Racism exists because of white people, and we can’t be allies unless we acknowledge that the enemy that we are fighting is ourselves.
When Macklemore rapped about zipping up his parka to join a Black Lives Matter protest, wondering if he should even be there, he gave voice to my confusion. I was there, too, hesitantly putting my hands up and taking my place at the back of the march. “Leave the front lines open for people of color,” they told us, and my daughter said she didn’t know how to feel about it.
None of us knew how to feel about it. We are Seattle progressives—the good guys, or so we tell ourselves—but we aren’t used to being asked to take a back seat. “I mean, I get it,” my daughter said. “It’s their movement. But I wanted to be in front.”
We all want to be in front, sometimes, once in awhile, when we have the day off, or it isn’t raining too hard, or some other black person was just murdered by the police. No, not that one. Not that one. The other one. But those days are few and far between, and Macklemore nailed it when he said that we spend more time arguing over whether we are racists than fighting against racism.
I didn’t need Macklemore’s “White Privilege II” to hear the chorus of white Seattle: the whoosh of the espresso steamer and the bored chatter of self-proclaimed liberals who have no interest in social justice when it comes with black skin. I hear their voices every day on the streets, in the coffee shops, and on Facebook.
My oldest son has learned his lesson from them well. When we sit at the dinner table and talk about racism, he shakes his head. “Oh boy, here we go. Now we get to hear about how racism is our fault so we can all feel ashamed of ourselves.” He has learned to be more concerned with his white shame than black lives.
My white-skinned son and I don’t experience racism, and our discussions are academic. I quote facts and statistics, and share stories that I have read by people of color, but I can’t nod my head and say “me too,” and neither can my son. I commit myself to believing people of color like I believe it when a woman says that she has been raped, but I don’t know what it’s like to be discriminated against like I know what it’s like to be raped. Their struggle is foreign and strange, and it’s tempting to listen to my fellow white people who dismiss them with a shake of their heads. It’s easier not to be the problem, not to be part of an overwhelmingly broken system, and to blame people of color for their own destruction.
My liberal white friends console me and tell me that we aren’t the problem. We aren’t the bad guys. We aren’t gun-toting Bible thumpers who hate Obama. We say the right things and do the right things, and they tell me that’s good enough, but I know it isn’t true because people of color are still dying and there’s no escaping that. It’s easy to set down my anger and walk away because I have the luxury of silence, but I want to do more. I know that I need to do more.
White people should feel ashamed of how we treat black people. If we don’t like feeling ashamed, we should stop buying into a system that leaves us feeling ashamed of ourselves rather than denying that it exists. If we can’t stand that shame, we should be actively seeking out ways to dismantle racism and ensure that white supremacy becomes a shameful part of our past instead of our present.
Instead we complain about protests causing traffic delays and tell black mothers that their dead sons were criminals who deserved to die. Even when they were unarmed; even when they were children. We shift our guilt onto the backs of black people and look to them to save us from it, quietly and unassumingly, without forcing us to ever confront the magnitude of the sins we have committed. Spare us your anger, your rage, and even your pride in your blackness. Tell us that it’s OK, tell us that racism is dead, tell us that you don’t see color, either. Then perhaps our sins can finally vanish along with your blackness; then we can stop feeling ashamed without having to do anything at all.
There’s no way for me to win as a white ally, and certainly not for Macklemore. When we speak out, we are co-opting their struggle. When we remain silent, we are complicit in their oppression. If we follow every rule made by one person of color, we break every rule set by another. We know we don’t belong, but we don’t know what else to do.
That’s the elephant in the room or on the streets when white allies march in a Black Lives Matter protest, and it’s what Macklemore means when he raps about not knowing whether he’s on the outside looking in or on the inside looking out. I march because I am ashamed of how people of color are treated in my community but in those crowds chanting “no justice, no peace, no racist police,” I am an outsider and I know it—and it’s finally dawned on me that I’ve had it all wrong.
White people don’t need a movement to remind anyone that our lives matter; our worth and value are built into every fiber of our cultural quilt. We can stand beside our black friends and vow our allegiance to their cause but when we do we are pretending that we aren’t part of the system that imprisons and murders them. We are pretending we all can’t breathe when only they can’t.
People of color are fighting for their lives while we dabble in activism, and we all know we will set down our swords as soon as we get back to our cars. We set ourselves apart as judge and jury, criticizing their tones and their methods, and expecting them to cater to what we deem an acceptable level of anger. Their rage and power belong to them, and our attempts to police their grief over the atrocities we have inflicted are atrocities in and of themselves. If we refuse to dismantle our own culture of white supremacy, people of color will do it for us—but that still doesn’t let us off the hook. White people created this mess, and it’s up to us to clean it up.
Racism exists because of white people, and we can’t be allies unless we acknowledge that the enemy that we are fighting is ourselves. Each and every one of us has benefited from the systematic oppression of people of color, and we need to stop pretending that the enemy is the other and start accepting that it’s each other.
Macklemore knows that, and it’s why he has vowed to support black-led organizations and pour some of his riches into their fight for equality. While his words may not be perfect, and “White Privilege II” is kind of a jumbled mess of rap and spoken word and who knows what, at least he’s trying. The problem is that he’s still trying to support black-led movements instead of starting his own. Black people don’t need our voices to lead their movements or to tell other white people why black lives matter; they need us to start our own.
It’s not enough to join a movement. It’s not enough to nod in agreement, or to hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, or even to listen to the lived experiences of people of color—although that’s not a bad place to start. We must become a movement of oppressors who refuse to continue to oppress. One that recognizes that we are both the problem and the solution, and that stops looking to people of color to dismantle the trappings of their own oppression. When we stop arguing over whether black lives matter, and start talking about how to change our policies, our choices, and our own lives to reflect their value, we can finally start calling ourselves allies.
Jody Allard is a former techie turned freelance writer living in Seattle. Her online work has appeared on Time, xoJane, and Offbeat Home, among others. She writes primarily about food, family, mothering, and life with a chronic illness. She’s on Twitter.