As the country continues to grapple with its long history of racism, police brutality, and discrimination towards Black and brown people, more and more white people are checking their biases, acknowledging their innate privilege, and doing the internal and external allyship work necessary to aid the fight against racial inequality. What most of us are still trying to figure out: how to do all of that without turning this time into some personal growth story where we’re still, somehow, the centers of our own attention. Not doing that is harder than you might think.
In case you’re just tuning in, let’s catch you up: For over two weeks, people across the country have protested in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahumad Aubrey, Rayshard Brooks, and countless others. Corporations, businesses, and restaurants have pledged donations and shown solidarity. The United States Marine Corps has finally banned the use of the confederate flag. Statutes celebrating and commemorating Confederate soldiers are being toppled, dragged through cities, and dumped into oceans. Organizations dedicated to defunding police departments, ending cash bail systems, and uplifting Black and brown communities have received a record number of donations.
In other words, shit is happening.
These demonstrations, donations, acts of solidarity, and ongoing public conversations are positive, to be sure, but another trend has emerged in the wake of this long-awaited push towards lasting social change: white people centering themselves in the moment. This is far from new — from whitewashing this country’s history to describing organizations as “inclusive” despite an all-white managerial staff, white people do this regularly in ways both big and small — but now that we’re in the midst of one of the largest civil rights movements in recent memory, white people making it all about us feels far more than tone-deaf or insensitive. It feels purposeful.
No one is going to be a “perfect ally” overnight, or ever. We’ll make mistakes, our feelings will get hurt, and it will take a concerted effort to not allow feelings of discomfort to ensure we don’t make ending systemic and internalized racism about us. And coming to terms with how, as white people, we’ve benefited from and perpetuated white supremacy isn’t easy. It is humbling, uncomfortable, and in many ways, painful.
We’re definitely not saying to ignore or deny those feelings. We’re just saying, ya know, to some degree we all need to…get over it. It’s unpleasant but ultimately not that bad; it’s not going to kill us, unlike racism, which kills a lot of people. So yes, this can be a painful time for white people, but that is not the point. And if we let it be the point for us, then we are already failing to be good allies, no matter what else we do.
But if we all focus on the following, and check ourselves and any knee-jerk reactions to be defensive or self-serving, we can all work towards being the kind of allies who consistently show up for Black and brown communities, now and always.
1. At marches and protests, do not lead — follow
If you’re able to and willing to attend a protest, do not lead in the chants, decide who is going where, or put yourself in a position to dictate what occurs during the demonstration. These marches are not about you, nor are they an opportunity to perform allyship. They’re about standing behind and beside the Black and brown communities and leaders who have long been doing the work to end systemic racism. Lend your voice, but do not use your voice to speak over Black protestors.
2. At marches and protest, use your privilege to protect Black protestors
Again, if you’re willing and able to, use your privilege as a white or non-Black person to protect Black protestors. This can mean literally putting your body in between a police officer and a Black protestor, knowing you’re less likely to be subjected to acts of police brutality. This can mean bearing witness to police officers who are using unnecessary force on protestors, including documenting these instances by filming them.
As white people, we can navigate predominantly white spaces far more safely than Black and brown people. Stretch the invisible shield of white privilege to protect the people around you who do not have that shield at their disposal. That’s called allyship.
3. At marches and protests, do not antagonize police officers
People are angry. People are hurt. People feel a righteous indignation that can and should, be expressed in a variety of ways. But if you’re attending a protest, antagonizing police officers or causing property damage will only increase the risks of Black and brown protestors being targeted by the police or blamed for “rioting” and goes against your allyship.
Again, we are protected by our whiteness, and that protection includes the presumption of innocence instead of guilt. Black people do not have that same protection, so when police officers are antagonized by white protestors or white protestors destroy public property, it’s often Black people who’re blamed. These actions do not aid the fight for racial equality but detract from the overall message and the Black-led movement’s goals.
4. Stop taking selfies or using protests to promote your brand
I mean. Just. Why? Why is this a thing?! Influencers, knock it off!
