COLUMN

White People Are Crowding the Conversation Around Race

There’s a fine line between being an ally and making a movement all about yourself

It was heartening, early on, to see the white people supporting the Black Lives Matter protests. As demonstrations rolled through the country this summer after the killing of George Floyd, we saw the movement garnering an unprecedented level of support from white Americans. It felt like a watershed moment — one that might see anti-racist allies help propel the movement closer to justice.

Now, after witnessing some of the ways that white people have hurt or diminished BLM, I’m not so sure my optimism about white participation in the movement was well-founded. Over the past few months, white people — some knowingly, some not, some well-meaning, many not — have recentered protests over police brutality and anti-racist efforts onto themselves.

The national conversation on police violence and systemic racism has been hijacked by the violence perpetrated by white people at protests. Multiple videos of white protesters damaging property went viral in the first weeks of the demonstrations — a stunning display of ignorance and privilege, considering it is not white people who are disproportionately arrested and beaten by police.

And in recent weeks, violence — outside of police brutality — has turned deadly. Seventeen-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot and killed two protesters in Wisconsin, and 48-year-old Michael Forest Reinoehl, who killed a man during a Portland protest. Both men, both white, said they acted in self-defense. Rittenhouse, who was part of a right-wing militia, was arrested and has become a conservative media darling. Reinoehl was later killed by police, who said he was brandishing a gun. (A witness says he was unarmed.)

In less urgent but still troubling incidents, white social media influencers have used the protests as a staging ground for photo and video shoots, showing themselves to be fair-weather supporters more interested in clicks than justice.

Even those clearly committed to anti-racism have managed to skew media attention onto themselves. A video of mostly white BLM protesters in Washington, D.C., yelling at a woman to raise her first in solidarity, for example, went viral late last month. The crowd chanted, “White silence is violence,” at Lauren Victor, who was seated outside of a restaurant. Victor, who is white, later wrote a column in the Washington Post about her experience.

And while the blacked-out Instagram posts or corporate statements in support of the movement were better than nothing, these actions often felt late and contrived (and in the Instagram case, made it harder for protesters to find vital information).

It’s important that white allies are stepping up to support anti-racism and the fight against police brutality. We’ve seen young white women using their bodies to protect Black protesters, women in Portland weaponizing the way white motherhood is venerated to form a line of protection in front of other protesters, and allies across the board being beaten and seriously maimed while demonstrating against police killings. Many white people are taking these protests seriously, suffering consequences, and participating in ways that actually help the movement.

But those white people who care about anti-racism need to be wary of the way that our culture will recast them as the central agents of BLM. And they need to remember that these protests — and this work — is not about the kind of illegal and violent actions that put Black people in further danger or showcasing their sense of anti-racist enlightenment; it’s about stopping a specific and imminent threat to Black people.

As bestselling author Ijeoma Oluo wrote in The Guardian, “If your anti-racism work prioritizes the ‘growth’ and ‘enlightenment’ of white America over the safety, dignity and humanity of people of color — it’s not anti-racism work. It’s white supremacy.”

There’s a fine line between being an ally and making a movement all about yourself—a trap that’s easy to fall into when you live in a world that already centers white people. White allies need to keep showing up — at protests, on social media, in their everyday lives. But let’s remember what the end goal of this movement and moment really is. We can do the work to fight white racism without making the fight all about us.

Feminist author & columnist. Native NYer, pasta enthusiast.

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