I spent most of 2016 not speaking to a good friend of mine because we had an emotional fallout about race.
She is a kind, sincere, and at times overly cautious white woman, and I am an expressive, thoughtful, and passionate Black woman. I am very aware of social issues because my existence necessitates it—I am reminded every day that I am a Black woman. At the time of our argument, she was still coming to terms with some internalized biases and realizations she was having about racism, relationships, and equality. We enjoyed spending time together, but we disagreed often, especially when watching movies.
During the argument that led to our fall out, she said some things about race and being an ally that I found to be insensitive and hurtful. In a nutshell, she told me that it was too stressful for her to talk about social issues with me because I can become quite passionate about them. Her suggestion was that when we hang out, we don’t talk about anything dealing with race, gender, sexuality, or ethnicity—as if by talking about these things I was just being an “angry Black woman” whose opinions weren’t justified.
Of course, I was livid. Tight. Mad. I felt like she was trying to silence a big part of my personality because my world and my work revolves around ideas that she didn’t want to talk about. So if I read a great book by a Black woman, I couldn’t share why I loved it? If a white celebrity did something outstandingly racist, we couldn’t discuss why it was wrong?
I know this scenario isn’t unique. Sometimes people of color and members of marginalized communities don’t have close white friends because they’re afraid they have to edit away parts of themselves to make the friendship work, or worse, dealing with the pain of the white friend saying something ignorant and offensive without realizing it. I wanted to believe that she and I would be different.
In the middle of the year, after months of not speaking, we finally had the talk that we both needed. She was able to apologize and explain why she was previously unable to acknowledge the issues I was expressing, I was able to tell her exactly why it hurt that she, as a white woman and friend, was trying to silence me, a Black woman, and how her comment unintentionally perpetuated the “angry Black woman” stereotype.
We haven’t been the same since, but I hope that changes in 2017. I am mostly thankful that she is still trying her best to be a good ally, and I respect that she will have some challenges along the way because it isn’t easy to unlearn 20+ years of what society wants you to believe about white supremacy.
In 2016, as a society, we witnessed several events in which well-meaning white people were unintentionally racist or ignorant. The best way to continue working toward a progressive, socially conscious mindset is to learn from past mistakes. By taking a look at some of the social and cultural moments in 2016 that were painful, exploitative, or downright awful for people of color, we can talk about why they were wrong and how white allies can do better in 2017.
1) When Marc Jacobs’ Put Out a Weird, Slightly Tacky, and Culturally Appropriative Fashion Show
White models sported rainbow-dipped dreadlocks in Marc Jacobs’ 2016 New York Fashion Week show. When confronted with this problematic display, Jacobs initially fired back with, “[To] all who cry ‘cultural appropriation’ or whatever nonsense about any race or skin colour wearing their hair in any particular style or manner—funny how you don’t criticise women of colour for straightening their hair.”
Then Jacobs defended himself with this overused line: “I doesn’t see colour or race—I see people.” If he doesn’t see color, how does he know that women of color straighten their hair?
The problem with white people wearing locs is that they don’t have to deal with the stereotypes and discrimination that Black people who wear locs experience. White people with locs are usually considered nonconforming trendsters, hippies, or at the worst, dirty, whereas Black people who wear locs are labeled messy and unprofessional and are racially profiled.
Very recently, it was deemed completely legal for employers to refuse to hire people with locs, as if it isn’t already hard enough for Black people to find jobs. The court that passed the ruling believes that “technically” locs aren’t a racialized style because it isn’t a trait Black people are born with but a hairstyle that can be manipulated and changed.
However, loced hair is most associated with Black people, as our hair textures loc more easily than fine and straight hair, and we have used locing to maintain our hair and express our natural beauty for centuries. Furthermore, locing can be a spiritual, transformative personal journey for many, so it feels like a slap in the face when society tells us that locs are unprofessional, unnatural, and unattractive then turns around and uses rainbow locs as an artistic and “fashion forward” device in a runway show with mostly white women.
Let Marc Jacobs’ show you what not to do when engaging with other cultures or getting called out for racially insensitive behavior. Don’t treat the cultural markers of people of other races like discardable trends, don’t claim to be colorblind when that’s both untrue and an irresponsible way of looking at the world, and don’t respond to being called out by people of color by comparing their assimilation into white society to the theft and appropriation of their culture. Instead, see racial, cultural, and ethnic differences, but give them their due respect by listening to people who are not like you rather than using them for your own benefit.
2) When White People Treated Standing Rock Like Burning Man
The Standing Rock Sioux People’s fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline is one of the most pressing social movements of 2016. Several allies and Indigenous People from other nations stood in solidarity with the Sioux People through direct action, donations, and social media use. However, there were some so-called allies who took advantage of the struggle by mooching off of the campsites’ resources without helping out in return, using donations for nonsensical items like fluoride-free water, and treating demonstration like a festival experience.
One water protector, Alicia Smith, had this to say in the Independent:
“White people are colonizing the camps. I mean that seriously. Plymouth rock seriously. They are coming in, taking food, clothing and occupying space without any desire to participate in camp maintenance and without respect of tribal protocols. These people are treating it like it is Burning Man or The Rainbow Gathering and I even witnessed several wandering in and out of camps comparing it to those festivals.”