There have been a number of documented instances in which influencers have been caught using protests as Instagram backdrops and “social media” moments. Like this woman, who asked her boyfriend to take a picture of her pretending to board up a business’ windows. Or this woman, who had someone take a picture of her in the “middle” of a protest while she holds a sign and wears a long-flowing black dress. Ya’ll, this is entirely not the point of any of these demonstrations. This is just, you know, the worst.
This is not allyship. Don’t be these people. It’s just, well, embarrassing.
5. Don’t lean on the fact that you have “Black friends” to distance yourself from your privilege
We’ve all heard it from friends, family members, and Facebook acquaintances we totally forget about until we scroll past another one of their problematic posts. Hell, chances are we’ve said it once or twice, or at least thought it. But tokenizing the Black people in our lives as proof we’re not “one of those white people” does, in fact, make us one of those white people.
Having Black friends, dating Black people, and even having Black children does not negate the privilege we have as white people. It certainly doesn’t remove us from the ways in which we benefit from those privileges. So attempting to use the Black people in our lives as a way to distance ourselves from the work every white person in this country can and should be doing does a disservice to all Black people, to their communities, and to the people we know, love, and care for.
6. Give money
This is a wonderful way to show your allyship and support the cause without trying to center yourself in the movement or make the fight for social justice about you and people who look like you. Black people have been doing this work for generations, and the best way to support them is monetarily. Donate to any one of the organizations on this list, donate often, and, to put it pretty bluntly, simply put your money where your mouth is.
The fight to end racism doesn’t need white saviors — it needs the money and wealth white people, as a whole, have been able to accrue via 400 years of Black people’s oppression.
7. Teach your children about racism
Teaching your children about allyship, race, and racism can help ensure systemic white supremacy isn’t perpetuated and upheld by future generations. And while many white parents are quick to consider these conversations “difficult,” or assume that talking about race and racism robs their children of their innocence and childhoods, they’re necessary and can be facilitated in age-appropriate ways.
Black and brown parents do not have the luxury of shielding their children from the realities of racism — they live it every single day. If we don’t want to center ourselves in the fight for racial justice, we have to do the work, as parents, to educate our children on race, racism, white supremacy, and police brutality.
8. Don’t take things personally
Don’t take a page from the #NotAllMen crowd and make criticisms of white people about you. If they’re not about you, then you’ll know it and won’t feel the need to speak out in opposition of those very warranted critiques. If you do see yourself reflected in what other Black and brown people are saying about white people, then that’s a sign that you have work to do. Take it as a learning opportunity for your allyship, not a personal attack. Because again, this is not about you. It’s about the ways in which white people, as a group, have benefited from and perpetuated white supremacy.
9. Do more than speak out on social media
Should we be drawing a proverbial line in the sand via social media? Yes. Speaking out publicly is an important part of establishing yourself as an ally and calling a spade a spade, rather than saying and/or doing nothing. We should all be naming these wrongs publicly, loudly, and often.
But don’t start and stop with social media posts. Changing a profile picture to a black square or adding a #BlackLivesMatter banner does not count as allyship. If these public displays of solidarity are not followed by action, they’re little more than just a performative, self-centered reaction to the movement for social justice.
10. Be willing to take risks
If you really don’t want to make your allyship about you, you have to be willing to give things up — be it relationships with racially insensitive friends and/or family members, serene family gatherings where racist remarks from drunk uncles and aunts are overlooked, or just the comfort of “sitting this one out” and watching the fight against systemic racism unfold from the sidelines.
We have to be willing, as white people, to take risks, be it with our bodies in the form of protesting, with our relationships by questioning the racist remarks and beliefs of others, and our careers by standing up for and promoting Black and brown coworkers.
Again, none of this is easy — but it’s not supposed to be. The fight for racial equality is called a fight for a reason, not just because it dismantles the very white supremacist foundation this country is built on — a necessity those who support racist ideologies actively push back against — but because we, as people who benefit from that foundation, have to fight the urge to distance ourselves from the work we need to do and center ourselves in the narrative currently dominating our country’s public discourse.
Allyship is more than a hashtag, more than a profile picture, and more than checking off one action item on a list. It is a constant, meaningful action that supports, promotes, and centers disenfranchised communities. And when we do it together and hold ourselves, and others, accountable, and can remain a powerful catalyst for change.