Relationship Status: It’s Complicated
Racism is real; it has always been on display even if some continue to deny its existence. Our society has accepted, allowed, sanctioned, and even encouraged discrimination and violence against Black people for over four hundred years. When we see or hear people chant Black Lives Matter, they are essentially saying that sanctioned or unsanctioned, covert or overt racism, continued discrimination, conscious or unconscious and violence against Black people must come to an end. These people who have seen and experienced racial inequality in all aspects of their lives in a society where the discriminatory practice is embedded within federal, state, and local communities recognize how profoundly their lives have been affected on a daily basis and in some cases, lives that have been lost. The basic facts are not in dispute (for most), and it has become even more apparent with the advent of what some people have characterized as two viruses (COVID-19 and Racism) which have amplified the experience and presence of racism in the lives of African Americans at the hands of the police force. This has been extensively documented historically by various researchers, including those stemming from the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) in three towns and in three states providing similar results (You can review reference reports here: Ferguson, MO Police Department Report – https://tinyurl.com/jpk4bjb; Baltimore, MD Police Department Report – https://tinyurl.com/y3cofpgq; Chicago, Illinois Police Department Investigation Report – https://www.justice.gov/opa/file/925846/download)
At SystemicDiversity.org, we strive towards making learning inclusive and carrying out projects that increase inclusive thinking, learning and practice to create harmony, equity and fairer outcomes for people and organizations, wherever they are in the world. Creating global resources for racism and self-education resources to help the cross-sharing of information in equality, diversity and inclusion led us to consider the relationship between White allyship and racism in the current context. We observe White allies as belonging to three groups:
- Passive/Emerging Allies
- Proactive Allies
Non-Allies – Indifferent or in Denial
Those that do not believe or do not want to believe that systemic inequalities and racism exist. They may actively be racist and discriminatory (consciously or unconsciously) or they may present themselves as non-combative allies and pay lip service to fit into acceptable norms while holding alternative views. They effectively remain silent.
These White allies show little to no concern nor understanding of the plight of African Americans and by extension, people of color or are indifferent to it and therefore choose to remain silent and maintain the status quo and existing power structures. This category may also include those who remain polite in public but hold contradictory views, question or dismiss the existence of White privilege, believe in White superiority (even if unconsciously), do not speak out about racism and inequalities, deflect or deny racism and its impacts. They either play along making others believe they are aligned with popular thought in support of racism or outright challenge the existence of racism and inequity, purporting merit-based arguments without cognizance of inequity for some and presenting a picture of acceptability, walking a politically correct line where they cannot be openly challenged unless they are caught on camera.
Such allies wreak silent damage within organizations and cause immeasurable trauma to various people of color, particularly Black people, whether knowingly or unknowingly.
Passive/Emerging Allies – Stuck in Silence or the Jeffersonians
These are progressive White allies who understand, are learning or are positively accepting of the challenge’s racism and structural inequalities present but stay silent for fear of being isolated by their own White peer groups or for fear of getting it wrong so do not engage beyond talk, remaining at surface level engagement. They are stuck in their silence.
These White allies believe in equity and social justice for all but are unable to break silence for fear of rejection by their own. These allies can also be characterized as true Jeffersonians in an American context of the thinking that informs them based on what the Third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, penned “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
This characterization is applied because we recognize that while President Jefferson was exemplary in thought, this did not reflect in action in real life and did not cause significant and meaningful systemic change, particularly in the arena of addressing racism more directly.
Proactive White Allies
These White allies act, exercise their voice and use their White privilege to directly tackle systemic inequalities, racism, act as active bystanders, speak out, speak up, stand up for people of color and other allies who challenge the status quo appropriately. They are more than allies. They are accomplices. They have moved beyond white fragility, guilt, shame, fear and denial of the causes of systemic and institutional inequalities and ism’s, especially racism. Proactive allies are far ahead in their journey when compared to Inactive and False Allies who are still stuck in fear and denial respectively. Proactive White Allies have broken their silence. They are a rare and not oft found or visibly heard. The hope now is that more Passive/Emerging-White Allies will find their voice, self-educate and move past fear and transition into being Proactive White Allies.
