One of the most consistently frustrating things about many interactions I’ve had with white allies is the constant state of nervousness, even fear, they are in when discussing anything related to race around any person of color. I often cannot help but roll my eyes when I see a white ally almost trembling, eyes panicking, as they attempt to get their words out. It’s like watching someone move through a minefield; you can just tell they are thinking through every possible step, worried constantly about the ground exploding underneath them. It’s annoying. But also who can blame them?
Let’s be honest. Which one of us angry minorities™ and campus “SJWs” hasn’t enjoyed ripping off the head of some well-meaning but somehow annoying white kid over some poorly constructed phrase or attempt at solidarity? Of course, plenty of what is said even at the most allegedly well-educated and bright young people attending the elite educational institutions in the world is idiotic or downright bigoted. And I pity the conservative columnists and pundits who feel compelled to rise to the not-so-noble task of defending the “free speech rights” of the hundreds of knock-off Milo Yiannopouloses.
But that is another issue. I am writing about the deeply contradictory and ambivalent relationship that activists of color have with our would-be white allies. Don’t the woke white kids often seem nervous? We tell white people all the time: you must do better. And our white allies constantly ask us: How? What do you want from us? I think it’s high-time that many of us activists of color admitted we have no idea.
Think about it: We want our white allies to show up for us, but when they do we quickly become frustrated if they “take up the space”. Us kids of color feel burdened and exhausted at having to constantly explain our experiences or justify our feelings and so we ask our white allies to educate themselves about racism but we get mad when they speak for us. And do we really want white-only spaces of white people explaining racism to other white people? These cringe-worthy “education” efforts exist, determined to spare POC the emotional labor… cringe.
The list goes on: We don’t want to be tokens but we demand more diversity. We want our race to be seen and recognized and yet each of us desires to be treated as an individual. We want our experiences to be listened to and learned from; yet feel limited and racialized when we are asked to speak for our entire community. Often even when a white ally is doing everything right, I still find myself resenting them. Given these contradictory and ambivalent standards and expectations, can we blame white allies for being a little on edge? We say we want to have “hard conversations”, but then we critique white people with such savagery that I begin to suspect that this intellectual jumping is what we wanted the whole time.
An anecdote: I was in the midst of an argument with the still-white and then-boyfriend of a close Latina friend. My ex-girlfriend, also white, was taking his side. I forget what it was about to be honest, but I know it ended when another white friend in the room spoke up. In an apparently more reasonable tone than I had managed, she made the exact same point I had been making. The white guy I’d been arguing was suddenly receptive! “Well, it makes sense when you put it like that!” Now on one hand, this was a perfect example of what we mean when we say “white folks should use their privilege to educate other white folks.” Yet here I was resenting the white person who took my side in the argument. And yet, if she’d stayed silent, I’m positive I would have resented her too. So what gives?
Another anecdote: The night after the 2016 election the Black Student Union at my university called an emergency meeting. The post-election meeting proved to be the largest meeting I had ever seen any student of color group on our campus host. There were over 250, maybe even 300 students. And most were white. Well-intentioned as always, the leaders of BSU opened the floor to anyone who wished to discuss their post-election feelings and concerns. A friend of mine stood up and told the room about her DACA status, about her parents being undocumented. “Did I put my parents at risk by giving the government my information when I applied for DACA?”
Right after her another student stood up. This was a kinda geeky white male, who announces to the room: he is an animation major, and what concerns him most about the incoming administration is the censorship of the arts. “Will I be allowed to practice my love of cartooning?” I looked over at one of the Latina leaders in the room. Her eyes were wide with incredulity and annoyance. I felt it too. Really? The arts are your concern?
Most of the Black and Latino students left that meeting feeling frustrated. I had been unhappy that in our idealistic effort to be inclusive we had let people who had never shown up before speak at all. Other student of color leaders pushed back on this: how could we expect them to stick around if we didn’t include them? But I think more than one of us wondered if we really wanted them back. We had been outnumbered by white kids in our own meeting! We went on and on about how “white people need to show up!” But more and more we seemed ambivalent at best about them actually showing up.
And the number one reason for our ambivalence was that they hadn’t shown up before. But now that they were here, we were bitter about it. We asked: why hadn’t they shown up before? In our bitterness we predicted the newfound post-election interest in our activism would fade. And sure enough, when the numbers of white allies dwindled to a tiny minority again, we were bitter. Almost as bitter as we were when they had actually shown up.
So what do we want from white people? In a way it’s an unfair question. First of all, “we” doesn’t exist nearly as much as white people tend to think it does. The misconception that all POC are on the same page inevitably leads to the always awkward moment when one white person does a thing one POC has assured them is okay only to discover that another POC considers it offensive. But more than anything else, what is bothersome is the reality that we usually need white people on our side to begin with. It all shows just how disempowered most of our communities truly are.
With all that in mind, and at risk of generalizing, the fact of the matter is in my view the number one thing that POC want from white people is just to be left alone.
Now perhaps that’s not PC to admit. It certainly isn’t Martin Luther King’s dream of children of all races holding hands. And I can feel someone preparing to call me a reverse racist even as a type this. But it’s the truth: outside of the meetings and the activism and the constellation of college student organizations, most of the activist kids of color in my experience ate lunch at a our own tables with our own ethnic in-group. It makes sense, for first generation students in particular college is a strange new culture. It makes sense to seek out friends you can relate to. It’s what most kids do in high school and college; sit with their own clique. It’s just that if you are coming from a historically marginalized group, your clique can feel more excluded from the campus culture than anyone else (yes, even the ever self-pitying campus conservatives).
