There is almost nothing more dangerous in the lives and livelihoods of Black men and women than a well-intentioned white woman with no political framework for her interactions across race. White women’s well-being, our ‘safety,’ is constantly deployed to justify white supremacist violence, especially police violence.
Our casual conversations with Black and brown people on the street, in the grocery store, in class, at the office, in gyms and clubs – our affirming ‘ally’ outreach to assure ourselves and the world that we are not racist, not afraid, not part and parcel of that system – are often endangering. They draw the attention of the state to the folks we are connecting with. They invite ‘concern’ for our well-being, and suspicion about the nature of the conversation.
I am a white woman who has shared political spaces, homes and family with my Black and brown peers for more than three decades. Impactful racial justice work requires a commitment first and foremost to do no harm. Given the ways that white supremacy stacks the deck in our favor, and heaps violence on the people of color in our lives on the daily – the aspiration to do no violence to our peers of color is literally impossible.
What then? How do we reach through the deadly, isolating culture of white supremacy and act in ways that confront violence and rebuild our communities?
The simple answer is: By working in solidarity for racial justice.
What are the hallmarks of true solidarity work? What distinguishes solidarity from its ubiquitous and much discussed ‘cousin’, allyship? There are many important distinctions, but here are a few:
1. As allies, we are ‘helping’ or ‘standing up for’ someone who is ‘disadvantaged’. In solidarity, we recognize the destructiveness of white supremacy to all of humanity. We acknowledge that our collective well-being is interwoven.
2. Allyship is often performative – loud and shiny and shows how ‘smart’ we are about racism. Solidarity work is often quieter, deeper, and behind the scenes. I often observe white activists ‘calling out’ other white activists at organizing meetings on language or practice — creating a stir that derails the actual work at hand, but elevates them as the ‘best’ ally in the room. When I think of solidarity action around racism, I note the many white activists in my life — from working poor folks to those with inherited wealth — who have actively sought opportunities to resource leaders and actions in the Black Lives Matter network. Their redistribution of material wealth borne of racism is anonymous, consistent and impactful.
3. Allies often focus on the interpersonal; solidarity actions work to dismantle structures.
4. Ally work risks very little – at most we deal with social discomfort. In solidarity work we may risk our physical safety, our jobs, our secure place in the social hierarchy of white supremacy, our friendships and family relationships.
5. Allyship is heavy on talk. Solidarity is action. Again, what I think of as ‘shiny’ ally work often looks like white activists taking up a lot of time and energy at actions. There tend to be elaborate, extensive finger-pointing arguments that are not self-reflective. Solidarity action means picking up the signs in silence, putting our bodies on the line, forming safety barriers around our peers of color (when instructed to do so), taping police actions, asking for badge numbers, providing bail, risking arrest alongside your peers of color (again, when asked).
6. Ally work is often done alongside people of color; there is an emphasis on collaboration that often requires people of color to educate white people. Solidarity doesn’t require people of color to educate, affirm or work with us.
7. Allyship is a ‘gift.’ Solidarity is a responsibility. I watch a lot of allies waiting around for their gold star, their moment in the sun for having done something ‘above and beyond’ the call of duty. A lot of these activists complain that people of color aren’t immediately excited or warm to them in activist spaces. People working in solidarity understand that we carry the history of white supremacy in our bodies, in our faces. There is no reason on earth to trust white peers in racial justice work. There are no cookies for showing up. We may not get invited to the celebration party afterwards, where our peers of color might need a POC-only space to download and support each other. The reward is the opportunity to do something meaningful to counter a violent order that was built to serve our interests.
8. Civility is highly prized in allyship. Hard truths, conflict and messy disagreements are a part of solidarity work. In my experience, the academy is where civility is especially put forth as paramount to ‘diversity’ or ‘inclusion’ work. I worked on a campus where the faculty was 92% white and the student body was made up of 33% students of color; but these students were required to express their anger and exhaustion about white supremacy in hiring and constant microaggressions in a way that let all the white faculty and students feel great about themselves.
Any sign of conflict was seen as at best ‘counterproductive’ or worse, ‘hurtful’ and ‘out of line.’ I always say that you know when racial justice work is progressing when the white people being challenged say they agree with what you are saying, but the ‘way’ you are saying it is ‘wrong.’
9. Ally work generally does not redistribute resources. Solidarity means that we intentionally work to redistribute the ill-gotten gains of racism – jobs, schools, neighborhoods, housing, healthcare and capital.
A hard truth for many white folks undertaking solidarity work is that although we may not have personally built white supremacist structures, our families have benefited from them for centuries. We, ourselves, are benefitting from them on the daily in terms of our physical safety and our material security. Confronting racism is not a ‘gift’ to people of color in our lives and our communities. It’s our responsibility.
Getting through white guilt into solidarity action is a crucial step to reclaiming our humanity, and to building the just world we all are dreaming of. I have kept a list like this in my pocket and in my mind for 25 years doing solidarity work, and have spent more time checking myself than checking others as I’ve grown in my work. I’ve also really benefited from the honest critique of peers of color who have chosen to invest in my growth — and I understand this to be a sacred gift. I’ve worked to not fall into shame over my unconscious racism, but to dig myself out of that hole so that I can act. I offer this list with endless gratitude for everyone who has had faith in me along this path, and with the fervent hope for building white solidarity movement. Our lives — lives worth living — depend upon it.
(Feature Image: A light-skinned individual is outdoors at a racial justice protest in New York holding a sign that reads “STOP KILLING OUR FRIENDS.” Source: Flickr.com/Marcela)