The White Ally Problem
And how we are trying to share our privilege
After the murder of George Floyd, the global BLM movement mobilised and gained more vociferous supporters than ever on social media as well as in the streets.
Posting black squares went viral. Posting information about what constitutes racism, what constitutes allyship, even things like how to speak to black people went viral.
Some of the use of social media was incredibly helpful. Protest organisers were able to use it to make big events happen, and intelligent, well informed educators, writers, and citizens were able to spread their ideas for how to improve society and what urgently needed to be done.
It was amazing to see so many white people, not directly affected by racism, and even living in areas with very little ethnic diversity, raising their voices in support of changing the status quo of racial inequality.
Some found the sight of millions of black squares empowering, regardless of who was posting them.
But some found it offensive, calling out ‘information’ posting on social media by white people with very little general knowledge in the area of race relations, history, cultural studies or anything similar. Sometimes it was well intentioned, but sometimes it seemed rooted in a desire to remain relevant, and to promote their own personal brand by seeming to be on the right side of the issue. Many who were posting were highly privileged, benefitting from the systemic racism that exists in society today. And, although willing to do the easy things like adopting the right terminology, buying clothes modelled by people of colour on ASOS and not touching the hair of black people they might meet, they showed no signs of making the radical challenges to their own privilege in life that would be needed to make our world a fairer place.
This problem has been given some astute analysis in the media, though not much noise has been generated.
Kelsey Smoot, in particular, wrote a weighty piece for the Guardian which you can read here.
She asks the truly difficult question: “If the White people in my life could hit a button and instantly remove the privileges afforded to them along racial lines, would they hit that button?”
Real allyship, she writes, means a willingness to lose things.
This isn’t the type of conversation about race that really takes off on social media. The online world of posting, sharing, and liking, tends to foster trends that are easy to get on board with and what Smoot is talking about is incredibly demanding. This is more than saying, “I see you. I hear you. I stand with you.” It involves taking a long hard look at yourself and your own privilege, and then deciding whether to take action or not.
Even great writers like Robyn D’Angelo (of White Fragility fame) are keen to stress to white people, “don’t feel like progress against racism is a threat to you.” And it is good marketing for a limited form of personal anti-racism – more people are going to be willing to join a movement if they gain by it or at least don’t lose anything. Undoubtedly the world is a better place if more people at least pay lip service to an anti-racist agenda, so I don’t mean to tear down this aspect of the work that has gone on. But whilst it does create some progress, it also, on the flipside, covers up the lack of real social change on the issue of race by allowing people to proclaim their affiliation with an equality movement without making any meaningful changes to their life.
In contrast, Smoot’s anti-racism is going to require white people to lose things in order to level up the playing field, and unsurprisingly the numbers willing to do this are small when compared with the numbers who posted black squares last year.
Smoot’s argument that white people would have to lose things in order for greater racial equality to be possible applies particularly to situations where there are finite resources. University places is one example of this. If there were, for example, 100 places to study English Literature at Cambridge University, and 99 of those are going to white people and only 1 place to a person of colour, then some of those white people should not have their places in order to make the fair space for people of colour to access elite education. And if there are, as another example, 100 CEOs of the FTSE100 companies in the UK, and 100 are white and none are people of colour, then some of those white people should not be in those roles to make space for a fairer racial representation. If 100 books were published a year, and only four of those were by minority ethnic writers, again some of those white writers, if the industry was fair, should be replaced by people of colour.
Those of us who are white, and privileged in ways that I mention, or similar ways, need to acknowledge, not on social media, but to ourselves, that it may not be merit that got us where we are. We need to check our privilege. And then we need to share our privilege by looking for concrete things that we can do in society to divest ourselves of some of the privileges we have whilst we and others in society work to make it possible for people of colour, and people from other underrepresented groups, to take the places that true meritocracy would afford them. Giving money to charity is obvious and something that is quite simple to do, but if there is a change that can be structural rather than just short term financial, then that is even better.
That’s one of the reasons behind starting Lafiy Press and using the business model that I chose: I recognise that I have privilege and I want to share it, as do the commissioning editors. We’re willing, at least while money for the company is scarce, to exploit ourselves and exploit our privilege in order to do our small bit in ending the exploitation of others. The 70/30 profit split with the big majority going to authors is not going to make Lafiy Press rich. But it is going to hopefully rebalance the scales and offer writers from underrepresented and less well-off backgrounds a better income. This is a company run by a white person, but it is consciously structured so as to use the financial, educational and cultural privilege associated with whiteness and channel that into giving underrepresented writers the recognition and the pay that they deserve.
Doing the right thing continues, in lots of ways, to be confusing. Do white people have any authority to say what they think should be done about racism? Or should we defer entirely to the experiences of people of colour and stay silent? Are our questions a burden to people of colour? Or are we too ignorant to figure out any of the answers without getting help? Are we allowed to like Grime music or not? Are we capable of enjoying elements of black culture without appropriating it?
I don’t have the answers to these kinds of cultural questions, and people of all races, ages, and classes promote a range of opinions that I often don’t have the information or experience to choose between. But I saw a concrete change that I could try to make by starting Lafiy Press.
If you have privilege to check and to share, and if want to be part of our movement for more diversity and fair pay in publishing, then get yourself some of our merch, or donate through paypal by clicking the button below. If your support can’t be financial, but you like what we are working to do, then follow our social media accounts, spread the word about us and sign up to join our mail list!