For students of color, especially those who are first generation Americans or first generation college students, most just want to keep their heads down and use college as the path to the middle class our parents dreamed for us. But in order to succeed, we often need resources or attention not easily given to marginalized people. This is true not just in university settings but in society at large. And in society like in university, advocating for one’s needs forces one to confront white power—and to do that one inevitably must deal with white people. One must convince the white people in power as to the validity of your cause or grievance. And that often means making them, or those around them, into allies. And that’s a bummer. It’s one reason I find the constant POC appeals/demands for white folks to “do better” to be despair inducing.
But the struggle for racial justice can and should be a big tent. The real and often violent racial injustice that persists in America deserves redress. It can get caught up in academic terms with far too much ease, but it is ultimately a moral issue. “As old as scripture and as clear as the constitution” as President Kennedy put it. It has become fashionable among a certain kind of commentators to rail against the dangers of identity politics. Some on the left have argued that the focus on race distracts from the more “important” issues. But the country is measurably divided by race, in an economically measurable way. Not talking about race is unlikely to make the situation better, regardless of what liberal anti-poverty spending program is adopted. Identity politics is necessary: how else do you describe the very real problems of race, or any other identity?
The trap we cannot seem to escape however is that in our contemporary identity politics we both need diverse coalitions and alliances to address the problem and the very nature of the problem makes those coalitions and alliances hard to form. For many whites there may just be too much history to overcome to be effective allies. And just as importantly for many POC there may just be too much hurt to ever be fully receptive even to what might otherwise be effective and genuine solidarity. And the fact of the matter is it takes so much time and effort and energy to get your average white ally to a place of helpfulness you often wonder, wouldn’t we just be better off if we dealt with it ourselves? Or we begin to just search for a break from all that educating work, and so we sit alongside our peers who already “get it”, the few white kids who remain terrified of being discovered as someone who doesn’t.
It should be pointed out all these kinds of tense interactions between POC and would-be allies seem to happen most when there already is something approaching equality between whites and people of color. Identities play so much on university campuses precisely because compared to society as a whole, university is actually a much more level playing field. It often does not feel that way, but everyone at a university is relatively privileged. Despite all the impostor syndrome and sense of marginalization, college might just be where students of color and white students are most equal—and increasingly the discomfort this creates is both sided. A farmworker after all cannot call out the considerable privilege of the farm owner who employs her. But the farmworker’s daughter can call out the farm owner’s daughter provided they attend the same gender theory class seminar.
The final insight this leads me to is a counterintuitive one: rather than increase racial understanding, proximity and equality may very well increase racial resentment.
This obviously does not mean that equality should not be pursued. But it does help explain why our relationships with white allies are frequently so fraught: it is that the very act of seeking equality seems to demand proximity. And proximity reminds us of our lack of equality. After all, equality so far has meant moving into white spaces, where white power overall still retains the ability to either open or close doors. (This leaves POC spaces as uniquely ours, separate and unequal, but ours. And so they are jealousy defended from gentrifiers, from cultural appropriation, from commodification, and, occasionally, from genuine enjoyment.) Success and upward mobility in this society still demands we navigate white society. And even the most well-intentioned actions of allies, the very privileges and power they bring to the table, remind us of this reality of inequality.
I am not sure what avenues exist to escape these predicaments. For me personally, I have found the best allyship is in friendship. Not all allies are friends. But all friends should be allies, as in they should have enough empathy as friends to care about problems facing a friend. True friendship is always earned—it is the people who are there for you when times are tough. Identity is part of what makes times tough for so many of us. And so, reckoning with race or immigration is an organic part of friendship with me. It is little different from being there for a friend after a parent dies or a tough break up. To me, friendship implies one actually cares about us as people and isn’t just performing “allyship” just for the “woke” cred, which in some perverse way has become a new form of social capital.
There will be mistakes and pitfalls in any friendship. There will be white friends who say or do the wrong thing and hurt without meaning to. But friendship can help us look move forward from those moments in a more constructive way. The one rule of our contemporary discourse that I really do feel must be shed is the idea that “intentions do not matter.” I’ve said that flawed statement myself: “your intentions do not matter, you said a problematic and racist thing!”. But the intentions of othersdo matter. And my own intentions matter as well. I recognize the times I have gone in too strong, ready to tear down a white friend or ally for some flaw that hardly puts them on the level of Richard Spencer or Donald Trump. Microaggressions are called “micro” for a reason, and I regret the times I have not been proportional in my response to them. Upon reflection, I realize moments like these are times when what is at play is primarily my own pain and my own anger and that I am simply taking it out on someone else.
This doesn’t mean there is a moral imperative for POC to always be educating and caring for their white friends. Some friendships aren’t met to be and will sink on the rocks of racial difference. I have been there. But I prefer to be open to being let down by a white friend than constantly suspicious or hostile, which is the pose I have found comes naturally to me in regards to white allies. The ally model is a source of constant frustration as it is designed almost as a form of moral restitution by the privileged and powerful—and by its very nature reminds all involved constantly of our inequality, which then cannot help but become a source of tension and resentment. Friendship however could be a more genuine, more equal, and ultimately more equal positive alternative. We are each in this because we care about the other. That feeling of mutual care and love with white friends is the closest thing to equality I have experienced. And it is what I believe our country should aspire to. I suppose that is what Martin Luther King’s famous dream was all about. But if we fail at friendship, especially if the currents that drive us apart are racial, then I’ll be the first to demand: leave me alone.
Antonio De Loera-Brust is a Mexican-American writer and filmmaker from Davis, California. He has a degree in film production and Chicana/o studies from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He is currently a Joseph A. O’Hare S.J. fellow at America Magazine, based in New York City. He is a US politics and international soccer junkie, he loves tacos, history, and the outdoors, and writes about diversity, farmworkers, and politics. You can follow him on Twitter @AntonioDeLoeraB.