The Silent Ally

Let’s talk about the ally soapbox and the privilege that seems to be forgotten when tragedies occur.

The current, and what seems to be heartbreakingly consistent, violence against black bodies is overwhelming. And while I still see so many people denying what an institutional problem we have, I have seen a huge outpouring of support from many different communities. I think that this support is incredible, heartwarming, and completely necessary.

However, I also think that at a time when solidarity is so crucial, we must be critical about how we go about that solidarity.

As a biracial woman, I take this problem very seriously. I view myself as both someone who is a part of the marginalized community and an ally, because I do have racial privileges. Knowing about these privileges and using these privileges is what it means to be an effective ally.

I think that the role of an ally is vital when it comes to having conversations in spaces that marginalized people are not a part of. Allies are amazing ways to facilitate conversation, open the eyes of others to problems in our society, and gain support for the marginalized groups that need it. Yet, part of me is also somewhat hesitant when it comes to allyship.

The truth is that allies have an incredible amount of power.

Allies are given the role of essentially speaking on behalf of a community when that community isn’t present. Allies must listen and speak up, acting as the go-between amid very different perspectives, usually between marginalized and privileged identity groups. And usually these allies, myself included, have some type of privilege that allows us to enter these spaces.

And this is why I worry.

I worry that no matter how critical we are of our own identities, we are still guilty of forgetting our own privilege. I worry that sometimes you can feel so much for a community that you forget your identities are a huge part of the problem. I worry that sometimes you so badly want to do something to help that we end up overshadowing the voices that must be heard.

I worry that allies, through their activism, perpetuate the inequity that we so desperately want to fix.

If we look at the recent murders and violence against black people in both Tulsa and Charlotte, we have seen massive demonstrations to take a stand against the institutional racism that is rampant throughout our justice system. These demonstrations have consisted of many people from the black community, but also people who stand in solidarity with the black community, which I think is wonderful. I think having people who stand in solidarity is one of the most effective ways to make a statement to policy-makers, a statement that says that this is a problem that we will not allow to continue.

But, I also think, at least to some extent, that I have seen many of these people who stand in solidarity stand at the forefront of these issues, both on social media and during protest. I have seen people, specifically white people, who are straddling the fine line between allyship and dominating the conversation.

I, of course, want as many allies as possible. I think that for substantial change to occur, the more people who understand the problem the better.

But, there is a difference between speaking about racism, prejudice, and discrimination in spaces where there is no one willing to speak versus speaking over the voices that are already out there because you feel you have something to contribute.

Because that, that feeling, is a reflection of your privilege.

Allies are in the auditorium and while it may be difficult to accept because it is oftentimes all that we have ever known, we are not at the microphone.

And while I think that sometimes it’s really difficult for us to hear that we aren’t doing enough, I think that it’s equally difficult to hear that we’re doing too much. I think that we must take the question—how much is too much—very seriously. We must ask the question, no matter how fine or arbitrary the line, because it is the difference between productive allyship and validating a movement because you have the privilege to do so.

The problem is that I have seen videos of white demonstrators talking to police, where  white people are taking up space where black voices should be heard.

So I ask the question, can white people make the police feel more comfortable in these protest settings?

Yes, but honestly the police should feel uncomfortable with the injustice that has occurred.

The police shouldn’t be able to choose to deal with the white demonstrators, because that is the ultimate problem that we have. We are unable to face our biases, our prejudice. We are unable to recognize that we have specific perceptions about skin color and what an individual is like. People are not being honest with themselves and people are dying because of it.

Black people are dying because of it.

Allies should not make this distance, this willful ignorance, any easier.

We cannot share “Say Their Names” on Facebook and then put ourselves in the spaces where people should have to confront the names, the faces, and the skin color of the people whose lives have been taken. We should put ourselves in the spaces where people should have to confront the names, faces, and skin color of the people who are still facing the discrimination and danger.

But to answer the question “can white people still stand in solidarity with the black community?”

Yes, and they absolutely should.

But, allyship is not about being the most vocal about what is right or wrong. Allyship is about reading the room, about utilizing your privileges to speak in places that marginalized voices do not, as of now, have a place in. Allyship is not, however, speaking when there are plenty of people in the room who should finally be heard.

Because if their voices are not heard now, then when?

Be the silent ally. The ally who stands at the demonstration, who listens to the experiences, and who recognizes that there are voices that need a platform more than your own. Be the vocal ally when you are in a room with only people who look like you, when you’re listening to bigotry in a room with no one else to speak against it, and when you know that you aren’t speaking over anyone else.

You can stand in solidarity and still take up too much space, and we must be conscious of it.

It is so easy to forget our privilege in instances of tragedy. We forget that we have the opportunity to speak the majority of the time, and because of that our activism doesn’t always provide the solidarity that we want it to.

We cannot forget our privilege, specifically white privilege if you have it, because it is so much of the reason that these tragedies that are continually happening.

Because as we forget, we turn into everything we don’t want to be. We become ignorant, blind, and loud.

We become the problem.

by Kristina Smith

Kristina Smith