Let’s be honest: white racial justice leaders are experts at performative allyship.
When you forge a fulfilling career out of being a great ally, public image is everything. You must appear to know all the current and classic anti-racist literature. (You don’t have to read them, just know about them.) You must quickly adapt to all the new rules about socially acceptable jargon. You must ensure that you are surrounded by black or POC [people of color] executive staff who are willing to take a bullet for you at any given moment. And you must always, always appear completely oblivious to the fact that you yourself are the embodiment of white supremacy. Not Donald Trump. Not Rudy Giuliani. Heck, not even Robert E. Lee. You.
The aforementioned names are obviously also white supremacy. But this isn’t about them. This isn’t about the Klansmen we can identify. It’s about the ones who masquerade as saviors and friends, while reaping all the benefits of being a privileged white person who pretends to care about racial equality.
“When liberal whites fail to understand how they can and/or do embody white supremacist values and beliefs even though they may not embrace racism as prejudice or domination (especially domination that involves coercive control), they cannot recognize the ways their actions support and affirm the very structure of racist domination and oppression that they wish to see eradicated.”—bell hooks
As per usual, bell hooks hits it right on the nose.
But perhaps the piece of the puzzle that we’re missing is that the vast majority of liberal whites do not actually want to eradicate “the very structure of racist domination and oppression.” What else can be said for the incongruence of their words and their actions?
When their Trumper uncle claims that equality would mean less for white people, they might counter it with the idea that “there’s enough for everyone.” And while there may indeed be enough for everyone, Uncle could have a point. To rectify hundreds of years of advantage, true equality could mean sacrifice on white people’s part in several key areas.
Economically—with regard to who holds and manages wealth and resources
Socially—the shifting of power dynamics in social and professional spaces
Psychologically—erasing the norm that white people’s comfort is paramount
In spite of the strides that have been made in the civil rights movement, white supremacy is still prevalent in these three categories.
White liberals who are heads of nonprofits targeting black communities, or leaders within racial justice spaces, are just as deeply committed to protecting their economic, social, and psychological supremacy as the worst of the far-right figures. Until this truth is unveiled, not just in theory, but in the appraisal and exposure of individuals that it applies to, the movement for racial equality will be held back by the Trojan horse of unfit and hypocritical leadership.
White liberals who spearhead racial justice initiatives are often driven by the three P’s—Power, Profit, and Prestige.
The issue of power is multilayered. Simply put, it is the ability to get what you want. In the context of the workplace, for example, it is easy to identify those with tangible power; it manifests in the ability to call for things to happen and have people obey those commands. The people with “role power” make decisions and shape policies. A white racial justice leader is fully aware of their own position of power. In fact, they refuse to let it go.
In her book The Power Manual, author [and NPQ senior editor] Cyndi Suarez writes that “Leaders seek to decide the level of decision-making; they understand that participation in decision-making is power, and the extent to which they want to share power determines the level of decision-making they attempt to set. Often, civic protest is aimed at fighting to be part of a higher level of decision-making.”
White racial justice leaders tend to meet this civic protest with resistance. If you were to ask whether they would work in the lowliest title if it meant they would be most useful to “the cause,” just imagine the response. For them, all the fun of it is wrapped up in the fact that they get to make their creative dreams happen, to make people do what they are told, and to expand their own sense of power and control in life. It is less about the principle and morality of racial justice than it is about feeling powerful.
Of course, they would deny it bitterly, so I propose we ask them one thing: to step down, to move out of the way. To have their input be of equal or lesser value than ours, rather than the deciding factor on any given issue. The reluctance would be astounding. And if they were to explain that reluctance, we would clearly see the arrogance of a white ego that believes itself entitled to power.
White people cannot come to terms with the fact that they should not hold the reins, particularly on matters affecting black and brown communities. They refuse to accept the fact that black people want true autonomy and not a better slave master.
If the workspace were a plantation, most liberals of today would be Northerners wanting slavery reform instead of abolition. They want to see how they can be better slave masters in order to have happier slaves, and thus a more pleasant self-perception.
When you tell them you simply don’t want them as a master, they reply, in a very polite and calm white supremacist voice, “I’m sorry, this is the way things are.” Then when you call them out on it, you’re the irrational angry black person who doesn’t know how to conduct themselves in professional spaces. Racist stereotypes that they claim to oppose become useful to them in moments when their authority is questioned. Their own racism emerges and is weaponized for their self-preservation. Their allyship is a sham.
Next, there is the motivation for Profit. In recent years, there has been more and more pressure for white people and organizations to expand their literacy in anti-racism. White people who can talk the talk get money thrown at them. They get book deals, speaking engagements, platforms, Twitter followers, requests to do workshops, and the list goes on. Many of them manage to integrate their academic anti-racism into their career, thus strengthening the legitimacy of their claim to power.
