One year ago this coming Sunday, Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo. Since then, the collective anger and devastation of the black community has become a powerful national movement. Black Lives Matter has worked to transform everything from social media to social consciousness.
In his searing new book, “Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates implies that it’s not his job — or, by extension the job of other black voices or leaders — to coach white folks, let alone worry about their feelings. Which it’s not. The whole point is that we white people should be the ones thinking more about black people — their feelings, their experience and their reality, which can be dramatically different than our own. But at the same time, Coates concludes his text noting that structural racism won’t change until white people change.
There are already white people who want to change, and want to help spur change in their communities. Many people are reticent to speak out, for fear of misspeaking; others want to do something, but don’t know what to do. Instead of continuing to unconsciously reinforce structural racism in America, there are many white people who want to consciously help deconstruct and dismantle it. But how?
It is not up to Black Lives Matter, nor any movement led by and for communities of color, to make space for or articulate a vision for white people. The expectation that black leaders and movements should automatically do so is a subtle extension of the sort of white-centric entitlement that gives rise to the need for such movements in the first place. Then again, we haven’t exactly blazed a path to enlightenment and liberation so far on our own.
So I asked some of the leading voices and activists in Black Lives Matter to share their hopes, asks and even demands for white people in America today. Each echoed many of the same themes, encompassing both hopes and critiques. Here, in their own words, is what they said.
“I don’t like the term ally.”
It’s too passive and doesn’t provide a sense of risk equal to the level of risks black folks experience every single day. Black folks are never safe, so it’s important for white co-conspirators or comrades to think about the level of comfort — safety — that is assumed to them by sitting on the sidelines and not actively engaging in the movement for black lives because it seems “too risky.” I want comrades who will show up when I’m most vulnerable and be in active solidarity with my struggle as a person in a black body and take some risks, because I’m putting my life out on the line every single day.
“Allies are best as accomplices.”
Be complicit in dismantling racist structures by taking risks, putting your bodies on the line in the streets, sharing access to resources (and releasing agency over them), living in some discomfort with difficult conversations in collaboration, knowing when to listen and organizing other white folks.
“Use your whiteness as a shield.”
In St. Louis, we eradicated the word “allies.” We call our white folks our comrades. Because they’ve stood in front of and next to us when we asked them to. A living demonstration of white privilege is to see a line of white people handled by the police with kid gloves, who they carefully push past to brutalize us black folks.
“Safe spaces are illusions.”
Racism is an illness that afflicts each and every one of us. It steals our humanity, our capacity for empathy, the righteous indignation that is our birthright. I don’t believe in allies; I believe in the decolonizing power of solidarity. White people ought to challenge themselves to engage in more spaces of risk and difference.
“The real liberatory and radical work begins at home, literally.”
Black people don’t need to be convinced that anti-black racism, structural inequity and skin privilege are facts; white people do… White people have to do the hard work of figuring out the best ways to educate themselves and each other about racism. And I don’t know what that looks like, because that is not my work, or the work of other black people, to figure out. In fact, the demand placed on black people to essentially teach white folk how not to be racist or complicit in structural racism is itself an exercise of willful ignorance and laziness.
“You can be progressive and anti-black.”
The two are not synonymous. Just because you have progressive politics doesn’t mean you’re not racist as hell, that you don’t think black people are less than; it doesn’t mean you have a racial analysis. Being progressive doesn’t give you a pass. You have to do the work within yourself if you’re going to be in this space.
- Celeste Faison, co-founder of the Black Out Collective and coordinator of Black Lives Matter Bay Area
“Expand what being progressive means in America.”
The conditions that are taking the lives of black and Latino communities with heart-shattering speed cannot be solved with economic solutions alone. A progressive movement that isn’t organizing to dismantle structural racism isn’t a progressive movement. It’s a movement of white middle-class self-interest, where white people on both sides of the aisle are fighting to retain white privilege in different ways.
“Stop saying ‘all lives matter’”
Understand why you can’t say that. Whatever people need to do to understand why that’s not OK, they need to do that. What we’re saying right now is that all lives will actually matter when black lives matter — and black lives don’t matter right now. So we need to say black lives matter to change that. We need to change that individually, we need to change that within our communities and we need to change that systemically.
- Robbie Clark, organizer with Black Lives Matter Bay Area
“It must go beyond saying #BlackLivesMatter.”
I want white people to do the work of pushing Democratic darlings to take more seriously the impact of structural racism…. Beyond saying #BlackLivesMatter, I want to hear more about what each of them will do to ensure a world where #BlackLivesMatter — and that means weighing in for an end to deportations and citizenship for all, fighting to end mass incarceration, ensuring that domestic workers have full rights in and outside of the workplace and on and on.
- Alicia Garza, special projects director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance and co-creator of #BlackLivesMatter
“Stop acting like black people are stupid.”
We are politically savvy. And black women especially have a higher voter turnout than anyone else. No candidate can win without black women, yet a bunch of black women stood up and expressed their feelings on an issue that is literally killing our people and white progressives are acting like they were a bunch of uppity Negroes who didn’t know their place… These are young people who are learning as they go. Every movement has growing pains. I’ve seen too many people who are writing off their efforts because they don’t think the effort is being organized in the right way. That is not helpful. White allies need to give these young people space to grow, space to fail, space to learn. And they need to amplify their voices.”
White liberals and progressives have a responsibility to organize their communities for social justice using an explicitly anti-black racism frame. There is no need to hide behind black or people of color organizations. Commit yourself to organizing poor and working class white folks. We are capable of organizing our communities. Our children need everyday white folks to work harder to ensure that black women don’t have to worry about dying after failing to signal properly, walking while transgender or trying to protect their children.”