Not only is this inappropriate and insensitive, it’s downright disrespectful. Far too often, white people have worn Native American culture as a costume, and going to Standing Rock for the “cultural experience” is another form of appropriating and degrading the significance of Native values, traditions, and issues.
If you really want to be an ally, you need to be willing to work, contribute, and listen to those who are leading the movements you’re supporting, especially when white privilege has made you accustomed to being heard and seen at the expense of people of color (even if you don’t notice it). This means that if you don’t have real skills to lend to the #NoDAPL fight—or any other fight against settler colonialism and white supremacy—you need to educate yourself, pay attention to what people of color are asking allies to do, be willing to make sacrifices, and take some of the burden of contending with white supremacy off of people of color.
3) When People Did Nothing About Trump’s White Supremacy
I’ve read articles and listened to interviews with Trump supporters who voted for him because they believed in the good things he promised: the return of localized jobs, a more opportune America, and financial stability. What they dismissed but supported through their votes were the horrifying things he said and did in the lead up to the election, which included outright racism and bigotry, threats of building a wall to keep Mexican people out of America, and boasts of sexual assault against women. What a privilege it is to not be personally threatened by the problematic ideas your president-elect has, to laugh off his disturbing words and actions as mere antics, or, worse, to wholeheartedly support his bigotry and feel emboldened by it.
Even now, many of these supporters genuinely believe that Trump will be an awesome president. Yet, the fact that they support a president-elect who has threatened several marginalized communities shows how easy it is for some white people to support outright racism and xenophobia.
This is nothing new. Throughout history, white people have downplayed moments of racism, supported them, or were simply indifferent to them because they weren’t directly impacted. White allies can help combat this by being supportive of their friends of color during Trump’s presidency and beyond, calling in and calling out their Trump supporting relatives, and fighting the rise of white nationalist sentiment in this nation. Many people of color already feel stressed out, terrified and frankly, uncomfortable in this nation. We’ll need all the support from our allies we can get during the next four years.
4) When People Kept Trying to Replace “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter”
For as long as we’ve been shouting “Black Lives Matter,” certain white people have been retaliating with, “All Lives Matter,” as if this is a call and response song or a game to see who can piss the other off more. But this is not a game. Saying “All Lives Matter” isn’t being inclusive but silencing Black people. It sends the message that Black death isn’t a pressing issue.
It’s true that all people matter. But it’s also true that not all people are targeted, criminalized, killed, stereotyped, and hated the way that Black people are.
Given how often “All Lives Matter” crops up on Facebook, this post from Mark Zuckerberg (who isn’t the perfect ally in every way but handled this correctly) is a great example of a white person leveraging their privilege to let other white people know they’ve fucked up. Last February, when Facebook employees crossed out instances of “Black Lives Matter” that were written on their office wall and replaced them with “All Lives Matter” (that had to win the petty award of the year, seriously), Zuckerberg let them know why this was a despicable thing to do:
White allies, save this pic in your phone for any future “All Lives Matter” arguments you may run into.
5) When Hollywood Stayed Whitewashing Asian Characters
Scarlett Johansson will star in the live action remake of the anime Ghost in the Shell as a character who was originally Japanese. Tilda Swinton replaced an old Asian man in Marvel’s Doctor Strange. They could have easily chosen talented Asian actors to play these roles, but filmmakers would rather cast widely known white actors for the sake of profit.
In an embarrassing display of white feminism, Tilda Swinton reached out to Margaret Cho via email to discuss the controversy over her Doctor Strange role. Cho’s responses were precise and explanatory, as she clearly stated why Asian audiences felt disappointed in the movie and how Asian actors are fighting for visibility in film and television. Rather than listen to what Cho had to say, Swinton redirected the conversation by talking about how “feminist” it was for her to play this role as a woman. However, she did so at the expense of an Asian actor’s paycheck, and those who chose to cast her were not being progressive when they hired a white woman rather than an Asian actor to play the role.
Sorry Swinton, that reply isn’t intersectional enough for me. White women have more opportunities in film and television than Asian people do. Rather than continuing to make excuses for whitewashing, white allies can push for diversity in media by listening to and sharing the words of people of color when we speak out against whitewashing in movies, when we talk about #OscarsSoWhite, and when we demand that characters of color are played by actors of color. We don’t need another Gods of Egypt. But white people can also support more diversity in traditionally white-centric films, like the soon to be released Spider-Man: Homecoming, which stars two women of color in leading roles.
Start 2017 Off Right By Paying Attention
As we step into the future, I hope we can leave experiences like the ones listed above in the past. Though racism will likely remain the pressing issue it always has been in U.S. politics, white allies can look at examples like the ones listed above to learn lessons about recognizing white privilege, calling out racism, supporting diversity, and fighting white supremacy.
For instance, the friend I mentioned earlier did—and continues to do—the work needed in order to become a better ally. She’s made the effort to diversify her friend circle, take classes on racial and social issues, and read books on sociology and therapeutic practices. These are important steps toward being a supportive and more understanding friend to people of color.
So allies, as you look forward to this first year of Trump and another of many years of racial injustice and white supremacy, you’d do well to look back at the problems and mistakes of 2016 and ask yourselves this: How will I do better in the year to come?