When a friend mentioned she was going to the Millions March in New York, I knew that if I was determined to be an ally, I had to go. I made the trip with confidence. I was being the “right” kind of ally and all of my White friends who could not make it to the protest because of college exams applauded me for going.
Expressing allyship at the protest, however, was no simple matter: chanting “don’t shoot” together threw the contrasts between Black and non-Black protesters into harsh relief. To me, the words “don’t shoot” represent my opposition a moral wrong in the world around me; to the Black protestors next to me, the stakes were higher. They were chanting to have their humanity recognized by the state.
My history as a person of color is not written in Black– I am half Chinese and half Iranian, and my physical appearance has rarely elicited an offensive comment, let alone a threat to my physical safety. Moreover, my family’s socioeconomic class has afforded me many of the same privileges that my White friends had growing up – and in some cases even more. While institutions that I have been a part of notice my brown skin, they also tell me that my voice matters, that I am important, that my well-being is their concern.
The complex confrontation with my own privilege precipitated by the Millions March combined with the fact that it was the first protest I had ever been to made me acutely aware of the fact that I had no idea what I was doing—intellectually and literally. Luckily, friends and peers (Black and non-Black activists) gently corrected me and explained the etiquette of protesting through their actions so that I could protest as respectfully as I intended to. They prioritized Black empowerment with everything they did. They reminded me to fall back so that Black people were always in front of me in whatever cohort I was marching with. They never started chants, but almost always enforced Black voices with their own. They took pictures of signs that reminded protesters that “#BlackLivesMatter” is not only about Black men, but also about Black womyn, LGBTQ and gender non-conforming folks.
Pretty soon, I knew that I had caught on to at least some of the politics of protesting from the way I was reacting to what I saw around me. The White womyn marching next to me leading chants at hoarse shout was giving me a queasy feeling—especially when I noticed Black protestors chanting back in quieter voices. She was assuming a position of power by taking the lead rather than following Black protesters, enacting yet another way that White voices speak over, and silence, Black voices in society.
Reflecting on the kinds of discomfort I felt during and after the Millions March raised questions for me that I recognized cut to the heart of allyship. What role should I take on in opposing the anti-Black police state? How does that role look literally in political spaces? And, thinking of the broader questions raised by the Millions March, what role should I adopt in to combatting the vast apparatus of American racism?
Considering these questions has required coming to terms with the fact that the way the state is organized and the paradigms that shape institutions I am part of mostly work in my favor because I am not Black. Deciding to practice allyship therefore requires– as Judnick Mayard recently said – feeling “confusion, pain, [and] disgust” over the recognition of a system that assures me that I matter by simultaneously devaluing Black lives. It is only in the moments that I recognize, challenge and destabilize the oppressive status quo that I am being an ally.
Of course the “leader” and “ally” categories at any given #BlackLivesMatter event varies; it is not always so simple as all Black people are leaders and everyone else should stand back. In different situations, class, race, gender, sexuality, and other power dynamics influence whose voices should be privileged as the leaders and in turn who assumes the role of ally. For example, at a protest this fall in Providence, organized by End Police Brutality PVD, working-class organizers expressed frustration when Black students from Brown took the microphone to share their stories with the media. Brown students have the privilege of retreating to College Hill when they get tired of being vocal about local issues. This is not to say that there are not oppressive Department of Public Safety racial practices on Brown’s campus, but to say that Brown students were, and are, more protected from state violence than Providence community members.
Recognizing my own privileges and what they mean for my allyship was– as one of my wise friends says – not rewarding, but significant.
It has meant feeling uncomfortable with things that I never knew I was used to– e.g. the erasure of Black people from TV shows that take place in New York. It has meant recognizing white apologists among dear friends. It has meant feeling profound discomfort with the fact that when I leave a protest, I am embraced by privilege that excludes most other human beings.
Becoming an ally in #BlackLivesMatter means alternating between sometimes stepping forward, but more often sitting back as a student. In honor, of the New Year, I have made a series of resolutions that I intend to keep and that I hope will at least can spark a discussion of how to be an ally and at most model the kind of ally that supports and empowers the #BlackLivesMatter movement. For me, thinking of how to participate in this movement as a non-Black person has required constant exploration and is an ongoing process. Nevertheless, I have decided to commit to four major resolutions in allyship that I have gleaned from the news, activists, and friends. I encourage other allies (or soon-to-be allies) to do the same.
1) I will educate myself continuously about the anti-Black police state and racial oppression of Black people (including the ways they effect womyn and LGBTQ and gender non-conforming individuals) in America.
I will read the news, explore social media, and use the considerable resources afforded to me by my university to learn about racism and how it interacts with classism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression. I will focus on reading sources from Black voices and communities that experience increased risk of police violence. I will seek out the opinions of Black friends and activists around me while understanding that it is not their responsibility to educate me. I will share what I learn with my community.
2) I will be an ally to Black people first in the movement.
Allies in this movement must show solidarity by prioritizing Black empowerment above all else, including their own growth as individual activists which may mean stepping further back in society than they may be used to doing.
For example, White people have struggled in protests to let Black people be the literal voices of their own movement. A similar thing happens on the Internet, where #CrimingWhileWhite and #AllLivesMatter detract from Black people’s own stories. The debates emerging among non-Black communities of color are having a similar diluting effect—prioritizing the question of their own oppression over the story of Black oppression. As an ally to this movement, I will support Black people first and foremost.
3) I will attend protests respectfully where I am welcome.
Structural violence against Black people is a human rights issue and requires massive political action from Black and non-Black people alike. However, when I go to those protests, I will follow the lead of Black activists. Out of respect for Black people and the movement’s intentions, I will not take the lead, but rather blend into the crowd of voices behind them showing support.
4) I will be an ally in my personal spheres.
Friends are often the greatest teachers; Black friends have been certainly my most important teachers on the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The most sure-fire way to combat racism is to start on the individual by ensuring that one’s private sphere emphasizes inclusion, compassion, and love. I commit to doing this every day.