Allow me to be the first to acknowledge that there are times as an anti-racist white person that I still make mistakes. Try as I might to stay on the side of the razor thin line that guides my anti-racist activism, I am sometimes walking directly on top of it in wooden clogs. Sometimes those mistakes are pretty big, even if they were well-intended. Often, those mistakes muddy the waters of dissent, and I receive a backlash for the Bad Ally behaviours of other white people. Frequently, those are the very Bad Ally behaviours I openly criticize in my own voice, alongside (often significantly better articulated) people of colour who are speaking in their own voices. That backlash may come from people of colour, but more often than not it is other anti-racist white people. It may be that I have stepped over a threshold by overstating something. It may be that I have inadvertently promoted a problem rather than effectively challenged it. It may even be that, though I’m doing things in a good way, the very fact that I’m doing it at all is a trigger, because I am a white person. I stumble but I quickly learn how to walk straight again. I feel emotionally pushed around but I know who I am and what not to take personally.
For example, I am somewhat regularly accused — usually by white people — of using people of colour as a mouthpiece for my own ideas. Interestingly, I’ve already written about why I criticize other white people for doing just this very thing, and I frequently call it out. A prime example of why I offer this criticism at all is when I see white people engage in mouthpiecing as a defence mechanism for perpetrating lateral violence against white people such as myself (an act that is arguably also co-opting the struggles of people of colour, while exacerbating the existing problem by several degrees, and creating more on top of that). I call this particularly abrasive type of mouthpiecing by exactly what it is and sounds like: “People Of Colour Told Me So. So Shut Up, Whitey“. You see, unlike someone who is attempting to silence me while I call them out for racism, I am calling someone out for racism. These two behaviours are not even remotely of equal value. In fact, they are literally opposites. Racism ought to be silenced. And white people ought to call out racism when they see it happening, instead of waiting for people of colour to say something about it first.
I for one am not going to consult or poll people of colour every time I see something racist, to decide whether or not I am in fact observing racism, before I call it out as being racist. I am not going to defend calling racism out by demonstrating how many people of colour told me whether or not something is racist, either. I am also not going to do a 180 on the issue of racism every time someone presents either a theoretical or actual person of colour with politics that allegedly directly oppose mine. I may be white on the outside, but I’m not stupid on the inside. I know the difference between using people of colour as a mouthpiece and speaking out against racism. I also know the difference between a good ally calling my attention to where my wooden clogs are trampling over that razor thin line, and a bad ally who is simply trying to silence me because they’re afraid to be caught doing something that needs to be corrected.
Lately, more and more often, I am accused — most often by white people — of “worshipping” people of colour or “romanticizing” their community’s struggles, when what I am actually doing is calling white people out for their racism. This is still relatively new to me, as awareness of racism against indigenous peoples in particular is only fairly recently on the rise. What’s not relatively new to me is that there are now and have always been people who do worship and romanticize. Sometimes quite elaborately (e.g. Grey Owl), and sometimes in ways that are quite immediately offensive, even to people who are in no way connected to members of the communities who are directly and disproportionately impacted by these behaviours. An exceptional example of this is the long and nauseating history of cultural appropriation by white people against the indigenous peoples on whose territories they live. While some appropriations of indigenous cultures are not even immediately obvious to someone like myself, who is connected to the communities through activism and participation in various ceremonies and skill-shares; others are so offensive, it registers with as much emotion as I would experience if a complete stranger were to walk up to me in the street and slap me across my face or spit their hatred at one of the people to whom I’m spiritually bonded right in front of me. I call it out when I recognize it and I correct my behaviour when I have failed to see it myself.
Now, I can generally tell the difference between appropriating culture and taking part in it, and I am further refining this skill every day. I can also generally tell the difference between worshipping or romanticizing and criticizing out-groups for engaging in oppressive and harmful behaviours at the expense of the people whose struggles are being co-opted. I don’t presume to know what the community being harmed in that case needs to do, or even pretend to tell them anything along those lines. I am aware that as an ally, I am also constantly an outsider. I also don’t pretend that if out-groups such as settler communities on indigenous territories would just stop doing all of the oppressive things they are doing, that somehow any and all problems within that community would magically resolve themselves. I don’t expect to ever become an insider to those communities, let alone seek to infiltrate them and tell them how to fix everything. But one doesn’t have to be an insider to recognize and criticize out-groups for perpetuating harm and doing oppressive things to them. I may always be a settler on indigenous territories, but I can and do actively challenge colonialist ideologies without telling indigenous peoples what they should be doing or feeling while I’m doing it. I may never be a Muslim woman in the Middle East, but I can and do actively confront unchecked Orientalism in white feminist’s politics and strategies. I can and do prevent myself from stepping over that razor thin line between ally and colonizer.
Once in a really nerve-grating while, I am accused of speaking for the communities for whom I am engaged in anti-racism. In my experiences of virtually every variant of this accusation, it is roughly a 50/50 split of white people and people of colour. When it comes from white people, I just have a few questions I have to ask. First of all, what are you fools doing? Are you not getting enough attention for your anti-racism? Is my activism somehow threatening your ego? Have you considered that you’re perceiving this arrogance in my choices because you know deep down that you’re guilty of it and you think I’m reflecting your own lies to you? I don’t know if you forgot what anti-racism is about, but it’s not about you, whitey. I’m not doing what I do because I find you threatening and harbour some unspoken need to prove to you how I can do it better. I engage in anti-racism out of a strong sense of justice. Ego isn’t what’s driving my activism, it’s what’s driving the problem. Ego is at the root of the injustices we’re all struggling against. Or did you forget that somewhere along the way when you were busy policing me for saying things you just don’t like to hear?
In the case of people of colour, I get this. Really, I do. By the very fact that I’m a white person speaking out against racism, I am a complex trigger of several decades of white people before me literally attempting to become the spokesperson for a struggle that does not directly impact them. I am a trigger of white people not listening to you but agreeing with the first white person to repeat exactly everything that you just finished saying. I am a trigger of lukewarm white anti-racist “allies”, simply because I once was one myself (mind you, I was pretty young and was raised by a family of vocal racists). Your anger is justifiable, and I’m not going to fight you on it or tell you what to do with it. I’m going to listen to you, as I have already been doing. I may ask you some questions or acknowledge things that you are telling me, but I am not going to argue with you and I am not doing or saying all of these things just to placate you. Your feelings are entirely valid. I understand and respect exactly where they come from, and I understand and respect you. I will give you space and I will follow your lead, as I have already been doing and learning from doing. If it makes you feel better for a while to attack me, it’s OK. I’m used to it. I’m not going to stop trying to be a productive anti-racism activist just because someone has a bad day and takes it out on me. I can take it and I can let it go and forgive. I’m not the target of systemic racism, but I’m not satisfied living in a world in which you are.
I’m not going to pretend that to be an effective white ally against racism, I can’t be proud of who I am and where I come from. I’m not going to give into white guilt and wallow in the paralysis of unspeakable grief or redirect the entire issue to my ego. I’m not going to fantasize about transforming my identity to escape everything associated with it as a means to subvert my responsibilities to continually resist racism. I’m not going to get my daily boost from non-selectively shitting bricks on other white people, regardless of which side of that razor thin line they keep their own wooden clogs firmly planted. Most of all, I’m neither going to seek approval from people of colour nor expect them to seek the same from me, for every decision we make in pursuit of the same goals.
I was groggy but I am now wide awake and more active and vocal than ever before. I may still be clumsy while we walk together on the same side — me and my wooden shoes — but I don’t expect anyone to pick me up or carry me.