The problem with telling ‘white allies’ to shutup because ‘they don’t know the struggle’

Washington, DC (TFC) – There is a new theory that presents the idea that unless you’ve been a victim of a specific form of oppression, your views on the subject are worthless. That you should take a backseat to those that have been personally wronged. This theory takes many forms but has become most prominent in the #BlackLivesMatter organization and in certain feminist groups. On the surface, the idea may seem to make some sense. How can you really speak of an injustice under a system that you haven’t experienced? How can you possibly understand the problems if you don’t see them first hand? How can a “white ally” even think that they understand how it feels to be black in America?

There are three major issues with this theory that cause it to be a totally untenable position. The first is the focus on emotional perspectives rather than the idea being presented. The second is that the overriding theory is completely false, because if it were true, it would apply across all systems. The third is the exclusionary nature of the statement, which in many cases can weaken a movement.

In the above questions, the major fallacy of this theory presents itself. They are all based on qualifying whatever the speaker is saying on emotion and personal experience, rather than the quality of the idea. The idea is what matters, not the pigmentation of the speaker’s skin. An idea should be judged on its own merits.

If the idea being presented is bad, it will fail on its own merits. When people take this route and inform others that their input is not needed, it makes pragmatic people wonder if they are interested in achieving a victory or maintaining control of a movement and inflating their own ego. Perhaps they are simply regurgitating something they’ve heard without actually thinking about it. When you state that somebody’s input is not needed because of their race, you are quite literally saying that it is more important for this to be a black, Irish, women’s, or whatever dominated movement than it is for the movement to be successful.

It also stops the open discussion of ideas. If a “white ally” has an incorrect perception, how can that perception possibly be corrected if they have been silenced from even expressing an opinion?

As activists, we have to be pragmatic. We have to be solution-oriented, not event-oriented. We’ve all witnessed marches that achieve little more than networking between activists and perhaps boosting morale. If the event doesn’t have tangible goals set and a strategy to achieve those goals, it might as well have been held in somebody’s basement.

If you’re reading this, and you know who Harriet Tubman is, you might know who William Still is, but you probably can’t name a single one of the Quakers that provided logistical support for the Underground Railroad. The first was a conductor on the railroad, the second is widely seen as “the father of the Underground Railroad.” Even though he receives little fanfare, his multi-state network freed hundreds of slaves. His network relied on assistance from white Quakers. Their support and ideas were practical and effective. They weren’t discarded by Still because of the color of their skin.

Emotion doesn’t really matter when it comes to formulating a plan or an idea for a course of action. Either the idea is good or it is bad.

This leads us to the second major problem with the theory being presented: it is plainly false. We can all agree that there is a system inside the United States that is designed to exert downward pressure on any minority group. Having existed inside that system does not immediately qualify someone as the person whose ideas are the most effective or the most accurate.  

Take this theory and apply it to any other system. One example that might strike home for the biggest supporters of this theory is the police themselves.
“You don’t know what it’s like to be cop and deal with scum all day.”
“You’ve never had to worry if you’re going home at the end of the shift.”
“You don’t know what it’s like to make split second decisions.”
This is the exact same theory at work. If you believe in this theory, how can you possibly be at a police accountability rally without having been a cop? If you believe that someone that has not experienced something is incapable of participating in the conversation, why bother?

To take it to another extreme, would you ever say “this doctor has never had cancer, how can she possibly offer a solution?” Do you see how silly this sounds?

At first glance, I am a poster child for white privilege. I am a native-born, college-educated, white heterosexual male with blond hair and blue eyes who happens to be married to a native-born, college-educated, white heterosexual female with blonde hair and blue eyes. Our kids are blond haired with blue eyes. Our dog is a German Shepherd. We live in a subdivision. I drive a late model Jeep. Quite frankly, our family photos look like recruitment posters for the Aryan Nation. I won the white privilege lottery.

Because of this genetic and geographic fluke, this theory asserts that I cannot offer anything to any cause because, generally-speaking, my demographic is not currently oppressed. I would beg to differ. I would humbly submit to the censors at large that the value of ideas formed on the basis of years of opposing injustice far outweigh my lack of melanin.  

As somebody who has been called a “white ally” on numerous occasions, please don’t call me that. By classifying me as that, you make my support and participation about race, when it isn’t. The term literally makes my skin crawl. I don’t support a cause based on skin tone. I don’t care if you’re from Palestine, Kurdistan, Mexico, Ireland, or Compton. If I’m standing with you, it’s because you are fighting against injustice in a practical and effective manner.

Some issues obviously have a racial element. Yes, black lives matter. Yes, the struggle with police brutality impacts black communities far more than white communities. Yes, I will stand side by side with a #BlackLivesMatter group during a police accountability action. I will use my white privilege to keep pressure on law enforcement and keep them focused on something other than the #BlackLivesMatter group. However, I am not there because an unarmed black kid was killed. I am there because an unarmed kid was killed. I am there because there is a pattern of abuse that needs to be corrected. While others in the crowd may be (rightfully) motivated by a sense of racial preservation, I am not. My involvement has nothing to do with race. Please don’t make it about race.

Many, myself included, see the focus on race in the same way we would see putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. It doesn’t really address the underlying issue. If you were to place the average American of every race in a room together, would they have more in common with each other or the “leaders” of their respective races? To take it further, if you held a dinner and invited an average person from every country on the planet, would the dinner guests have more in common with the other guests or their respective heads of state? The system is broken. Employing divisive tactics helps the system at large, not the people. I will happily stand with those trying to correct symptoms, but not at the expense of strengthening the disease.