The White Silence that Endures
Emmanuel Acho, creator of the series, Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man, has noted the importance of making race conversations a dialogue versus a monologue.
The type of White ally you are determines whether you engage in dialogue or prefer the safety of a monologue. The authors who are both White and African American with extensive network contacts who are White notice that even as the Black Lives Matter movement picks up pace, their social media feed doesn’t seem to feature active White voices and where it does, White monologues rooted in a White perspective and privilege creates noise that clouds authentic narratives and learning.
Added to this, when a national or global event happens related to race, the authors note that their friends and colleagues of color often too fall silent. The noise overshadows many people of color’s ability to share their thoughts, feelings, fears, and perspectives without fear of judgement. Trolls also abound. The authors find they have to unfollow some people just so that the emotional and psychological damage done by the posts of inauthentic and Non-Allies can be circumvented. An interesting learning resulted for the authors in that the impact of noise for the White author reduced by curating post intake but it persevered for the African American author despite curation because the racial trauma caused is distinctly different and monologues are far more hurtful and damaging than even the most difficult of dialogues people of color, particularly Black people have to engage in with Non- and Passive/Emerging-White Allies.
The monologues continue, the noise is ever-present, and the opportunity for dialogue is missed when Non-Allies speak at Black people and people of color, rather than when Allies listen with the intent of accepting the lived experiences that are shared bravely by people of color, particularly Black people, who are disproportionately impacted.
Moving past noise – Solutions?
The authors believe that only by turning down noise and providing opportunities for people of color, especially Black people to lead a dialogue, can real systemic change be given a chance to begin. The question now is how to reduce, or even silence, the noise for Black people and people of color in order to allow their voices to be front and center.
How do we help noisy people we know to transition from a monologue into a dialogue and start active participation and proactive learning in order to become better allies and more importantly accomplices, in amplifying the voices of people of color and using White privilege and access for good?
Systemic racism and discrimination are real and to dismantle this would require us to recognize and define it for what it is without any ambiguity so that the terms of reference are crystal clear to everyone before any collaborative effort is made to dismantle the systems that enable it. To be clear, racism is a socially constructed view that society had been conditioned to adopt for over four hundred years following colonization and subjugation of some for the benefit of others and at the determination of others based on visible and cultural definitions, where some were demonized and deemed inferior based on White power structures and privilege that continue to endure today and wreak havoc within the Black community more so than any other community of color, although they share in the impact of racism and discrimination.
One simple solution is to speak up and self-educate, learning how to be a Proactive White Ally. When White Allies use their voice for good, use it to take a stand and do what is right, pushing past their fear of rejection by their own, they set an example to their White peers of what positive Whiteness looks like and what the culture of Whiteness should be about. Such a simple acceptance of power and using it to effect positive change can help move everyone forward from the traumatic past suffered by communities of color at the hands of some White people who exercised their privilege to create slaves, subjugation, colonization, divided and ruled, creating discriminatory practices, labels of difference and deeming those that were different as inferior.
Another solution is to decolonize learning resources, education text books, hold more discourses that do not isolate anyone but engage the White majority in order to proactively engage in safe pace dialogues that respectfully address diametrically opposing views, being prepared to share learning, anti-racist and inclusion information and making a case for justice and equity, where doing the right thing is at the forefront of any argument that is made.
‘Understanding before we seek to be understood’ is a positive route to explore in effort to engage Non- and Passive/Emerging Allies and encourage the movement towards Proactive Allies for those that willingly wish to transition. We also must remain realistic and expect that not everyone will want to change and this is something to be considered and accepted where encountered even if every effort to do what is just is explored. Not all belief systems will be changeable and nor can all belief systems be transformed because if history has taught us anything, the natural evolution of any culture or belief system should not be interfered with but engaged with and allowed to grow over time, recognizing that everyone is on their own unique journey and traveling at their own pace.
The historical damage experienced by the Black community and other communities of color can only be rectified by Proactive White allies taking a stand and learning racial resilience, putting their words into action consistently and sharing in the pain and long journey that authentic anti-racist and inclusion work demands.