OPINION: ‘Ally’ is a verb, not an identity

A girl on her bed with her phone
(Selena Lopez • The Student Life)

To ally with any marginalized group is not something that can be demonstrated in a single action but something toward which we must actively work.

You’ve probably heard it before: “It’s OK because they’re not white”; “If they did do that, it’s probably because you misheard them”; “It’s OK because they have BLM in their Instagram bio”; “It’s OK because they went to a pride parade last month”; “It’s OK because they donated $100 to the Scripps mutual aid fund.” 

Nowhere are these invalid justifications more evident than in George Yancy’s chapter “Looking at Whiteness: Tarrying with the Embedded and Opaque White Racist Self,” in which he chronicled his experience as a Black male professor teaching the “elevator effect,” which he exemplified as follows:

“In the context of an elevator, white racism is performed through the activity of a white woman pulling on her purse and what this means in terms of the interpellation of the black body as always already criminal.”

Following this presentation, many white people immediately questioned, challenged and doubted Yancy’s lived experience as a Black person in America and his capacity “to know when an act is racist.” What if the purse strap broke and the white woman is attempting to fix it? Or what if the white woman is claustrophobic? Or what if the white woman is nervous about whether she appears racist? These and many more are the lengths and stretches for which white people reach in order to explain and bring into question racist acts.

Internalized racism is not like searching for your phone that fell between the couch cushions — you won’t suddenly lay your fingers on it. Sure, a white person can uncover some internalized, opaque racism, but a white person who thinks they have reached the limits of anti-racism is entirely mistaken.

The firm belief by some white people that they are not racist is a textbook site of white racism. 

Remember the Amy Cooper incident last year? Amy, a white woman, called the police on Christian Cooper, a birdwatcher, in Central Park. On film, she explained in a frantic voice that there was an African American man threatening her life. In the aftermath, her apology included, “I’m not a racist. I did not mean to harm that man in any way.” 

Amy is definitely a racist. However, recognizing that Amy is a racist, or recognizing any other overtly racist act, does not make you or me a non-racist.

Positioning oneself as an enlightened non-racist is a quintessential example of the sometimes harmful ally. As Mia McKenzie argued in her article “No More ‘Allies,’” one cannot be an ally — self-proclaimed non-racists are an example — since this makes allyship a state of being one can assume rather than an action and active struggle. Instead, she uses an active phrase to describe people who are allying (the verb): “currently operating in solidarity with” a specific group.

Accepting ourselves as racists as white or non-Black people is neither congratulatory nor self-deprecating. Being white and saying you dislike whiteness does not make you a “good white.” If you’re white, being anti-racist does not mean calling for the abolition of the white race, as white abolitionists might say. If you’re not Black, positioning yourself as an enlightened, post-racist person does nothing good.

White privilege in a white supremacist society is not something of which white people can simply opt out. One cannot disown their own race, or unbecome their race, simply by choosing to do so. White people cannot choose to appropriate culture from non-white ethnicities in order to reject whiteness.

If white people want to dismantle white privilege and “operate in solidarity with” Black people, John T. Warren expressed several meaningful ways to do so while avoiding the errors of white abolitionism.

First, white people cannot deny their whiteness nor deny the unspoken, unnoticed ways they benefit from white privilege in a white supremacist society. 

Second, white people — and non-Black people of color — should not “attempt to construct [themselves] positively.” This means that anti-racist non-Black people should not hold themselves up as post-racist, enlightened individuals. 

Lastly, dismantling white privilege and operating in solidarity with Black people means performing race differently. For white people, this means critically reflecting on the ways in which they can change their actions in order to inflict “less violence and oppression to the bodies and spirits of people of color,” Warren said. Changing actions to inflict less harm can mean things like questioning the ways we teach, the ways we talk and even interactions as mundane as the ways white people treat non-white store clerks.

People looking to ally with marginalized communities — for instance, non-Black individuals — can look to McKenzie’s steps outlined for how to effectively ally (the verb) with marginalized groups. 

For one, we must “[shut] up,” as McKenzie explained, and listen to the voices of the community we are operating in solidarity with. Allying effectively also means actively educating ourselves on issues with which we are allying — using the hundreds or thousands of books available. Operating in solidarity with marginalized groups means that we should not expect people from marginalized backgrounds to perform emotional labor in order to educate us.

Allying effectively also means supporting by any means groups and organizations led by marginalized voices. True allyship means accepting criticism when your allyship is causing harm while avoiding “whateversplaining” back to the marginalized voices. 

Gerardo Hurtado PO ’24 is from Ontario, California. He’s getting into playing Guitar Hero.

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