By Stephanie Younger •
10 days ago, I climbed up the Robert E. Lee Statue at a protest in Richmond, Virginia, the former Capital of the Confederacy, and spoke in front of a large crowd of people. This was unplanned, and I had no Idea what to talk about, but I began by reading an excerpt from Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” (the part where he said that he is “gravely disappointed with the white moderate”), and delivered a brief, extemporaneous speech about the growth of co-optation.
Are these so-called “well-intentioned” white liberals finding themselves just now speaking up about racism? Or, do they find often themselves solely speaking up after a viral racist incident? I am livid about the eerie, deadly silence of these so-called “well-intentioned” white liberals during the recent events. Instead of doing the bare minimum, white liberals must extend their solidarity beyond changing their profile picture or attending protests for a photo op. In light of the recent murders of Breona Taylor, Nina Pop, Tony McDade, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, David McAtee, and James Scurlock, let’s unpack the recent growth of co-optation of the fight for Black lives.
#TheShowMustBePaused was originally created by two Black women named Jamila Thomas and Briana Agyemeng. On their website, they stated,
“Tuesday, June 2nd is meant to intentionally disrupt the work week. Monday suggests a long weekend and we can’t wait until Friday for change. It is a day to take a beat for an honest, reflective and productive conversation about what actions we need to collectively take to support the Black community.”#TheShowMustBePaused
Over a week and a half ago, #TheShowMustBePaused and its mission was co-opted and named, “Blackout Tuesday.” Tens of millions of Instagram users, many of which are comprised of white people and non-Black people of color, posted a Black square on their profiles in “solidarity” with the Black community. A few of these users were so-called “well-intentioned” white liberals that I previously knew. Quite a few of them unfollowed, unfriended and blocked me on social media for speaking out and taking action against anti-Black racism, years prior to the current uprisings. These were also white liberals who were being praised for co-opting the work of Black people, and who told me to my face that what I do “isn’t real activism.” Many of the white liberals I knew who participated in so-called “Blackout Tuesday,” have also labeled me with stereotypes rooted in misogynoir. Like the white liberals who are apathetic towards the long fight for Black lives, those who frequently remained silent seemingly waited to speak up on social media until recently when being “down” for Black lives was co-opted by people who look like them, and until they saw it as “trendy.”
So-called “well-intentioned” white liberals who claim to “listen to Black women” have been disingenuous to the resources that are available to them in plain sight. More often than ever, I’ve personally been asked to do intellectual and emotional labor for stuff that white liberals can search on Google. Depending on a Black woman to “educate” white liberals on how to not be racist suggests that they are the spokesperson for our race. Black women are not “teachable moments,” and we should not should be used as self-serving accessories for white nonprofits to look “more diverse,” and to make the white liberals who lead those nonprofits to feel like an “exception.”
After tokenizing Black women, the same so-called “well-intentioned” white liberals who preach about uplifting Black voices, often co-opt Black women’s work. For example, white liberals often exploit our organizing for their own self-promotion, in order to make their businesses, corporations, media platforms and even their organizations look “diverse.” White liberals appropriate our intellectual property, by passing off our writings as their own, or by attempting to center themselves in spaces for and by Black people. I am especially infuriated with white liberals who co-opt racism in a way that is self-serving, and garners the support that Black women don’t receive, despite knowing and experiencing firsthand how those so-called “well-intentioned” white liberals behave, or have behaved, behind closed doors. This manifests itself when white liberals often talk over and silence Black women’s voices, by accusing us of attacking them and other white people when we challenge their intentions, due to the fact that they see Black women as “angry,” or “predatory.” When Black women identify the little respect so-called “well-intentioned” white liberals have for us, when the press, their Facebook friends and their Instagram followers aren’t watching them, we are silenced and outed as “shady.” When we call out white liberals for co-opting our work, we’re outed as “jealous.” The real meaning of anti-racism was co-opted by white liberals, whose so-called “activism” is self-serving, at the expense of Black women and the support that we need, but we’re outed as “aggressive,” and criminalized by the police, for speaking out and taking action against anti-Black racism.
White liberals have used me as an accessory to feel good about themselves for “including” a Black girl, and insulted my intelligence by constantly assuring me that they don’t need to put in any effort to be anti-racist. However, those same so-called “well-intentioned” white liberals haven’t put themselves & white people in check for upholding anti-Black racism. White liberals who claim to accomplice themselves with the fight for Black lives often fail to set aside their priorities of gaining approval of the systems they claim to fight against, and center their concerns about being ostracized from their racist co-workers, classmates, friends, and relatives. Instead of calling out each other for shaming Black folks into voting, let alone voting for racist candidates, white liberals choose to shame Black people into voting, and police our critiques of the electoral system.
Just because white liberals believe that they’re an “exception,” doesn’t mean they can shut down the ways the Black women around them call on them to act on their beliefs that they are anti-racist.” However, in addition to doing the bare minimum on social media, by posting a black square, saying “racism is wrong,” giving themselves a pat on the back, and saying “that’s enough activism for today”—the questions so-called “well-intentioned” white liberals should be asking themselves and each other is, “what does your solidarity look like beyond posting a Black square? Are you willing to practice anti-racism by showing up for Black lives and holding yourself and other white people accountable?” Anti-racism is not something to be co-opted when it’s convenient, and just because some white liberals have a Black friend or “vote blue” does not make them the “exception.” Instead of policing the way Black people exercise their rights such as protesting, or showing dissent of any other kind, white liberals must put themselves and other white people in check for perpetuating anti-Black racism (regardless of intention), and hold themselves accountable, by consistently unlearning racism, but also to apply anti-racism to their lives
Stephanie Younger is 18-year-old student who created Black Feminist Collective in 2017, and fights for a world abolished of prisons, police and systems of policing, and is passionate about its intersections with womanism.