I write this article at an important time in history, but also in my own personal life. I am reeling from the not-guilty verdict in the case of the murder of Trayvon Martin over a week ago. At the same time, I am preparing to defend my Masters’ thesis, on the topic of Black men, employment equity, and racism. And I feel deeply anxious.
I feel this anxiety, not because I don’t know my material (I do, in every fibre of my proud Black being), nor because I’m worried about people who may deny racism and its ongoing negative impacts on Black men; men who are my friends, my family members, members of my community, and maybe one day, my child. Nope. I’m prepared for all of that. My worries are different. I’m worried about well-meaning white folks, who in their effort to lead a social justice conversation as my allies, make missteps that continue to reinforce oppression in racialized communities, and do a disservice to mainstream feminist social justice work, which should surely be intersectional as fuck by now.
These issues are nothing new. Indigenous people know this. Black people know this. All people of colour know this. I remember my rage in my first year of my BSW studies, reading Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” in which she casually appropriated the collective pain of Black people, and rolled out excruciating examples of our experiences in an itemized list. Her article, largely in bullet-point form, highlights a number of ways in which Black people are treated differently from white people on a daily basis. The beneficiaries of this article are largely white. Peggy herself benefitted from becoming a central voice in anti-racist activism, and still charges $10 for a copy of her article, after doing nothing more than stealing our pain, putting it in her words, and becoming an expert in a struggle that is not her own.
She chose this route rather than working on being an ally by working alongside Black people who have been speaking their own truth forever, thank you very much. White people get to read it without having to feel the pain of racism; they get to see how lucky they are to have such privilege, get to assume that this article is unproblematic and pivotal in their own personal growth, and also feel a sense of self-satisfaction if they haven’t personally entertained all of the racist thoughts and actions listed in the article.
I fail to see how Black people get to benefit from this unpacking of the racist knapsack. Because the article was appropriative. Because it spoke on behalf of us without our permission. Because it highlights painful acts of racism that we have to read. Because it re-centres whiteness. Because it represents so much of the failures of modern white feminism.
It reminds me of a handbook about diversity training I once read that suggested that workshop facilitators name an ethnic group, and invite a classroom full of participants to yell out all of the stereotypes about that group that they could think of, so the facilitator could write them on the chalkboard. In. An. Effort. To. Be. Anti. Racist. Or the article I read years ago, that I have since searched for endlessly, written by an author whose name I regrettably cannot remember, who spoke of Black women at a conference having their microphones unplugged by white women while they were presenting, so that these white women could speak over them. I’m not joking. And I’m certainly not laughing.
I have been assured a multitude of times that mainstream feminism is getting better. That each wave is better than the last. That intersectionality is upon us. That white folks know that “being an ally is a process, not an identity” as @feministgriote said so well on Twitter. (Additionally, please check out this post of hers on “white people fatigue syndrome,” and her whole blog while you’re at it!) I am still waiting for the evidence on this one, the proof that mainstream feminism is becoming a safer space for me as a Black woman. And I am getting pretty damn tired, and increasingly angry. And I am living in that anger, because I can’t think of a more reasonable response to this ongoing failure of many white feminists to be intersectional allies to Black women.
The incomparable Audre Lorde discusses the differences in the lives of Black and white women in Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference: “Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you, we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs upon the reasons they are dying.” Lorde calls for dedicated work understanding the differences of our experiences, letting Black people speak to their own oppression.
The death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer, as well as the deaths of Black folks like Rekia Boyd, and Oscar Grant, and Aiyana Stanley-Jones, and Jordan Davis, and Everett Gant, and Darious Simmons makes this is a Black issue. The imprisonment of CeCe McDonald and of Marissa Alexander, for defending their lives in a system that is built to fail them makes this a Black issue. The statistics from Arlene Eisens’ report “Operation Ghetto Storm,” which was published by the Malcolm X Grassroots Committee, states that at a minimum a Black person in the United States is killed by a police officer, security guard, or vigilante every 28 hours, makes this a Black issue.*
This seems so blatantly clear to me. The grief I feel as a Black person when I think about these injustices is a grief informed by the very blood in my veins, by the history of my family on this continent, by the reality that I face the world every day in a racialized Black body, and the dangers inherent in this reality.
There was no shortage of Black people who had important things to say following the not-guilty verdict. I cannot possibly point readers in enough directions for thoughtful, powerful, insightful, embodied Black responses both on- and offline to this awful injustice and the wave of pain that reverberated through the Black community. A few articles that spoke to my soul include that by Gary Younge, for The Guardian: “Open Season on Black Boys After a Verdict Like This,” which speaks to the precedent this ruling sets for ongoing violence against Black people, and the inevitability of the Zimmerman acquittal in the context of the legal and social justice issues facing Black men in America. Jelani Cobb, in his powerful article for the New Yorker, “George Zimmerman, Not Guilty: Blood on the Leaves,” states that because of what he refers to as “historical profiling,” the outcome of the case was inevitable. He also points out that the whole case was an opportunity to put Trayon Martin on trial and to find him guilty of his own profiling and death.
