A true white racial ally must acknowledge the benefits they receive by virtue of their whiteness and must make every effort to refuse and shed those benefits, while at the same time working to advance and support black and brown people. And they must do so publicly. These efforts by white allies must, of course, include speaking out and acknowledging benefits in order to refuse them, but more importantly, they must include real actions that have real effects on their own lives.
If a white person is truly doing everything in their power to dismantle the system which is supported and fueled by white supremacy, and all of the support and benefits they receive from that system, they will inherently experience what feels like negative consequences.
Such an attempt to demote oneself from the position of supremacy in which one has been placed, purely by virtue of their birth, will not be pleasant. As we’ve explored previously, the existence of perceived negative consequences will be a sign that the ally is performing effective anti-racism work.
Here’s a simple experiment which serves as a meaningful metaphorical example of an attempt to shed a benefit of whiteness, while advancing others.
Those of us who traverse busy sidewalks (or mall, airport, or other large corridors) probably know that, with respect to encountering other pedestrians coming toward us, most people fall into two categories: those who move aside to let others pass and those who don’t. If you are white, it stands to reason that you have never meaningfully considered these types of encounters as they relate to race.
Consider them now.
If you consider yourself a racial ally, pay attention to whether you are the type of person who naturally expects other people to move out of your way. And importantly, pay attention to the types of people who do automatically move out of your way.
Now take the following steps: for the next week, every time you traverse a sidewalk, walk in a straight line the entire time, do not move out of anyone’s way as you walk down the sidewalk, and pay attention to who bumps into you. I would be willing to bet that very few, if any, black or brown people bump into you during that period of time.
Black and brown people move out of your way because you’ve expected us to (perhaps subconsciously) your whole life. We move out of your way because, particularly in highly-policed urban settings, the consequences of violently bumping into a white person can be quite serious (and exponentially more serious with a white woman and a black man or boy).
A few months ago, I performed this experiment, as a large black man: for one day, during my walk to work and my walk home, a total of about thirty minutes on the sidewalk, I maintained my stride and did not step out of anyone’s way (regardless of race). By the end of the day, I had bumped into five people—all white. Put plainly, my unwillingness to clear a path for these particular white people led to multiple physical collisions. One man even spilled his coffee. Another dropped his phone.
In the context of paying close attention to the types of people who have made it a point to clear a path for you, proceed to the next step of the experiment.
The second step requires the institution of a new practice. From now on, politely step out of the way every time a black or brown person passes you on the sidewalk. Every time, insist that black and brown people you pass not be required to break their stride.
Once you incorporate this new practice, you will be surprised at how annoying, uncomfortable, and seemingly impractical your role in this exercise is. It will feel like, every time a black or brown person passes you on the sidewalk, you are being demoted to a subservient social position. It will feel like you’re experiencing a negative consequence.
Sit with this feeling.
Even as this small measure will be at the forefront of your attention, you’ll still be surprised at how often you find black people still dodging you, clearing a path to let you pass; you’ll be surprised how difficult it will be for you to remember that you are now the one who should be expected to avoid oncoming cross-racial traffic.
This metaphorical gesture may be insignificant from a practical standpoint, but it’s an exercise that will help illustrate and solidify the mindset required for the fight allies must commit to undertake.
Society has designated whiteness as the norm and, relative to non-whiteness, implicitly and sometimes explicitly supreme. If you are white, that categorization has automatically cleared a path for you your entire life, at the expense of black and brown people. Your whiteness has benefited you throughout your life, in ways in which you’re not even aware.
I acknowledge that there are a number of subconscious intersecting variables at play when pedestrians encounter one another. With the publication of this exercise, I am not suggesting that race—and only race—is the sole factor at play in the complex social interactions between strangers.
But if we are to focus on remedying the horrific effects of America’s ongoing racial issues, at times we will need to focus specifically on the role race plays in our most unremarkable social interactions. This exercise, while perhaps only marginally significant practically, should serve as a metaphor to white allies, reminding you that you have committed your life to making every attempt to shed those unearned benefits and to advance and support the people who continue to suffer because of them.