How to be an Activist: White Allyship

Demonstrators gather in protest after the shooting of Philandro Castille. St. Anthony, Minnesote, July 10th 2016. -Photo by Adam Bettcher/Reuters


Demonstrators gather in protest of the shooting of Philandro Castile. St. Anthony Minnesota, July 10 2016. - Photo by REUTERS/Adam Bettcher

This is How to be an Activist, a reoccurring blog series published by Day of the Girl. To learn more about How to be an Activist, please click here.

Being a feminist activist means standing in solidarity with every marginalized group. Feminism has become an increasingly mainstream movement, but in pop culture’s version of feminism, nonwhite marginalized people are often excluded. Specifically, many white women activists often neglect to highlight the struggles of people of color in their fights. Here, you’ll find a few tips about what is required of you as a white ally. If you truly want to consider yourself an activist, it is imperative to read on, and more importantly, continue pursuing resources like these.

  • Listen to people of color. Do you get frustrated when men try to explain obvious things to you (often called “mansplaining”), speaking over your voice, even if they mean well? Well, a really important first step is realizing that this overpowering use of privilege is possible and common in racially motivated activism as well. In your activism, be constantly conscious:

    • Am I speaking over a person of color?

    • Am I taking up space that could be used by a person of color to tell their story?

    • Am I really taking in everything that this person has to say about their experience with racial privilege and bias?

  • Make yourself aware by doing your own research. It is super inefficient to ask every person of color you encounter to explain racism in their words: assigning to people of color what is called the “burden of representation”. Make the conversation, when it occurs, more productive by pre-educating yourself. Utilize the incredibly extensive online resources (see some linked below) to understand the meanings of terms like racism, intersectionality, implicit and explicit bias, white privilege, whitesplaining, white guilt, discrimination, etc.

  • Recognize and come to terms with your own white privilege and racism. White people often get turned off when they hear the words “privilege” or “racism.” But these terms are accurate, and integral words to use when having a meaningful discussion on racial injustice. Because of the racism in the society we all live in, white people are naturally raised to be racist. As Ijeoma Oluo said in White People: I Don’t Want You To Understand Me Better, I Want You To Understand Yourselves, “the dominant culture does not have to see itself to survive because culture will shift to fit its needs.” Work to see and address your impact on racism. The faster you come to terms with this, the faster you can participate in meaningful and impactful discussions on racial inequality. White privilege doesn’t mean your life is perfect or that you’re not oppressed in other ways: just that you have societal privilege because of your race.

  • Don’t pretend to be “color blind.” We are not living in a post-racial society. Love will not cure all the effects of racism. This is a struggle that is infinitely older than any activist living today, so do not erase that. Claiming to “not see people’s color, just seeing people” threatens to erase part of their identity–race is, to many, an integral portion of what makes them up as a person, while it is not everything that defines them. Additionally, the historical context of racism cannot be removed just because you try to treat people equally. It takes work in the opposite direction to make any real change: using your privilege to teach others to be respectful, highlighting the voices of people of color to increase representation, and lobbying your political representatives about issues that don’t just concern you, but people of color in particular, for example.

  • Use your privilege positively! If you’ve got it, it can be used to the advantage of the movement as a whole. Take advantage of opportunities to point out racism; don’t let anything slide. It can be really difficult for people of color to take on the burden of always being the one to bring up race, so stand up for them. As part of the dominant group, fighting racism is your responsibility. Talk to your white friends and make sure they’re educated. Use your body to protect: the Women’s Marches received recognition for having fewer arrests than we hear about at many Black Lives Matter marches, but a big part of the reason for this was that many of the participants were white as opposed to African-American. Take advantage of this privilege to help where you can.

  • That said, make sure not to speak over people of color or co-opt movements. Basically the entire history of the world is defined by white people stealing things from people of color. Speak up in support of people of color, but don’t speak over or for them. This is similar to the logic behind resisting cultural appropriation: white people are often revered for the same things that people of color are insulted and oppressed for. Know your place in the conversation.

  • Always demand more from yourself and fellow white allies. Just acknowledging racial privilege is not meaningful unless you also take action to fight against racial injustice. Don’t ever try to remove yourself from the larger system of racial injustice that we live in to free yourself from guilt. Acknowledge and act upon your responsibility. Practice these steps, and make sure to constantly ask yourself: what more can I be doing?

Interested in more information on how to use your white privilege positively? Check out these resources:

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