’s where I have some things to say. Bad things happening to black people should not function as an opportunity for good things to be done by white people. The senseless slaying of black bodies, brought about by the relentless persistence of the logic of white supremacy permeating society at all levels, should not serve as a platform to affirm white allies. Confession, repentance, and listening are much more appropriate responses. And yet, instead of an outpouring of appropriate responses, white folks react to stabilize the shakiness of our white fragility and engage the work of racial justice after anchoring it in the logic of white supremacy.
I understand the points I’m making can be difficult to hear and incite defensiveness. Like it or not, that’s part of the problem. We like to be seen and thought of as allies to the black community and in the work of racial justice. It’s a perfect deflection. It’s an escape from the deeply troubling internal work we ought to be doing constantly and every day to eradicate the logic of white supremacy from our lives. Instead, attending a vigil or a rally is easy and noticeable. While on the other hand, attending to the difficult work of the way racism informs us isn’t as easy or as noticeable. Far too often, we’re masters at putting the lies in allies.
Here’s a few of the ways we’ve facilitated this charade:
- We use the ideals of peace to manipulate and control the reactions of the black community after they come face to face with another injustice. I bet God’s sick of hearing “Now, whatever we do, we need to maintain the peace,” because God knows it’s just a way of telling black folks to calm the hell down. And how ironic is it when white civic leaders, instruments of the state, call for peace moments after the systems they represent have gunned down someone in the streets? In other areas of life, white people seem reasonable about the practice of venting. Venting is good, we got to be honest with our emotions, getting stuff off the chest is healthy. Yet, in these situations, the logic of white supremacy feeds us doubt about the ability of black people to handle their emotions, outrage, and anger. And out of fear and an impulse to stabilize white fragility we passionately promote peace as a way to manage what we can’t handle and in turn make it all about us and our whiteness.
- We flood multiracial spaces with comments and questions shaped by white guilt and anxiety. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard white folks in audiences where they aren’t the majority comment about how sorry they are or ask people of color what it is they can do. As if the work of convincing society that black lives matter isn’t enough, well-meaning white folks feel the need to drop the work they ought to be doing themselves onto the black community to do for them. Does this sound familiar? So for whatever reason and because I assume just because I can as a white person, I don’t have the time or energy to do my own work to promote anti-racism so I’m asking you to do it for me, for free, right here in this space. I mean, please help me and teach me to be an ally. I’m struggling with this stuff. If these sentiments don’t sound like a modern re-inscription of slavery then I don’t know what else to call it. Look, I’m not saying these aren’t legitimate questions or concerns. White folks have plenty to learn and unlearn. I’m saying these kind of conversations ought to be contained within white spaces so that all the ignorant things we say as we’re learning our way out of the logic of white supremacy doesn’t continue to traumatize people of color and unfairly add to the work that has already brought about their collective exhaustion.
So you want to be a white ally? Good. Get to work. There are plenty of resources out there for you to stay busy without you having to rely on the energy and efforts of people of color (seriously, Google can handle it). Let’s resist stabilizing our white fragility by ensuring our safety and comfort when engaging anti-racism efforts. Let’s stop getting our feelings hurt when people of color don’t implicitly trust us or even state to us they’re not ready to be around white people at the moment.
The manipulation of black reaction through the passionate promotion of peace, the public processing of white anxiety and guilt, and the management of the fragile white ego all work to reinforce the logic of white supremacy, and they work together to put the lies in allies. It’s time to take a long look inside and start to get honest with who we are so that when we do claim the role of allies in the struggle for racial justice, we’re not simply kidding ourselves.