“Trayvon Martin: From Lament to Rallying Cry,” written for The Nation by Mychal Denzel Smith, calls for a challenge to the laws that allowed Zimmerman to walk, and for everyone to use their particular gifts to fight for justice in this case. This article gave me goosebumps and makes me cry every time I re-read it. Trayvon’s own parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, his brother Jahvaris Fulton, and his extraordinary friend Rachel Jenteal (thank you to @dreamhampton for tweeting so beautifully about how incredible she truly is) spoke on behalf of a pain so deep, with such dignity, such eloquence, and with such truth that it has rocked the nation.
This seemed to be a clear moment for Black people to be the voice of authority on a topic entrenched in our reality, while those who sought to be helpful could support our voices. People of colour offered lots of helpful advice to white folks looking to be allies after the Trayvon Martin ruling. Check out the twitter feeds of @feministgriote and @drjanechi, who both took time out of processing their own feelings about the trial to address white allies and their roles. Franchesca Ramsey, on her blog, offered an open letter to a former Facebook friend who attempted to derail discussions of race related to the trial with a power and resonance I found inspiring.
Even some white folks, (@amydentata, for example) encouraged other white folks working on being allies to stop and listen, not make the acquittal about their feelings, and to be a source of support for Black people speaking to and writing on this tragedy. Still, there was an onslaught of white responses to this acquittal that, while often framed as the writing of allies, in fact reinforced much of the oppression that intersectional analyses of mainstream feminism call out on a regular basis. I felt angry.
Audre Lorde, in The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism (read the whole thing, re-read it, tattoo it to your face), tells us that “Anger is a grief of distortion between peers, and its object is change. But our time is getting shorter.” This anger, my anger, is a call for change. And time is getting shorter. As is my ability to sit and educate patiently. Through this anger I want to address some of the white responses to the Trayvon Martin murder case and ruling. To offer an education in what is problematic in these responses. In order to do better, which is an essential component of all ally work, there also must be an examination of what has not been done well. I offer critiques of the following responses to the Trayvon Martin ruling in the spirit of discussion.
I want to start with a blog post by a Toronto feminist, Steph Guthrie, which, in part due to my own response to her piece, has since been removed. The article, which to my recollection, calls upon white people to reflect upon their own racism (something I think is valid, provided it is not done at the expense of people of colour), includes Steph discussing a manifestation of her own internalized racism that specifically targets Black men. She acknowledges that this fear is rooted in racism. I responded to this article with an anger stemming from the pain of having to read about the specific anti-Black racism of a white person who was attempting to write this article as an ally. My issue is not in examining privilege, rather it is in manner in which it is done. The pain I felt reading this article is personal, similar to the pain I feel every time (more often than I care to think about) that a white friend or acquaintance, in a discussion about racism, admits to me, with some pride about their self-awareness, that they are particularly afraid of Black men. As though perhaps this acknowledgement is an effort in anti-racism, or as if exposing a Black person to one’s anti-Black racism is somehow anti-racist work, rather than another act of racism.
My hands are shaking while I try to write about what it feels like to read the words of someone who claims to be practicing intersectional feminism, but also has no problem publicly admitting to a particular racism that targets my own family, friends, and community. In an effort to support the ongoing work towards justice for Trayvon Martin, no less. My frustrations with this article transcend the article, as they tie into other experiences of racism. However, I do want to speak to some of my major issues with this approach to the topic.
My first critique is that this post, and posts like it, re-centre whiteness. When a person of colour speaks to their own experiences of racism, they are speaking to a collective pain, and speaking truth to power. When a person with white skin privilege gives an anecdote about racism, whether their own or someone else’s, they are exposing more racialized people to this discrimination, and reasserting their own privilege. The narrative is no longer about Black victims of racist crimes and a deeply flawed justice system, it is about white feelings about Black bodies and their experiences. This is not helpful to intersectional practice, as it implies that only by making an oppression about the oppressor can power-holders work towards becoming allies. Secondly, it disregards the feelings of Black people by exposing them to further racism in an effort to work on white privilege. I do not consent to being confronted with racism in the hopes that white folks can maybe start to exorcise their own internalized issues. Allies need to do this work on their own.
Another article that aroused similar feelings of frustrations was “Fear and Consequences: George Zimmerman and the Protection of White Womanhood” written for The Nation by Jessica Valenti (a contributor to this site). This article, which explores the role of white womanhood in the ongoing racist victimization of Black men, also calls on white women to address their own racism in an effort towards equity. This is a valid point, and one that many Black people have spoken to eloquently. The way Jessica’s article is written brings some of the same issues as Steph’s to mind. I am concerned by the re-centering of whiteness in this article, and of the possibility that the well-being of Black people reading this article was not central in its composition. At the beginning of the article Jessica provides an example of terrible anti-Black racism that she was privy to in conversation with another white person. Similar to my critique of Steph’s article, I find myself asking “how is exposing Black people to another racist anecdote constitute anything other than an act of racism?”