Movements like those that have recently adopted this theory are alienating those that would stand with them and depriving themselves of resources. Social movements of any kind need to remember that the “social” part of that relates to society. Winning the support of society at large is imperative to success. Is it possible to win the support of society while telling more than 60% of that society that their opinion does not matter, and that they shouldn’t express an idea even if it supports the movement?

It seems fairly unlikely to me. The good news is that I’m a white guy, so it doesn’t matter what I think, right?


Black Lives Matter Image Source: The All-Nite Images, Flickr, Creative Commons

Black Lives Matter
Image Source: The All-Nite Images, Flickr, Creative Commons

“Safe spaces”: Should certain people be excluded from meetings in order to make others feel more comfortable while speaking? Obviously there are things a black person would not want to say in front of a white person. This makes sense. In order to have free dialogue for those that are too timid to speak their minds and willingly self-censor themselves in front of whites, maybe it’s necessary to exclude others. Perhaps it would be better and less damaging to the public relations of the group if these meetings were actually private, instead being used as a platform to publicly divide the group along racial lines. When advocating racial equality, this practice makes it too easy for those working in opposition to you to place the announcement barring white people on a meme with a picture of a sign that says “No coloreds allowed.” This perceived hypocrisy is killing white support for the cause.

“White help”: White activists might be nodding their heads in agreement. The key thing that we have to remember when assisting causes that are predominantly populated by people with racial motivation is that perhaps it’s time to leave our egos at the door. I’ve seen many white activists who seem to believe that “solidarity” or “assistance” somehow equates to “taking charge.” Generally speaking, these groups don’t need leaders. They have their own leaders and organizers. In most cases they need tactical advice and access to resources. If you plan on offering advice, just as above, perhaps it’s best to do this privately. You want credit for your idea? Too bad. It isn’t about ego, it’s about being pragmatic and producing results.

5 comments for “The problem with telling ‘white allies’ to shutup because ‘they don’t know the struggle’

  1. Diana Spatz
    August 12, 2015 at 12:13 pm

    “The focus on race . . . doesn’t really address the underlying issue.” You lost me at that point. I was willing to hear you out, but THAT. OMG. So painfully cluelessly white-boy stupid, I couldn’t read any more. Black teens are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than white teens. But race isn’t the underlying issue??? This is why black folks are reacting the way they are. And I’m white, BTW, and even I can see why. Especially after your race comment. They’re right. You need to STFU.

  2. Kim Carlson
    August 12, 2015 at 3:54 pm

    John Jackson, you hit it out of the park.

  3. Gina
    August 12, 2015 at 4:03 pm

    Your article, while generally well thought out, uses language in places so imbued with other meanings and connotations that your point gets lost. While you may think you mean one thing when you say “Please don’t make it about race,” you are invoking a whole set of frameworks and logics and histories that are intrinsically tied to the delegitimization of black voices. While you may know that you are not trying to contribute to that voice, and as you said, you want to actively serve to combat injustice, by even hinting at “it’s not about race” you serve to undercut your own argument. The same goes for “they need tactical advice.” You may argue that all of the people who criticize you have taken these comments out of context, but in saying that, you demonstrate a small amount of ignorance about how this exact same language has been used. And honestly, a lot of oppression comes directly from the ability of a few to monopolize seemingly inclusive and positive phrases, and use them for exclusivity and delegitimization. We co-opt MLK’s words of inclusion and togetherness to tell black people, or other oppressed peoples, to stop being divisive with accusations of racism, while ignoring the fact that MLK himself levied those same accusations at peoples and systems which craft racial oppression.

    For instance, I could say something like “all lives matter.” While I obviously believe that to be intrinsically true, if I put this exact phrase in a broader discussion about race and injustice, I am invoking the language and logic of people who have been enemies of the racial justice movement, and as hard as I may try, I can’t just scrub these phrases clean of their connotations.

    Ultimately, I agree with much of what you say. There is something intrinsically wrong about the concept that only people with certain experiences being able to offer their thoughts on the issue. I think you just lost some of your audience when you changed the conversation a bit and invoked certain types of language.

  4. Priv
    August 12, 2015 at 6:26 pm

    I think that the author is commenting on unity vs. division, and approaching this issue from the perspective that the masters prefer to see the public divided along many lines, of which race is only one (though a highly visible differentiator).

    In the context of engineered division and derision, the author’s commentary is partially correct. Racism – the systemic oppression of people based upon their genetic lineage and the color of their skin – is an expression or a symptom of an underlying drive to fragment “one nation with liberty and justice for all.”

    I agree that it was poor word choice, and somewhat dismissive, but I think that the author’s perspective is larger than just domestic race relations, and is an attempt to turn focus toward the elite who frequently use race as a tactic in a larger strategy. By discussing how race as a social construct is used to the advantage of oppressors, we’re inevitably lead to examine a variety of other social, economic, and structural issues. As Cornel West has said (and I disagree with him frequently), race-based oppression will not be successfully defeated without also talking about economics, class, resource access, financial systems, democracy, and sovereignty (both personal and national).

  5. Mack Cyrill
    September 7, 2015 at 8:52 am

    Well done. Thank you for writing this. The attitude of BLM is an insult to the people who gave their lives in support of equality and human dignity. Not to mention the “secretly” oppressed…gays, for example, who might not be identified at first sight, but who suffer from legally sanctioned discrimination, violence, and bigotry withou recourse.

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