Kwanzaa for White Allies, Day 3: Intentionally Growing the Movement
Expanding Others’ Concept of Allyship Can Be Done in a Way that Helps You Too
Although created to specifically resonate with the people from the African diaspora, Kwanzaa is a time of reflection during the interregnum between Christmas and New Year’s Day that can have value for any social change agent. This includes anti-racism allies.
As mentioned in the previous articles in this series (Day 1 and Day 2), white allies need to think seriously about four important domains of allyship: 1) sustaining their own journey as anti-racists, 2) supporting people of color, 3) converting racism skeptics to new thinking, and 4) growing the ally community. It is this last domain, working to expand the capacity of one’s group, that is most spoken to by Day 3 of Kwanza, which is focused on “ujima,” which translates to collective work and responsibility. According to the official Kwanzaa website, ujima calls on us to “build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together.”
Undermining Ally Toxicity
What might it mean for white ally to act on a sense of personal responsibility to create common cause designed to help the ally community? One important activity is to break the silence on problems facing anti-racism allies that are often not talked about directly. For starters, any informal and formal groups of allies are afflicted with what might be called a “toxic wokeness.” Far too often, collections of people committed to white allyship aspire to a culture of anti-racism accountability, but they actually create patterns of behavior that involve performative wokeness and a hyper-criticality. Too often, such organizations have behavioral norms where any inadvertent linguistic misstep or even purposeful questioning of key concepts is not looked at as an opportunity for learning, but rather are treated as transgressions meriting shaming or potential excommunication. Such environments might feel very empowering to the holders of status or positional power (it’s good to be the king/queen), but group cultures like this often limit the growth of the group and of the movement. Often this toxicity persists even though some folks privately feel like the environment is far from nurturing, but people are afraid to publicly question this norm. Such settings are spiritually unhealthy, and the anti-racism movement needs allies to be as healthy as possible.
The highest aspiration of the anti-racism movement is to bring about what MLK called the beloved community. For that to happen, the movement needs ally organizations that reflect the spirit of loving accountability that the will be a hallmark of that future state. In the spirit of ujima, allies can ask themselves whether they are connected to ally collectives that have norms that don’t feel as healthy as they should. If your answer is yes, your task is to find both the gumption and diplomacy to respectfully but honestly raise the issue.
Avoiding Tough Conversations
Another weakness that afflicts too many allies is a disinclination to engage the racism skeptics in their lives. Allies should engage in the personal work work to develop the compassionate dialogue skills so that they can comfortably and effectively engage friends or acquaintances who make it known that they question the importance of racism. As vital as it is to do the personal work that will help you become more persuasive to racism skeptics, an almost equally important is to persuade other allies that one on one persuasion of skeptics is a vital part of white people’s anti-racism work.
Right now, too many allies think their work is done by reading the right books and skillfully deploying woke language in progressive discussion groups, and too many shy away from using best practices in persuasion with others. White allies need ask themselves: How courageously and how often am I effectively engaging racism skeptics? Not matter what the answer is, you should talk about their successes and failures in this regard to your ally comrades. These conversations are not only good for you, but having these conversations with other allies is a vital part of combatting the white silence that amounts to complicity.
Countering A False Sense of Innocence
Finally, and perhaps most important, each ally can play a role in subverting the most damaging common thought pattern of allies; specifically, far too many allies think of themselves as fundamentally “cured” of the problem of racially problematic thoughts or actions. It’s as though their past inner work on race has inoculated them from the virus of racism, and now they are infection free. My argument is that white superiority thinking is a pandemic, and we all have the virus (even me, a black person). The question is how frequently and severely we manifest symptoms.
If we need another metaphor to describe the interplay between racism and ant-racism, addiction recovery or even dental hygiene work much better. Allies need to look at themselves as always being subject to backsliding into states of greater disease unless they make continued conscious effort. In addition to modifying one’s own inner dialogue through more useful metaphors, allies should engage other allies they know in conversations about this never-ending work.
Just like people in recovery need to be honest with their sponsors and we all need to be honest with out dentists, every ally should examine how frequently are they confessing their occasional racially problematic thoughts to other allies. These confessions are useful for keeping us honest and humble, and they also promote the norm of allies making such confessions. For the ally community to achieve its full potential, the community needs to establish the norm that talking about one’s own racially troubling thoughts is an important thing to do.
Such confessions are both good for the soul and good for the movement.