By Stephanie Younger •
As a young Black female organizer, there have been times where white liberals have invited me to work with them. Each time this happened, and as time passed, I realized that I was experiencing tokenism, that I was consistently being spoken over and stereotyped. So, I wrote this in response white liberals who don’t understand that white privilege gives them the benefit of viewing their favorite racist politicians as the “lesser of two evils” when they are not affected. I also wrote this in response to white liberals who protect their favorite racist politicians and their overtly racist counterparts at the expense of Black women. This is in response to white liberals who center themselves by accusing us of attacking them when they are called out, but call themselves “allies” when it’s beneficial. I wrote in response to white liberals who show up how and when they want to, and speak over Black women, instead of standing with us. I wrote this from a womanist lens, which Alice Walker introduced and defined as, “a Black feminist, or a feminist of color” who “is committed to the survival and wholeness of entire people.” Just to name a few, I came up with six tips for white liberals, who say they’re allies to Black women, but avoid and fail to act upon those words.
1. Recognize the privilege that comes with Having the option of disagreeing with someone else’s political views, without being marginalized because of your race.
In 2015, Robert Jones Jr. (@SonOfBaldwin) tweeted, “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” Jones’ quote is relevant to this tip, in the sense that it applies to the way white liberals often gloss over another white person’s racism, as long as they don’t feel affected. To put this in perspective, white liberals have questioned why I am unsettled by the thought being in the same space as an overt racist from the smallest local body of people, to the White House. To be more specific, the white liberal feminists were neutral and in favor of that idea, as long as they didn’t feel affected, and as long as that white person was racist and misogynistic against me, but not sexist against them. Black women are often patronized into believing that “we can’t always get what we want,” smeared as “divisive,” and blamed for the political tension in the world, over our valid critiques of white liberals. This erases our front line work in the fight towards liberation for all oppressed people. Similarly, I wrote an article about the 2020 Presidential Election, in response to those who degrade Black women, for saying that we don’t have the privilege of viewing problematic white liberal candidates as, “the lesser of two evils.”
“When I say that I’m not supporting a problematic candidate, I shouldn’t have to be met with, ‘Well, who are you voting for then? If you’re not supporting them, you’re dividing Democrats and helping Trump’…94% of Black women who voted in the 2016 election didn’t choose Trump. Black women stood with Hillary Clinton in November 2016, marched in solidarity in January 2017, and advocated on the front lines of many other fights for gender equality. But will we ever get that same solidarity in return?”Why This New Black Female Voter Should not be Forced to “Vote Blue No Matter Who”
It obviously was not 53% of Black women voters who “helped Trump” in the 2016 Presidential Election. White liberals, your white female neighbors, friends, and family members most likely did so. Hold them accountable, and listen to Black women’s legitimate critiques of white liberals, especially politicians and everyday people that advocate for your best interest, but clearly do not stand with Black women. The bottom line is to be considerate of Black women, when we emphasize that we are not afforded the same conveniences of being oblivious to what happens in our everyday lives.
2. It’s more of a privilege to be called out for enforcing anti-Black racism than it is to actually experience it.
From my experiences being the only Black woman to join a group mainly comprised of white liberals, they often act a certain way, but behave a different way when we’re not looking. After a while, white liberals get too comfortable, and begin to behave the way they have behind Black women’s backs. For instance, white liberals often make light of the struggles of the most vulnerable people in the Black community, who they wish to advocate for—without expecting criticism from us. White liberals additionally enforce racism, by unintentionally, or intentionally protecting their overtly racist white acquaintances, friends or family members—fearing the possibility that a Black woman (who identifies them as racist) might come after them. This stems from the perception that Black women are “angry,” “combative,” “predatory,” or “antagonistic,” which is known as the “sapphire” stereotype. To see these expectations of adequately recognizing and uplifting Black women, as a personal attack on you, and other white people, is to gaslight our legitimate concerns, and to enforce this stereotype rooted in misogynoir. My message to white liberals as a whole, and especially white liberal feminists, is to realize that Black women are not “angry,” or “aggressive.” We are not out to get you. In 2018, Rachel Elizabeth Cargle, an academic, writer, and lecturer wrote in her Harper’s Bazaar article,
“…It is made painfully obvious that many white women believe that the worst thing that can happen to them is to be called a racist…Seeing your child gunned down in the street by the police unjustly is much worse, being turned away for medical care due to race and underlying biases by medical staff, resulting in death, is much worse, being harassed by authorities only to be charged yourself instead is much worse.”– Rachel Elizabeth Cargle for Harper’s Bazaar, “When Feminism Is White Supremacy in Heels.”
