Dozens of cities across this country are on fire, kindled by outraged people of different backgrounds taking to the streets in response to the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Add to that an accumulation of frustrations over covid-19, 40 million unemployed people, gun-toting Confederate-flag-waving self-proclaimed white nationalists who want a civil war, anarchists seeking to destroy corporate power and economically disenfranchised young people who feel they have been sold a bad dream.
As the mass protests and mayhem continue, it is hard not to notice the large numbers of white people joining black and brown folks in solidarity. The imagery is undeniably powerful, and at first glance, hopeful.
But we have been here before.
Not since Bacon’s Rebellion, which began in May 1676 and sent shock waves through Virginia and the rest of the colonies for months, has America witnessed so many black and white people taking to the streets and standing shoulder to shoulder in a violent struggle against injustice. In that interracial movement — led by a racist Nathaniel Bacon, who also slaughtered indigenous people — black and white indentured servants took up arms against the colonial government to end bonded servitude and burned Jamestown to the ground. The movement ultimately failed when the planter elite squashed the alliance by legalizing permanent slavery for black people and providing scraps of privilege to poor whites to make them feel superior.
While there is a long history of white participation in black freedom struggles, efforts to achieve substantive interracial solidarity are still plagued today by white activists centering themselves and levering movements for their own purposes.
In the deluge of 24-hour media coverage, cameras often pan to white protesters yelling slogans, simulating death and infiltrating organized protests by breaking windows, burning buildings and instigating black protesters to attack property and police. Local officials around the country say white agitators are inflaming conflicts, often while black leaders of demonstrations attempt to calm them.
Scenes of protesters performing tragedy have gone down in Minneapolis, where a white man allowed four black men to kneel on his body to reenact Floyd’s death. Some white protesters staged a mass die-in where they lie on the grass, on yoga mats and inside bright chalk outlines with their hands behind their backs chanting “I can’t breathe” for nearly nine minutes. This cosplaying of the dead would be akin to white people imitating lynchings in the early 20th century by pretending to hang from trees in a show of solidarity.
“There is something beautiful about allies stepping forward in defense of human life, but there is something distorted and perverse about our deaths being turned into momentary art pieces for the amusement of the performer and not action that helps lead to the freedom of the subject,” says Malkia Devich Cyril, founder and senior fellow at the Media Justice center in Oakland.
Why are so many white people participating in this current uprising, given the long tradition in this country of silent complicity about policing and racist practices that have terrorized black communities for generations? What are their intentions? Are white people protesting because they are in honest solidarity — or because it helps to soothe their own conscience or assuage their guilt? Are they trying to prove their wokeness and that they are not racist? How are angry and traumatized black folks supposed to tell the difference between sincere white allies and those whose commitment begins and ends with the charade of performative solidarity?
“I have no problem with white people being out in the streets demonstrating alongside black folks and other people of color so long as they are taking their cues from others and not driving the action,” says Simon Balto, a professor of history and African American studies at the University of Iowa. “I actually think such displays of solidarity are good when offered genuinely.”
But Balto, who has written a book on racist policing in Chicago, says white Americans have long been much better at talking than listening when it comes to issues of racism, to the degree that they want to deal with racism at all. He sees the most recent examples of white protesters performing black death as part of that tradition.
“A white person saying ‘I can’t breathe’ at a protest when they are at essentially zero risk of ever enduring a police chokehold is not a particularly meaningful act,” says Balto. “It is a centering of the white self that at least partly dislodges focus from the matter at hand — black safety from the police.”
Many of the actions of white protesters this week have involved flaunting the privilege that comes with knowing white skin insulates from state violence. These displays fetishize black suffering and demonstrate the very point black activists have long made — that state violence targets black people specifically.
But they also imply we have to imagine dead white people for protest to be considered legitimate or for the actual crimes committed against black people to gain widespread sympathy. It is a Catch-22: White bodies are protected by the state, yet the prospect of white death is a way to garner empathy. This proves yet again how little black lives actually matter: Actual black deaths do not move white America as much as the simulation of white death.
One especially scathing display of performative “solidarity” is the recent pictures of police in some cities kneeling and praying as if in solidarity with protesters. How ironic. It was a police officer’s knee that killed Floyd, and lest we forget, police unions threatened to withhold security at NFL games in response to Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem to protest police-involved killings of unarmed black people.
To Balto, this display does nothing to disrupt the fundamental structure of an oppressive and racist policing system: “It is a brief moment of imagined solidarity before that officer goes back to participating in the brutal system. It gives people something to feel good about when we quite honestly shouldn't be feeling good. It's distraction.”
This performative distraction is also epitomized by YouTube star Jake Paul, who has a history of inserting himself into national tragedies to co-opt the suffering of others to build his brand. This week, he posted video of himself wearing a mask and wandering around a mall as rioters smashed windows — taking advantage of the protests to get attention for himself.
White people for whom black lives truly matter must demonstrate the political will to make substantive changes, says Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza. This requires radical honesty about how race and privilege intersect. “Don’t say you can’t breathe, because you can breathe just fine,” she says. “You live in communities with clean air, with water you can drink likely from the tap. You can jog with earphones and a hoodie on, and no car is going to drive up on you and perform a citizen’s arrest or shoot you. Nobody is going to bust in your house performing a raid and shoot you while you’re asleep. Roll up that yoga mat up and get to business. Withhold your money until you see some progress instead of performing black death. White people are okay.”
What white folks need to design is a vision and a strategy for how to change the rules that are set up to benefit them. It is true, Cyril says, “black folks cannot win alone.” But the goal of the demonstrations that white people engage in must be to amplify the actions and messages of the black people they are trying to be allies for. White people do have important contributions to make: “No one should sit this moment out,” she says. “But high-tech capitalism creates a real danger of turning rebellion into spectacle, into sport.”
This movement has got to be rooted in a commitment to stop anti-black violence — not just proving individual white people are not racist. That means understanding everyone has skin in the game. We can confidently say a good number of the white indentured servants who fought alongside blacks in Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 were racist. But they still decided to fight alongside and for people they did not like all that much. It is what they did that counted more than what they thought, said or felt.
At the center of all this upheaval is the continuing need to recognize and prioritize black humanity and well-being into a 21st-century model that truly works for all. And it is rooted in the words of civil rights architect and master strategist Ella Baker: “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.”
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