Public Display of Allyship: The Whitewashed PDA

-Shreya U.K.

On a seemingly ordinary Monday evening in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a white police officer was filmed kneeling on the neck of a black man for over eight minutes despite his agonised cries, “I can’t breathe!” While the onlookers protested, the other three officers at the site remained stern and unfazed. Just like that, forty-six year old George Floyd, accused of buying cigarettes with counterfeit money, died a seemingly extraordinary death. Except that there was nothing unexceptional about it. The scene was all too familiar. The blatant butchery of black lives is an eerily mundane reality, intricately weaved into the American fabric that tries but fails to tuck away its uneasy history of race relations.

Yet the murder of George Floyd has lit a fire that set the country ablaze. Thousands have taken to the streets, including an astounding majority of white Americans, comprising 61 percent of protesters in New York, 65 percent in Washington and 53 percent in Los Angeles. These unprecedented numbers encapsulate a gradual yet progressive change in attitudes, specifically among the younger, college educated Americans. This is evident in the recent Monmouth University poll where 71 percent of the white respondents recognised racism and discrimination as a “big problem” in the United States. A poll by Pew Research Centre further revealed that white liberals feel more positively towards blacks, Latinas and Asian than their own kind (Harmon and Tavernise). 

However, the growing acknowledgment of systemic oppression does not necessitate an understanding of its complexities. To equate the two is the white liberal’s greatest folly, frequently captured by the current movement. Only a glimpse of media coverage would reveal countless images showing white protesters screeching slogans, breaking windows, burning vehicles and vandalising buildings. Local officials across the country report white agitators instigating violence as black activists either condemn or calm them. Such rampant hooliganism not only tarnishes the many peaceful protests in and beyond the U.S. but also focalises white actions and intentions, subverting the black strife for racial equality (Patton). In a viral video, we find a black woman urging a crowd of white men to stop destroying public property, “When you do that, they don’t come after you. They’ll come after us!” Alas, even agitators reinforce than resolve the intrinsic tensions among their intersectional identities. 

When not rioting and looting, we find many – if not all – white ‘allies’ engaged in whimsical symbolism. In one demonstration, a white man allowed four black men to kneel on his body. At another, white protesters staged a ‘mass die-in’ where they laid on yoga mats, almost carolling Floyd’s last words inside brightly coloured chalk outlines (Patton). 

Fig 1: Protestors staging a die-in during a protest on Boston Common. Source: David Abel, et. al., Boston Globe.

This fetishisation of black suffering is at best ignorant and at worst, narcissistic. Is imagining dead white people the only way to delegitimise state sponsored violence on people of colour? Can we not humanise black lives without an assertion of white precarity? In an interview with Washington Post, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza renders these ‘momentary art pieces’ meaningless, “Don’t say you can’t breathe, because you can breathe just fine. You live in communities with clean air, with water you can drink likely from the tap. You can jog with earphones and a hoodie on, and no car is going to drive up on you and perform a citizen’s arrest or shoot you. Nobody is going to bust in your house performing a raid and shoot you while you’re asleep. Roll up that yoga mat up and get to business. Withhold your money until you see some progress instead of performing black death.” (Patton) 

These mechanical, superficial and largely redundant remedies to deep-rooted racism unravel something far more dangerous than inaction and/or ignorance; white guilt. White guilt epitomises the realisation and repentance of “ill-gotten advantage” juxtaposed with “inevitable gratitude” for being white – and not black – in a civil society. It features in personal interactions and policies, as a feeling as well as a phenomenon; uncovering a white need for redemption – “not true redemption…but the appearance of redemption” – that heightens entitlement among the whites rather than development among the blacks (Steele 499). Take the example of the recent surge of posts, stories, and videos by white celebrities and influencers ‘checking’ their privilege. Why now? Have they just stumbled upon four hundred years of bigotry? Will their activism surpass the fickle lives of hashtags? Many of these efforts may not be insincere or ill-intentioned. Nevertheless, simply apologising for inheriting social and racial capital represents a strange kind of self-hate that demands immediate validation from the black communities for being a Good White Person. That too, while preserving the very status quo that produces and perpetuates power imbalances; an institution that cannot be dismantled without coddling and cushioning white innocence – for questioning the same would be treacherous – subjecting the black mind through psychological exhaustion and moral colonialism (Eddo-Lodge 7; Shelby 506). 

This white guilt often originates from a sense of empathy, one that discerns racism as an experience outside of oneself, exclusive to people of colour. The word ‘ally’ accentuates the same detachment, envisioning the white liberal outside of an all-encompassing system. As if, they are oblivious to and unaffected by a society built on the enslavement of racialised hopes, ambitions, desires, and bodies. As if, all of this is not their problem. Rather, white liberals are almost convinced that they are the problem. That their sheer introspection can and would save blacks from their misery, obliterating centuries of inequalities and thus, absolving their not-so-wretched selves from collective guilt. 

