Thursday night, Tina Fey performed a satirical piece in response to the horrors of Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend. I personally thought the skit was hilarious, and smart, and insightful.
Not everyone did.
And I’m not just talking about the Nazi sympathizers, the KKK and the white nationalists who didn’t like it. I read a few scathing reviews written by black people who felt it was yet another example of white liberal women who just don’t get it.
When I read the first article, I was taken aback. As someone who makes a concerted effort to be aware of situations in which tone-deaf white activists miss the mark, I found myself unsure of what to think. So I went to the comments, which I try to avoid because they often leave me feeling worse about the state of things than I did to begin with.
The comments were mixed. They were mixed racially, and they were mixed in terms of their opinions on the skit, and the critique of it. There was no dividing line that I could see. There were white people who liked the skit, and white people who said it was an invitation to just stay home and eat your coconut snowflake feelings embedded in white frosting atop a sheet cake purchased from a black or Jewish-owned bakery. There were also black people who felt as though Tina is just an out of touch, rich white liberal woman who will never, CAN never get it.
On the other hand, there were black and white commenters who continually pointed out that this was satire, that there were many layers to it, that there were ironies, and metaphors, and a big giant mirror for white activists to look into.
My mom and I attended an NAACP rally this morning. Last night she texted her concern about being a white ally, and wondered if white women showing up to an NAACP event was feeding into the “white savior” complex, whether it was helpful to show support in this way, or if it was offensive to be there. She had read several comments on a poem written by a white woman that had left her confused about what is really helpful and supportive to people of color, and what is not.
And it’s a valid question all self-described allies should be asking ourselves.
It turned out that the rally was composed of probably 75% or more white people. There were hippies who have lived through the civil rights era of the 60’s and are genuinely dismayed and baffled that we are here again (still) in 2017. ( I say still, because anyone who has been paying attention knows racism, overt or systemic, never went away. However, I think as a society we were doing our best to operate differently, to make it uncomfortable to be overtly racist. That started changing in November 2008 and we see today the comfort level with being openly racist has men marching with torches and no hoods down the middle of the street. They feel emboldened to say awful hateful things. ) There were people of all ages, though, and some of the most impactful statements were made by two teenage boys.
As they opened up the mic and allowed community members to speak, I was inspired. And I am very grateful that all of these people who spoke are on the side of love and justice. But as the unscheduled speeches went on, and white woman after white woman got up to talk about all the ways they were “woke” and all the things they have done to help black people, I began to groan inwardly. My friend Tabitha groaned outwardly. My mother leaned over and said, “Wow. It’s really not all about you, lady.”
And we knew the message being sent to POC in that audience.
We are really in love with our own self-righteousness. We are enamored with our do-gooding. We seek accolades for what we do for others because it makes us feel like we are making a difference. And most of it comes from a desire to see justice in this nation, equality, racial unity, etc. But it also comes from a place of self-aggrandizement.
The truth is, even those of us who try to be conscious of our privilege, who recognize the inequality, the lack of justice and the hate that is rising in this country, we fall into the “white savior complex” trap so easily. We want to believe that we are so evolved, that we are above having biases, and because of that we can be so very blind or tone deaf and never know it.
When I read criticism of white allies by black people, particularly white females, it usually feels really icky. Defensiveness rises up inside me, and I want to yell, “Not me! I’m not like them!” And that’s when I know without a shadow of a doubt it’s time for me to shut up and listen.
I can never know what it’s like to be a person of color in this country. I catch glimpses, here and there, and when I’m stunned, that is my cue to how out of touch I am. White people are freaking out right now about Charlottesville. We freaked out about Trayvon, and Michael Brown, and Sandra Bland. We are still having tremors of shock and horror over Philando Castile.
Guess who’s not freaking out?
Because they live this shit every damn day. They are not shocked. They are not stunned. They are angry and they are grieved, but they are not surprised.
So when a white person gets all aflutter, and wants pats on the back for being a decent human being, and being on the right side of humanity, they probably aren’t going to get it if they go looking for it from the black community.
As a matter of fact, they are going to get their feelings hurt.
I know this, because I’ve been there. I know this because I have watched it play out in conversations all over Facebook. And I see the indignant response of, “Well! If I’m not appreciated here, I’m just going to take my Black Lives Matter signs and go home!”
Being an ally means setting aside your need for affirmation, and showing up without expectation.
Being an ally means you listen more than you talk (unless you’re talking to other white people, and in that case, by all means, shout it from the rooftops that black lives should matter as much as any others in this country, that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, that fascism and racism have no place here and will not go unanswered.)
Being an ally means you do a whole lot of self-checking as you go, you recognize your privilege, where it could bring harm to others, and where it can be used for good, to access audiences that people of color don’t have the same access to.
We’ve all known those people who “show up to help” and their help ends up being more of a burden than anything else. The person who shows up when you’re sick or sad, and you end up having to comfort them because they are incapable of not making it about them.
“Well, I came to see how you were dealing with cancer, but if you can’t be cheerful and grateful for my efforts, I’ll take my tuna noodle casserole to someone who will be!”
Don’t be that person. I beg you.
Being an ally means, it’s not about you. Period. If it WERE about you, there would be organizations and rallies to support you and your struggles.
It’s not about me. It’s not about my feelings. Do I get something out of it? Of course I do. Does it suck when someone rejects my way of “helping” ? Absolutely. But if I bring vinegar to a thirsty person, and then get pissy because they don’t want to drink it, who is really the one with the issue?
White allies, (I believe there’s a really scathing song about white allies. The O’Jays?) but I digress…white allies, we have the ability to be a blessing or a curse to those we are purporting to be acting on behalf of. We have to grow some thicker skin. We have to have uncomfortable conversations, where we face the daily reality of what this country is offering our black and brown brothers and sisters. Where they get to be angry and feel whatever they feel, because the racial system we have operated in since the very first slave ship landed on our shores is WRONG. Morally, spiritually, ethically wrong. And every day they are told to get over it and move on because we are so fragile we can’t stand the discomfort of viewing their raw pain and rage– the same pain and rage we would be experiencing if roles were reversed. Heck, white people whimper every time it’s not about us and what benefits us. We can’t kum-bah-ya our way out of this. We have to own our part, and work every day to overcome the blind spots of our privilege.
Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty and your feelings hurt. I have the sense we are in for quite a battle, but I do believe love will always conquer hate, and good will inevitably triumph over evil, even if lately it feels like evil is winning.