I appreciate that I am not exposed to Jessica’s own personal racism, which she acknowledges all white women are taught to internalize. I also appreciate that she included a quote from the Mychal Denzel Smith article in her own. Still, this racist anecdote, as well as her statement that “I’d like to think if I was on that jury I would look at pictures of Trayvon Martin and see him for the child he was. I hope I would” suggests some distancing from other white people who she possibly views as more racist than herself. I don’t believe that when an individual holds power as part of a group over another marginalized group, that despite the hard work they do in an effort to be an ally, they are the ones best situated to quantify to what extent their racism impacts others, or whether or not they would be the better power holder when compared to others in any given situation. I feel that this line of thinking veers into the territory of working as a white saviour rather than an ally.
I want to emphasize that the Trayvon Martin murder trial and aftermath is not about having better white jurors. It is about ending racist laws in a racist system that target Black people in terrible ways. It is about having a jury that includes Black people, rather than excludes them because of their perceived racial biases (as though non-Black people do not carry biases that lead to the death of Black people on a daily basis). It is about living in a country where Black children can go to the store and get some candy and a drink without being profiled, followed, and killed. It is not about the racism that white women would hope to transcend were they appointed to a jury, in which their very appointment would represent the exclusion of Black people. This is not about being the “best” ally. Being the best ally one can be should already be a given at this point. This is about centering and discussing racism, with Black people leading this discussion.
There are other examples of white responses to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin that I will not go into in depth here. Eve Ensler wrote a now-infamous piece, “Boys With Tender Hearts and Big Dreams in Their Hoodies,” which takes the story of Trayvon Martin and likens it to her struggles as a white women, promoting her own organization 1 Billion Rising throughout the article. Or David Sirota, who went so far as to compare Barack Obama’s use of drones to George Zimmerman targeting Trayvon Martin and killing him. This article served to conflate two social justice issues. It misappropriated the specific pain of Trayvon’s family, friends, and the entire Black community to draw attention to a cause that David clearly valued over that of justice for Trayvon Martin.
In the cases of Eve and David, I cannot begin to imagine how to have a discussion that would lead to their being an ally of mine against anti-Black racist violence. However, I have had discussions with Steph about her post, and she has apologized and reflected upon her work. She is aware that I have written about her post in this piece. While what she wrote has damaged our relationship, likely irreparably, something I state with great personal pain, I hope she will go on to do better anti-racist work in future. I feel that there is also an opportunity to discuss with Jessica the issues I found in her article, in an effort to forward the cause of intersectional social justice activism. I invite this dialogue.
In examining Lorde’s The Uses of Anger I find encouragement in her words. “I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts” (have you read it yet?). I also cannot hide my hurt. Nor my fear that these are discussions that we will still keep having on a daily basis. I would hope if not Eve, and David, that Jessica, and Steph can hear me when I say that I am angry, and that I want this anger to push dialogue about being a white ally in a more positive direction. In the same piece, Lorde writes that “Black women are expected to use our anger only in the service of other people’s salvation or learning.” I am not willing to do this teaching. There are other places to do this work. But I am willing to do some deconstruction. I am willing to have a conversation.
Not as a service to you, but because of your responsibility to me.
There are people whose words in the aftermath of this trial have hurt me so that I cannot move forward alongside them. There are others who, while they have behaved incautiously, have not yet created a rift so large that we cannot, perhaps after acknowledgement and growth, again walk together. There are conversations that perhaps can grow from these thoughts, so long as we engage with an awareness of privilege, and what it truly means to be an ally.
I write from a place of anger, and a place of pain, in the hopes of interrupting the white privilege of those seeking to be allies, so that our communities can continue to seek justice for Trayvon Martin, and Rekia Boyd, and Oscar Grant, and Aiyana Stanley-Jones, and Jordan Davis, and Everett Gant, and Darious Simmons, and CeCe McDonald, and Marissa Alexander, and countless others. Perhaps we can work on moving towards social justice unfettered by the worst of the best intentions of those who could instead become our allies in our anti-racist cause.
Go read Audre Lorde now. Seriously.
* I do not want to minimize the intersectional identities of any of the people whose deaths and imprisonment I have written about in this article. I also do not wish to minimize the oppression of marginalized people from all racialized groups, including Indigenous peoples, upon whose colonized territory these events have occurred. Oppression is not limited to Blackness, nor to racialization. However, these examples are rooted in Blackness, and have happened in the way that they have because of structural oppression that targets Blackness specifically. I stand in opposition to all oppression, and value intersectionality as an essential approach to social justice issues. That being said, I do not want to conflate or confuse that oppression targets specific marginalizations in very specific ways, and in the cases of Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Oscar Grant, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Jordan Davis, Everett Gant, Darious Simmons, CeCe McDonald, and Marissa Alexander, Blackness is a pivotal component of their identity and specifically impacted the outcomes of each situation. Further dialogue about the ongoing oppression of trans women of colour and the specific gendered oppression experienced by Black women and men are two components of some of these cases that have generated further nuanced discussion, but are not the focus of this article.