This strange self-importance in fact emerges from the utter lack of a recognisable self. For whiteness in America has always been invisibilised as the normal, the unmarked and the unnamed; embodied by an individual and not a race (Frankenberg 1; Tatum 100). Culture and traditions are something that the Other has. The whites, on the other hand, can only claim “capitalism, apple pie, baseball, imperialism, reality TV, oppression and brute force.” (David and Forbes 65) This ‘Great White Assumption’, in the words of activist Theodore W. Allen, homogenises European-Americans into a monolithic category, characterised by the absence of characteristics (23). As a result, white Americans grow up with a vague notion of ancestors, heritage, and history, believing that “[their] colour is the absence of colour. [Their] culture is the absence of culture. [Their] identity is comprised mostly by what it is not.” (David and Forbes 68)

Such elusiveness only underlines that the white race is not innate but invented; particularly fabricated as a response to the Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 so as to splinter labor solidarity between the African-American and European-American workers, by instituting a structure of racial privileges. This development was – and still is –  not only detrimental for the former but also the latter, who has drastically distinct class interests than that of the ruling elite. Therefore, to hail and uphold white supremacy is not only fallacious but also futile; especially for the working class, irrespective of their colour (25). Contrary to popular belief, white privilege is a white problem but that is not why it must be solved. Instead, it must be eradicated because the resulting racism impedes a just society, which should be a good enough reason for non-blacks to be more than allies; to be active, aware and accountable.

Race and racism is thus experienced by all – whites and blacks – but distinctly, disparately. This is where we need political, not performative, solidarity; such that acknowledges – instead of antagonising – the inescapable ethnic, racial, sexual and cultural discrepancies among communities united in the reinterpretation of race relations. According to political scientist Juliet Hooker, political solidarity is a “normative orientation” as well as a “practice”, of trust, obligation and reciprocity among “democratic strangers” for the flourishing of long term egalitarianism (23). 

Such solidarity demands more than just checking up on black colleagues, joining anti-racist book clubs and posting #BlackOutTuesday. These anatomised actions must be accompanied by donating to relevant organisations, funding black businesses, signing petitions and initiating a dialogue on race among family and friends. Otherwise flooding the inbox of that one black friend, reading the works of black writers or uploading a black screen on your Instagram only indulges comfortable, self-aggrandising patterns of white activism, barely unsettling the foundations of injustice. “When things get real – really murderous, really tragic, really violent or aggressive – my white, liberal, educated friends already know what to do,” claims writer Tre Johnson, “What they do is read. And talk about their reading. What they do is listen. And talk about how they listened.What they do is never enough.” (Johnson)

This time, however, is different, largely in terms of scale, composition and urgency. With unparalleled reach of social media, significant numbers from all corners of the world have contributed time and money to the ongoing anti-racist movement. Along with protests in almost all continents, many partook in donations, petitions, awareness, reporting, resource-sharing and political artwork, starting from Oslo in Norway to Karachi in Pakistan. What is furthermore promising is the strong white support in a struggle that is otherwise led and limited to coloured communities. “Black and brown people have been resisting, uprising, and protesting in this country for centuries,” writes professor Savala Trepczynki in Time Magazine, “If that were enough, it would have worked already.” Here, she iterates the indispensability of white participation, provoking us to reimagine privilege devoid of exclusivity, apathy and entitlement; an ambitious endeavour that would be impossible without white people earnestly investing – individually and institutionally – in the ceaseless confrontation of their inherited and internalised whiteness. 

Consequently, whites must foremost take the blame, for their and their forefathers’ (in)actions. Regardless of their supposedly minimal to nil connections to Europe, the slave trade, the African chiefs, the middle passage, the textile mills of Manchester, the cotton fields of Mississippi, the governors of southern states or the still owed ‘emancipation’; because despite one’s degree of involvement, whites indiscriminately have and continue to benefit from all of the above (Baldwin 2). Only when white liberals stop denying their unearned legacies and accept their histories, can we move past public displays of allyship to substantively reconstructing the future of a global society. 

To do so, we must first stop excusing, embroidering and justifying the past, because this very past persistently and profoundly plagues our present. This is a crucial project; more so pressing in the age of globalisation where flexible accumulation, contract and part-time work, transfer of production and distribution to the Third World nations, has not only internationalised capitalism but also an American notion of whiteness. With no place on Earth entirely free from the clutches of the white diaspora, people of colour have no choice but to radically alter their social landscapes (Leonardo 32). This is precisely what we witness today, a will to defy and deconstruct the rise of a neo-imperialistic, “multinational” whiteness that only overwhelms the obnoxiously opulent pockets of the global bourgeoise. The consequent efforts, nonetheless, must be collective, continuous and constructive. As of now, we still have a long way to go. 

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6 thoughts on “Public Display of Allyship: The Whitewashed PDA”

  1. One of the best articles I have read in Ashoka as a black international student. There is quality in this and agree with most of the views. Please keep us busy with such quality and make us more engaged in such crucial matters that actually really matter to all and sundry.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Clinton. We are glad this article resonated with you, and will do our best to ensure that our forthcoming articles remain just as pertinent as this one.

  2. Seriously, just speechless. One of the best articles I have read so far on both interpersonal and institutional racism. An eye-opener indeed!

  3. Jasper Coutinho

    Amazing article. So well written, and on a method of racism I never fully actualized before this. A complete eye-opener; keep doing the good work, the writer deserves immense credit for exploring this theme so well. Best of luck for your journal!

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