Today, like every day for the last 18 years, I woke up white.
I sat through class today without being looked at as being the “positive” exception to my race, and was able to contribute effectively to classroom discussions without feeling like I was speaking on behalf of all white people. I walked back to my residence hall without being scorned or looked at differently, and signed up for a mandatory, not supplementary, course for the next quarter that teaches solely about my history. Nobody asked to touch my hair, and speaking in my native language was seen as perfectly acceptable by the other members of society.
Although these privileges are things that have been instilled in me since birth, it took a lot for me to actualize the notion of white privilege — the intentional acknowledgement that as a white individual, I am given specific societal advantages over people of color, and thus, can often cloud my understanding of the issues that others face. In November, I had the opportunity of attending the 2015 Students of Color Conference at UC Berkeley, where every single preconceived notion that I thought I had not only about white privilege, but white allyship, was abolished and revolutionized.
The first thing I learned during the conference was that having any sort of privilege does not make me an inherently bad person. Don’t get me wrong: societal privileges to specific groups such as the white population is a horrible thing, as it created and perpetuated inequality, ignorance and mistreatment to marginalized groups. With that said, white privilege does require that I am deliberate about understanding where my judgment is clouded, and where I need to become more educated and less talkative.
During the conference, I sat through a variety of workshops pertaining to specific issues that people of color face, and I couldn’t help but feel like an awful person for being a part of a race that has consistently exploited human beings for their own personal gain via imperialism and colonialism. As hard as I try, I can’t change the fact that I am a white person and that my ancestors have done awful things. Yet, one thing that I can do is fully accept the entirety of my privileges and make a personal commitment to remind myself daily of the opportunities that I am given, and that others are denied. You might not be able to change your heritage, but you are capable of changing the history associated with the heritage.
You do not need a reason to be an ally. During the conference, I attended a session known as the “White Ally” caucus, in hopes of gaining a better understanding of what it means to be an ally as well as ways I can implement what I learned at UC Riverside. Two women of color moderated the session to assist in the administration of the caucus, but what happened after was completely unexpected.
One of the members of the white ally group suggested that as an icebreaker, we go around our circle to explain the reasons why we want to be an ally and what got us interested in allyship. Some people decided to participate, chiming in reasons ranging from “I had a black friend growing up” to “I just want to help.” Although well-intentioned, the two women of color left the room because of the highly emotional content of the conversation.
I should have said something. Immediately, a red flag went up in the back of my mind when the member suggested the activity, but I didn’t say anything, and it’s haunted me ever since. How can I be a meaningful ally if I can’t even confront members of my own community?
Allyship is not a sudden moment of salvation, but an intentional decision to look beyond the crippling present that our ancestors have made for ourselves, and recognize that what we’ve perpetuated is wrong. We are not doing anything spectacular by being allies. We don’t get pats on the back. We don’t get recognition for hard work. Yet, when a person of color is able to walk back to their home without feeling afraid, when the government recognizes the needs of minorities and when the police that we all support in taxes are held accountable for their own racism that is causing the death of innocent individuals, something remarkable happens.
The final takeaway from the conference was that my job as an ally is not to be the voice of others. During my sophomore year of high school, I began as a writer for the Huffington Post, and I cannot tell you how many times I expressed a desire to “be the voice for the voiceless” in my articles.
But guess what? I was completely wrong.
As an ally, your job is not to be the voice for people facing oppression. You might have faced oppression in your life, but there is no way that you are apt to relate because quite simply, you are not them. You have no place to try to internalize the struggles that people of color face. As allies, our job is to pass the microphone to the marginalized groups that are constantly silenced. Let them speak. Make people of our race pay attention, because we have the power to influence individuals within our own sphere to become better aware of the oppression we’re subconsciously causing.
People of color do not need our help. We are not paying lip service to a cause so we can put the word “activist” on our Instagram bio or tell our other white friends how politically relevant we’re becoming. Such thinking has become ingrained in our society as a modern White Man’s Burden, as if our help is absolutely necessary only because we’re white. People of color are not below us nor are they inferior to us in any way, and it is illogical to assume that our socially based concept of superiority, as seen in the icebreaker activity, is what’s needed to fix the institutional racism that’s haunting our country today.
Want to make a change? Stand with others, but not for them. Influence your own sphere to drift away from the racism that they’ve been taught, and challenge yourself to create a culture around you that actively seeks to become inclusive of every single person you encounter. You can make a difference in reversing how institutionalized and normalized racism has become, without falsely representing people of color.
Everyone has the potential to make a difference, but the way in which we do it requires an absolute acknowledgement of the privileges that you currently have (as well as the ones you lack). Don’t be afraid of coming to terms with the things you have been socially endowed with, but rather use it as motivation to change your community, state, country and world.
How’s that for breaking the ice?