I once told a dear white ally, a long time friend and colleague, that the vigor and near compulsive engagement with race in which he engaged, was simply exhausting to me. I quipped that such a sentiment was saying something, because there is nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, about which I cannot apply a critical race theory lens. A culture obsessed with uber-white-skinned vampires with super powers committed to the purity of a rather plain death-desiring teenager? An example of the anxieties surrounding the decline of the importance of white masculinity and the demise of whiteness. The demand for the whitest of white teeth? White supremacy. A reduction in support of public education while privatized models like charter schools are on the rise? A representation of disinvestment in children of color, working and middle class folks, and an example of education’s connection to property values and real estate (see DC’s closing of public schools as a land grab for developers). Holographic Tupac? A belief that the Black body can always be resurrected in the service of capitalism. Critiques of Angelina Jolie’s lips? She has the full lips that so many womyn of color have, it represents a denial of non-white beauty. I am all about the critical racial lens.
Yet there are times, when I simply do not have the energy, focus, diplomacy, or even anger to respond to racism; to apply a critical race lens. When I am simply depleted, in a place beyond exhaustion. There are a good many times when I must apply DuBois’ “double consciousness” to focus and move forward – to simply live – in an inherently racist global economy that is increasingly exercising a great deal of pressure on the most vulnerable of its global citizens – particularly those of African descent (see the Dominican Republic’s recent decision to deny, rescind, and expel children born in the Dominican Republic whose parents are of Haitian descent). There are moments when as a womyn of color, I simply cannot engage in the emotional labor of lamenting and railing against racism. Were I to do so – indicate and battle with every example of racism, discuss racial dynamics with the precision of a text book on race relations, pause to examine or analyze each racialized moment, I would not be able to maintain any kind of sanity. I would not be able to survive. And survival (daring to thrive even, a commitment to my own radical self care) is the one of the greatest rebukes (along with excellence and love) to racism’s deleterious effects. Survival is a resounding rejoinder.
Zora Neale Hurston famously said, “I am not tragically colored…I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” I read Hurston’s declaration, not as a denial of the trauma and difficulties of being a person of color, but rather of the need for one’s commitment to living one’s own life: defying the tangle of structures of racism and sexism, by living well, by living at all, by living with sanity, balance, compassion, and in the service of beloved community. That means that there are times, when I choose to let the racist comment exist without responding; there are moments when I note someone’s racialized interpretation of me (wherever did you get such a made-up name?, why don’t more African Americans value education like your family obviously did? how did you get such nice manners and learn to be so articulate?) and decide that I will smile, nod, and dismiss rather than engage; that there are days when I am a womyn of color discussing the beauty of shoes, how good the Best Man Holiday was, and what book I am reading. In other words there are days, when I am simply me, and not a racial prop.
And increasingly I find that those people who are most chagrined when I don’t engage as the fully-consumed-by-race racial subject appear to be white allies. White allies who require, without fully seeming to understand the dynamic they are recreating, that I act as a a prop within the racial fantasy of a the perception of they may have of themselves as a “good” and “radical” white person. I’m experiencing a very new kind of cognitive dissonance in which I would like to shout: I am tired. If you were really my ally, you would allow me to rest. You would talk to your people. You would respond to this moment of racism without my assistance or involvement.
And that is what I think Hurston is advocating for in her instructive and revealing assertion of the importance of keeping one’s oyster knife sharp. Accepting yourself as a half-named problem, a tragic emblem of racism’s evils, at some point works to unravel one’s complex personhood. Hurston is arguing that being Black is not tragic; it is beautiful; it is representative of a stunning propensity for survival and ingenuity; it gestures toward grace; it suggests that pain creates pearls with complicated surfaces and haunting luminosity. Oysters have a fascinatingly simple and yet intricate anatomy. At their center where the gritty silt of discomfort takes root and prepares to evolve into a pearl, that center is hidden. It is a private space. It is its own shelter, embracing a thousand salty grains of hurt and producing a wonder in the dark. There is an intimacy to the violence and imposition of racism – and though my white ally was committed, ultimately, he had his own silt from a different tide to sift through. His hidden intimate places had never tangled with the humiliation of deflecting racial tension for your own physical or emotional survival.