Take me for instance—I experience anti-Black racism and misogyny. However, I have never faced oppression because of my sexuality, skin complexion, nor have I faced oppression because of my socioeconomic status, etc. I should never accuse someone of attacking me when I am expected to fully uplift dark-skinned Black people, Black LGBTQ+ people, and working-class Black people. White liberals, in cases where you have said “stop attacking me,” or “I am not a racist,” I can guarantee that you weren’t actually being attacked or being called racist. You are not part of a community that is accustomed to being attacked, as shown by the ways Black people regularly experience profiling, and often see and experience violence because of our race. White liberals, you are not “the exception” when it comes to combating anti-Black racism. You are a beneficiary, and as long as you are not actively challenging your privileges, you are complicit in anti-Black racism—but how do you challenge that? An unknown person said that “the best apology is changed behavior.” The steps leading up to that consist of actively listening to the person you harmed, and acknowledging where you went wrong. While you’re at it, remember what really matters here—your impact and our lives, not your intentions and feelings. Avoid white-splaining to Black women what’s racist and what isn’t, and dictating how we should feel about your words and actions, especially during a time when you’re being called out. Don’t expect Black women to accept apologies on behalf of other communities we may not be a part of, and avoid insincere apologies such as, “Sorry you feel [a certain way].” Instead, state how you’re going to do better in the future, and ultimately follow through with those actions.
3. Solidarity isn’t tokenism.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. introduced the concept of “tokenism.” Notably, in his 1962 essay, “A Bold Design for a New South,” he wrote, “Tokenism was the inevitable outgrowth of the Administration’s design for dealing with discrimination.” I have found myself in situations where white liberals have asked me to work with them, and the first thing that was said to me was, “we’re so excited to make things more diverse around here!” Tokenism occurs when a group of white liberals says “that’s enough activism for today” after allowing a Black woman to join them. The moment I, the only Black woman in the group, opened my mouth and started talking about race, wanted to organize around anti-racism, or even include other Black people, was the moment I was met with winces of doubt and disapproval. The white liberals began to zone out, until they saw my ideas as self-serving and convenient opportunities to use Black women as their “teachable moments,” in order to meet their end goal of appearing “more diverse.” This is insincere. To be anti-racist means to be genuinely inclined to ensure that Black women are seen, heard and accepted at all times, without “performing.” White liberals, there is absolutely no point in addressing yourself as anti-racist under any circumstance, and especially when you’re unwilling to do the work, which includes active listening, and showing up when we need you to at a minimum.
