You can read my reasons as a white girl, living in Montreal, Canada, for showing up at a Black Lives Matter protest/gathering here.
It is with some anxiety that I went. I accompanied Beaut, ashamed to admit that I viewed him as my token by which my presence at that gathering would be deemed eligible, as though without him, I would not belong (in case that wasn’t an obvious explanation, Beaut is Black & proud of his Haitian roots). I hate discovering the little ways in which my reasoning twists and reveals hidden biases and false assumptions – it’s a constant exercise in vigilance and humility. I spent too much time feeling awkward – kind of like the first time you go to a funeral parlour to pay your respects, and don’t know how to act, surrounded by the close friends and family of the deceased who are vocally expressing their grief. How should the White Girl stand? What do I say? I am in the way? I felt like a large teenager, uncomfortable with my body occupying any space, clunkily trying to blend in with the air. I eventually managed to put my self-awareness aside and concentrate on the ongoing event.
The event was a series of speakers and poets, covering a variety of topics. Feeling helpless, so far away from the racist trainwreck and slaughters happening in the States, yet so emotionally affected by it. The personal grief. Discussing how systemic racism against Blacks manifests itself in Montreal, Quebec and Canada – a warning not to let ourselves be distracted from local issues by the urgency of the American situation. The bottled up rage. Possible actions, proposed solutions, attitudes required to eventually convince the world that Black Lives Matter. What BLM means (spoiler: it isn’t anti-cop, it isn’t All Lives Matter and it isn’t anti-white. Blows my mind that this is even a required disclaimer.) 2 things really jumped out at me:
The color-blind argument is a subtle example of white privilege
One of the speakers gave a clear explanation for why the “color-blind” argument produces such resentment amongst visible minorities. You know, the phrase,“Oh, I just don’t see color, I’m color-blind when it comes to people, everyone is just the same to me.” This statement, full of good intentions, is actually just another privileged argument that only a white person can say. We are in a position to choose if we feel like acknowledging cultural/physical/other differences, and in being color blind, it is just a less violent way of denying these people the right to be fully themselves, and different from us. It’s a refusal to tolerate difference, packaged in a politically correct statement. The REAL goal is to celebrate differences (they can’t be eliminated anyhow!) and learn to live with them.
What it means to be an ally of the Black community
What we, as white people, can do if we want to end these injustices and help the Black community fight racism. The answer is not to be quiet. We must speak up. But to speak up, first we must listen in humility to their observations and conversations, to their explanations and points of view. Yes, we must tread carefully, but we must never be quiet. In today’s world, the Black community won’t successfully manage to get their voices heard and understood, without non-Black and white people to help bridge the gap. We should not talk FOR them, but we must advocate WITH them. We must NOT be silent.
I agree. But boy, do I find that hard. I’m petrified of accidentally whitesplaining (the condescending action of explaining racism to those subjected to it, as though I could ever know more about it than them). I’m scared I’ll say something wrong, betray an unidentified prejudice within myself, and be perceived as “poor little white girl” trying and failing to do good. I must learn to live with this discomfort by continuing to listen, to ask questions, to care, and to speak up with caution.
Towards the end of the demonstration, the leaders asked if anyone had anything they’d like to say. I REALLY wanted to say,
I’m sorry. I’m sorry that this is what you have to deal with. That by the tint of my skin, I daily benefit from privileges that are not available to you. I try to not take advantage of them, only taking the ones I’ve earned through my own hard work. But I know that nevertheless, I still have access to freedoms that you don’t. Emotional burdens that I’ll never have to carry. And I’m sorry for that. I’m sorry that through the actions of people who share my whiteness, including some of my ancestors, this is your reality. I’m sorry, and I’m with you.”
But I stayed quiet. I thought I would be out-of-place: the white girl so in need of attention that she needs to divert attention to herself at an event for Black people. As Jesse Williams said in his speech a few weeks ago, “The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That’s not our job. Stop with all that.” I stayed put and continued to listen to the speakers.
I shared my thoughts with Beaut afterwards – including how close I’d come to taking the mic and speaking up. He told me that he thought I’d been mistaken to remain quiet. He pointed out to me that what I’d wanted to share was an acknowledgment of the situation, and that their voices, the voices of the entire Black community, were being heard. They might speak, they might gather, they might protest, but without others (mainly whites) to say “yes, yes we hear you, this matters” the process is incomplete. A good ally must not be silent.
So here I am. In writing this, I will not be silent.
P.S. I strongly urge y’all to read this article 6-ways Well-Intentioned People Whitesplain Racism (and Why They Need to Stop). I’ve definitely been guilty of a few of these behaviours in the past. And right now, on social media, and mainstream media, oh boy, does this happen ALL the time.
Holding back from correcting someone when you think they’re wrong, sitting with uncomfortable emotions when you feel like you’re under attack, stepping back when you think you could explain something better – all of this takes some self-control.There’s one strategy that will help you figure it all out: Approach racial justice conversations with humility. – Maisha Z. Johnson