I recognize that being a white ally is not an easy task. Yet, it is far less difficult than being an actual person of color (busy sharpening your oyster knife and dodging racial meteors). And yet, I’ve noticed a certain appropriation of the pain of people of color, a certain need and desire to beat the racial horse to death so to speak, a certain dynamic in which white privilege and supremacy are invoked through a disturbing claim to allyship, in which the very avoidance of whiteness occurs by calling out the racism of others – a call that never manages to echo against the white ally. It’s the moment when you are surrounded by whiteness, with a white ally, in which you understand and know that you are the sole person of color and have made a decision not to do any racial emotional labor – and you’re fine with that – but your white ally is intensely uncomfortable in the presence of whiteness and must address the tension. And suddenly, now you are pressed into labor, enslaved by someone else’s need. In short, there seem to be a great deal of Captain-Save-A-Negro existing in the community of white allies. And that is a painful thing to say.
Almost as painful as watching someone you care about declaiming white supremacy even while taking up your daily struggles as a capitalized property which he uses to gain admission into the stratosphere of hipness that the identity of “true progressive (and even radical) white person” proffers.
So, when my white ally ate grapes without paying in the grocery store and we were surveilled – or more accurately I was surveilled and mistreated – he could decry racism to our multiracial liberal and progressive community about his witness to everyday racism, but at the instant of actual racist action, he could not muster the presence of mind to be self responsible enough to tell the store manager to stop following me, that it was he and not I that was eating produce without paying (in effect stealing). That he was an ally after the fact. An ally in love with the excitable speech of allyship, the catch words of white supremacy, structures of racism, hegemony, and the like, but had no idea how to be an ally in practice. To speak not to educate people of color, but to educate fellow white people – and sometimes (and especially) out of the earshot of a person of color, and without the need to go tell a person of color that you defended them.
He and I have negotiated many similar moments. Like the time he became a little too comfortable with me, so comfortable in fact that he felt no qualms about complaining about how people of color have racial politics that left him on the outside – despite all he had done for “us,” seeming to miss the point that in fact accepting being outside is precisely what a good ally does. Or when we were in groups in which race came up and I clearly didn’t want to discuss or be involved in the conversation – strategically avoided it even – and he would push and push, showing off like a 4 year old who has just learned to tie his shoes: his acumen with the buzz words, his willingness to make other white people uncomfortable, his full understanding. But it was exhausting for me. For all eyes would end up on me – or even more confusingly, I’d feel silenced and depleted – sometimes I just wanted a glass of wine and silliness. And as a white ally, he never seemed to be able to discern when discussing race actually put me at risk, rather than supporting me.
These thoughts came to me today as I spent time with a white ally who surprised me with the strategies she deployed to offer support in a racially charged interaction. And the strategy didn’t really involve me at all. It didn’t require a look between us. I wasn’t the buffer. And after the interaction, she didn’t make me debrief the moment; reenacting the moment with her voice and heroism at the center. In fact, I had the sense that had I not been present, she would have behaved in exactly the same way. She was comfortable schooling the white folks around her, casually and without grand standing – in an everyday way, not comfortable and longing for me to commiserate with her about racism as if my sole purpose in her life was to be a source of appropriation and street cred.
All of this has led me to think about what white allyship 2.0 or 10.0 might look like. Here is a list of behaviors which such allies might employ:
1. Never ever feeling truly comfortable enough around a person of color to make a joke about that person’s ethnic or racial group, but feeling comfortable to talk about the crazy ish that white people do.
2. Truly understanding cultures of color (Black culture, for instance) enough that you understand the social norms and mores of the culture and thus do not make a cultural faux pas. I.E. talking about race all day even though everyone has gathered to watch the football game and eat good food.
3. Recognizing and talking about their own racial bias – with their own white allies, rather than coming to me as a person of color to express how difficult it is to be a white ally.
4. Never using something they learned from your friendship as a way to gain street credibility within progressive communities or in order to access people or communities in ways that benefit them. I.E. Name dropping you without your permission, borrowing all of your syntax to show people they are “down,” relaying how you feel about a racial incident to others as an example of what they are hearing from “the community.”
5. Not requiring people of color to engage in the emotional labor of racism.
This week helped me to understand something. That the daily grind of navigating racism, at least for me, generated a kind of maturity that most white allies don’t have to develop. That maturity required me to learn very quickly when and how to pick my battles, to learn the power of my own voice, to learn how to put a person in place around their problematic racial, class, or sexist notions, without lifting more than an eyebrow. There is a certain racial sophistication which I was forced to develop. And a true white ally works toward building racial sophistication and checks any desire or tendency toward appropriating the pain of people of color.
So, back to sharpening my oyster knife.