4. The solidarity you gave to other white liberals should be given to Black women.
Have you worn pink hats to the Women’s March in response to the 2016 election, but are nowhere to be seen when it’s time to show up for Black lives? Or, have you passionately rallied against gun violence in predominantly white schools, but opted out of taking a stand against everyday policing and gun violence against Black communities at the hands of the State? Lastly, have you celebrated white female moderate political leaders, who called for Trump to be impeached years after he was elected, but not the many Black congresswomen, who led us to that victory? In a world where our adversities and activism are co-opted, giving the work of Black women the same energy you gave to movements, like the Women’s March, is a good way of advocating for intersectionality and uplifting our voices. Last year, Brittany Packnett, an activist, educator and writer, entitled her Teen Vogue column, “We Can’t Just Show Up For Social Justice Issues When It Impacts Our Own Lives.” She wrote, “If you possess privilege of any kind, it is your responsibility to spend that privilege. Put it up at risk to protect the very people who are suffering most. Be willing to say the hard thing. Be willing to stand up in protest. Be willing to ask the difficult questions of those in authority.” Packnett’s words emphasize that this solidarity extends beyond your potential to get media attention, and waving signs at rallies for a photo op, and reposting hashtags on social media. Throughout elementary school, middle school and high school, I repeatedly learned the lesson, that it is often white liberals, in addition to overtly racist white people, who will not stand with me as a Black woman, or whose “activism” stops at showing up when they’re affected. It was Dr. Martin Luther King, who wrote in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” (1963), that he is “gravely disappointed with the white moderate.” It was Angela Davis, who said, “in a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.” To be silent as you watch Black women being stereotyped, profiled, or criminalized, by your white friends and acquaintances, is to be an ally to the perpetrator, like the white moderate MLK warned of. Ask Black women what we need, and what you can do to stand with us, and act upon that. With that in mind, remember that you are in a position of privilege, and avoid doing what you think is best for us. When that involves standing up to a racist, I can assure you it won’t cost nearly the price Black women have to pay in a world where we regularly face misogynoir, while trying to live our lives.
5. Don’t speak for Black women. Stand with Black women.
It is important to speak up and stand up when you see someone being anti-Black, and if you don’t hold that person accountable, you are complicit. That being said, it’s problematic to intentionally, or unintentionally speak for people who are more marginalized than you are. This is something I struggled with as a light-skinned, cis, able-bodied, middle-class Black girl, who benefits from the colorist, cisheteronormative, ableist, and classist systems. I have been called out for speaking for communities I’m not a part of, instead of standing with them. However, in my mind, I knew exactly how I would feel if someone who is more privileged than I am, did the same to me. I learned that people who know what it’s like not to be listened to should not do the same to another person. This is why the phrase, “voice for the voiceless” doesn’t sit well with me at all. It’s very important to be mindful that Black women are not “voiceless.” Instead of talking over us, amplify our voices, even when that means turning down an opportunity to speak on a panel about stopping police violence, or abstaining your writing pitches to publications, that are for and by Black people. You can always pass those opportunities on to the voices that need to be centered.
6. Show up when & how Black women ask you to show up; not when & how you want to.
Each time I offered ways white liberals can ally themselves with Black liberation, they jokingly and “politely” turned me down with the certainty that, “we’ve addressed that.” I offered books authored by Black women, that were unread by some, and invited them to multiple causes, many of which were passed up others. When those white liberals approached me, I was often immediately cut off when I proceeded to discuss the first, and abruptly, the only thing I listed, which was to amplify work organized by Black people on social media, let alone attend events. They winced, said “no, not like that,” and attempted to eliminate my idea for another—an idea that they find more digestible, and that won’t interfere with their privileged lives. By “more digestible,” I am referring to work that isn’t “too specific,” and therefore doesn’t center Black people, or subjects that include abolishing the prison system, and stopping police shootings. “Less digestible” may include public community discussions about anti-racism, and direct action, in which many white liberals view as “violence.” Ironically, those same white liberals have presented themselves as allies, by co-opting the concept of anti-racist activism for their own benefit. White liberals, you need to realize that Black women don’t live in a world where we get to think about racism when we want to, especially when it’s convenient. Even after leaving one event, where you possibly listened to a Black woman deliver a raw speech about misogynoir, it is up to you to stand with the Black women in your community. That solidarity can start with keeping yourself accountable when it comes to to being an active listener, and not making interjections during relevant conversations, especially when your perspective comes from a place of privilege. Be open, and act upon your claim that you practice anti-racism. While it doesn’t cost much to stand with Black women, someone who truly practices anti-racism understands the significance of doing no matter what it takes to stand up.
Stephanie Younger is a 17-year-old student, organizer and writer who advocates for womanism, diversity in S.T.E.A.M, the abolition of youth prisons and gun violence prevention.