I’ve had a lot of conversations lately about white allyship. Let me be even clearer. I’ve had a lot of conversations lately — some with white allies which have displayed the ever complex allyship relationship at work, and others with other people of color about how complex and at times frustrating the allyship relationship is to navigate on our end.
Pssst. There are a lot more things I want y'all to think about too. This is just a start.
Allyship is a Relationship
“Being an ally is not an identity… it is a relationship… with a community letting you know what they need… if you aren’t sure you need to ask for clarification or refrain from acting.” Carmen M Lane, Doula Training International's Born Into This Conference
Hey so, if you’re a white person reading this right now I’m genuinely grateful to have your attention.
One thing that should be clear is that I’m one person of color, one Black woman, talking to you. I’m sharing my thoughts and feelings and experience based on what I’ve personally gone through in my life. I can speak to trends and statistics and some communal things that I know are communal based on conversations I’ve had with other POC, but I'm not the end all be all (see the third point).
I may be able to have conversations with you about a topic that another POC may not want to have with you — maybe because it hits too close to home for them or because they’ve been hurt by a lot of white folks, or they’ve done a lot of educating already and they’re tired of it. In fact, this is one of those kinds of conversations.
I hear people asking about what it means to be an ally a lot and honestly there’s just no one answer to it. It’s like asking, “How do I ask someone out?” kind of. There are a lot of ways you can ask someone out. You can show up at their door with flowers and ask, you can call them and ask, you can leave them a note on their desk with sweet doodles all over, or you can shout it from across some public café or something. The point is, not all of those options are likely to get the best reaction from the same person.
If you want to be an ally, you’ve got to know the person you want to align with, and they’ve got to know you, too. You have to build trust. And you might have to be patient while some walls break down, first.
Now, once you are an ally you’re not just branded with some trendy, indie stick-and-poke “ally” tattoo you can whip out whenever someone doubts you.
Being an ally is a continual relationship. It has ebbs and flows. You’re going to go through good and hard times. You’re going to write apology notes and you might receive apology notes. And you might need some ally therapy somewhere along the way, too.
Being an ally is not like building a resume. You cannot build up a list of things you did and wave it around. You do not get a badge that you can pin to your jacket and shine up so more people notice it. Live your life. Do the work. That’s what you do.
What If You Were an Invisible Ally?
What if you did something and no one ever even knew you did it? Would that thing have been worth doing?
I think about this a lot when I think of allyship. We live in a colonial, capitalist society. Self-promotion isn’t only recommended, it’s sort of a prerequisite to success. We build brands. We connect via LinkedIn and Facebook and Instagram. We tag each other. We retweet. We offer ads and boosts and all kinds of things to increase our visibility, to get people saying our names, to reach, reach, reach!
I spoke to someone recently who told me they felt like being an ally was like being between a rock and a hard place. I understand that. They expressed their frustration and asked a question something like, “If it’s going to be this difficult then why should I even try?”
Allies, why do you want to ally? So all the POC will talk about how much they love you? What if that never happens? Would you still do the ally work? Why do you do your specific work? Is it because it's what's been voiced as needed or is it simply the way you want to help?
Here's what I'm not saying: I'm not saying you should never be poured into as an ally. You should be.
What I am saying: POC have a lot of reason to be skeptical of white folks they don't know, and not every role is best suited for every ally. If someone isn’t sure how much of an ally you are, understand where that's coming from, listen to them to see if they have a point to their skepticism or criticism, and invite them inside to see who you are.
Moreover, if you find that the root of your allyship work is external praise, you’ve got some internal work to do.
Don't Use One POC's Perspective Against Another POC's Perspective
Not every person of color has the same exact experience, so it shouldn’t be a surprise when you realize that not all of us agree on every issue. Growing up in different areas or with different economic backgrounds or different personality traits can impact our outlooks in really deep ways. That’s intersectionality for you.
So please don’t do this thing where you say to one person of color, “Well, you know [that person of color] feels safe around police, maybe you should talk to them.”
No, I shouldn’t talk to your other Black friend about policing and safety. I already talk to my own Black friends about policing and safety, and we share our varied perspectives amongst each other. I’m well aware that not all Black people feel the way I am expressing to you that I feel.
The point was, I was expressing to you how I felt. And if you just pointed me to your other Black friend, you haven’t heard me.
Honor Our Ancestors. Stop the Continued Colonization of our Cultures.
Learn about our ancestors. Learn about the indigenous folks whose ground we walk on. Learn about the folks who were brought here on slave ships. Learn about the folks whose cultures have been co-opted to put so much of what you see today in front of you.
I want you to imagine that for generations your family has made and flown kites. Where you come from, everyone made and flew kites. And then you left — you had to — you miss home, but you brought kites with you. And in your new home, no one else made or flew kites, but you did. Because you always did, because it was important, and meaningful, even spiritual, and practical too. And then you passed on your kites to your children, and they passed it to their children.
And then one day someone comes and they see how beautiful your kites and kite flying are. And they love it. And they have a thought you hadn’t had before. There should be a kite-flying class, and a kite-making class, and a shop for kites. And before you know it all those things exist. You look up and your grandchild is showing you the kite they want you to buy from the kite shop. It cost more than you ever spent making a kite before. It cost too much for you to even get for your grandchild. Now, what are you going to think? What are you going to feel?
I’m so tired of seeing white folks teach and sell indigenous and black and brown forms of art or cultural traditions while so many of us who can trace those things back in our ancestry struggle to have the means to even get in touch with those arts and traditions.
And when we do and if we try to form a living off of them, how do we do so? Often with great care to be inclusive and open-armed to anyone who genuinely wants to learn, even to our own financial detriment. Why is it so often this way?
I want you to think about this.
Because I think about it.
I think about it so much.
Have thoughts? Hit me up in the comments below, or connect with me one-on-one. You know how to get at me online.