The racial wealth gap is in the back of their minds. The median wealth between black families and white families is worsening nowadays, rather than improving, in spite of the fact that there is so much awareness about it. White leaders may publicly support the idea of reparations—as long as it doesn’t come out of their pocket. They are content to watch conversations about reparations ebb and flow on the political stage. It may well drag on for several more decades, while the same white people shake their heads in pity at how poor we are.
Sign up for our free newsletters
Subscribe to NPQ's newsletters to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
The thought of contributing to black people’s wealth by giving up a significant amount of their own is preposterous. You see, they may be ready to acknowledge that they benefit from racial inequalities, but that’s all in theory. They are not prepared to sacrifice their own money to do something about it. They prefer to donate occasionally to the predatory charities and 501c3s (and write it off on taxes!), and then be all chummy with the black people around them, as though we aren’t all living breathing manifestations of a very real wealth gap.
It was always about money. Slavery was about economic profit. The white liberal’s surface allyship is also about economic profit. At least the Republicans are honest about wanting to hoard all the wealth to themselves because they “earned” it. Liberals only pretend to want economic equality. The fine print is “as long as it doesn’t come from my pocket, or mean that there would be less for me.”
Imagine, a prominent white racial justice leader once told me we couldn’t achieve racial pay equity because it was against the law to pay people according to race. She then went on to try to deliver the economic racial equity we asked for by raising everybody’s salaries—resulting in the white managers making over $100,000.
Since the inception of the United States, the law economically favored white people. A few decades ago, it became “illegal” to “discriminate by race,” and now white liberals are comfortable with the idea that black people would never get economic advantages simply for being black, even though white people did for centuries.
How do we rectify racial economic inequity without intentionally injecting funds into the black community precisely because they are black? White leaders don’t know, and neither do they care, once their own bag is secured. They prefer to merely “thank” people of color for educating them on anti-racism. They prefer to invite us to write for them for free, speak on their platforms for free, contribute to their personal development for free, all against the backdrop of a wealth gap they are fully aware of.
Finally, we will delve into the merits of Prestige.
Prestige is twofold, referring both to one’s reputation in society and to one’s perception of self, which are equally important. The white racial justice leader lives for admiration and respect—not by the brown masses, but by other influential figures in the movement. They want to be endorsed by the most prominent characters, they want a spot on Trevor Noah, they want to be on a panel with other distinguished game-changers. Their job is a revolutionary theater. A real revolution, run by those actually impacted and with the goal of empowering the brown masses, would render them irrelevant. Then, God forbid, they would have to find another field to conquer, one that doesn’t easily scoop them up by virtue of being white and claiming to dislike racism.
Powerful people in white supremacist spaces give them an ear because they are white and just edgy enough to be palatable. It is a mutually beneficial exchange: philanthropists, funders, corporations and media get to hear an inspirational spiel from somebody who looks like them, and they agree to fund this white person’s initiatives as their annual contribution to “social change.” The white person gets to be heralded as a voice to the voiceless, a saint who used their white privilege for good and just happened to make a name for themselves in the process.
The most fascinating part of it all is that the white leader genuinely believes that all of this absolves them of whiteness. Their internal sense of prestige swells and feeds their ego. Dismantling the system under their own terms and conditions, with all the power, prestige, and money that they deserve is the definition of a truly fulfilling life. Any of us would sleep peacefully at night with the security of hundreds of thousands of dollars, white skin, and a golden reputation as an ally, though.
For many years, we have been expected to be grateful that white allies bestow their precious sympathy and attention upon our cause. After all, they could be the type who call us n-words and shoot us dead on sight, right?
A fair argument.
Yet, I believe we deserve allies who are willing to be our followers instead of our leaders.
Allies who do not expect to be forgiven for their racist behavior without facing real consequences.
Allies who donate money to us like closing the wealth gap depends on their contribution alone.
Allies who sacrifice their comfort and stability to support us in every way possible.
Allies who do anti-racism as a way of life and not a stimulating intellectual exercise for a few hours a week.
Instead of desperately hoping for a unicorn to gallop into our lives, however, my advice to the community is to force the change we wish to see. Through solidarity with each other, we are more than capable of calling them out, holding them accountable, and ensuring that they face the necessary consequences. It is beyond time for us to abolish the white supremacy that goes on within our camp from a bunch of wolves in sheep’s clothing. If it persists, we must contend with the possibility that we are too comfortable or too scared to demand change.
White people united over one simple concept, that they are superior to all others and deserve to be treated as such. Until we unite over a concept such as “white supremacy will not be tolerated,” true autonomy and power will be a distant dream.
False white allies will continue to rule us, and we will thank them for it.
“As far as I’m concerned, ‘liberal’ is the most meaningless word in the dictionary. History has shown me that as long as some white middle-class people can live high on the hog, take vacations to Europe, send their children to private schools, and reap the benefits of their white skin privilege, then they are ‘liberal.’ But when times get hard and money gets tight, they pull off that liberal mask and you think you’re talking to Adolf Hitler. They feel sorry for the so-called underprivileged just as long as they can maintain their own privileges.”—Assata Shakur