Attention White Queers: The As in Anti-Racism Don’t Stand for Ally, Either
In recent years, I’ve seen a lot of posts and Twitter commentary on how insidious it is when folks claim that the “A” in LGBTQIA (an alphabet soup I’m not too fond of in the first place) stands for “ally.” All these commenters make good points about why allies shouldn’t get a cookie or claim allyship as an identity, as well as about asexual erasure. I too find it frustrating how corporate white gay America, institutionalized in various forms such as the high school gay student organization, equates being an ally with actually being a GSM, often defining “ally” only as someone who vaguely supports “gay rights” and shows up at queer events from time to time. But I’m even more frustrated when I see some of the same white queer folks who make these points about how ally is not an identity that gains you membership into the queer club try to simultaneously position themselves as allies in another space—the space of anti-racist organizing and conversation.
Yes, there is a role for white folks in anti-racist work. But we don’t belong front and center. We don’t get to name ourselves “allies,” or claim membership to a club simply because we manage to have a bit more humanity than our white siblings in naming and shaming racism. Simply by virtue of being white, we are part of a brutal genocidal culture, and no person of color should have to give a reason for wanting space away from us, or for wanting us to step back in anti-racist movements.
The problem gets worse when it comes to the lukewarm claims of “I’m not racist” (hint, anytime you have to say this, you are in fact being racist) or “but what about the white people?” around criticism of white queer culture. I was taken aback when I realized that I actually know a few white queer folks who support the disgusting, racist, trans-erasing, whitewashing abomination of a film project known as Stonewall based on grounds like “hey, there were white people there too! What about their stories?”
Answer: NOBODY CARES.
I don’t believe that anyone should be allowed to call themselves part of the queer movement when engaging in this kind of behavior. When you call yourself an “ally” to people of color in one breath, and then turn around and refuse to acknowledge the centrality of black trans and Latinx voices in a critical historical moment for the queer movement, you are anathema to this movement. You are participating in the very erasure, de-centralizing of narratives, and cultural genocide that is the definition of racism. You wouldn’t put up with this kind of thing if straight/cis “allies” to the queer movement tried to erase queer people from our own histories, so why the fuck is it any different when we’re talking about race?
Now, I suppose there’s also another important question at play here, which is, if not allies, what IS the role of white folks in anti-racist movements (including such movements within the queer community)? I can’t answer that question, because it’s not my role to do so as a white person, but I’ve been thinking a lot about it, and reading a lot of black and brown folks’ thoughts on the subject to come to an answer for my own work.
I have something of a position of power and privilege as a writer and speaker. As I’ve focused on racism in queer communities over the past few years as a particular interest and focus of my activism, I’ve started to wonder what role I should actually play. One natural conclusion of this focus is that the most appropriate role is silence. In some ways, I’ve tried to engage this by pulling back from public speaking engagements and more “spotlight” positions. I’m far from perfect here, of course. I’ve made the conclusion that the best direction for my career isn’t to achieve greater and greater fame, because I don’t want one more white person in that position, but I still love to write and I’ll probably continue to participate publicly as an activist for some time in that capacity. I have no doubt that I will make mistakes often, let narcissism or a desire for attention overshadow the right answer from time to time, and need to constantly evaluate my own work in the context of racism and whiteness.
The reality is that pulling back is hard. I think sometimes as white people, our reaction to an initial awareness that we are racist is “what can I do to make this go away, as quickly as possible?” We look for a panacea or a pill, something to quickly “cure” racism and in doing so take the focus away from our bad acts. We don’t want to address the reality of actually living day-to-day for the rest of our lives as problematic subjects—as people who are constantly complicit in genocide and who at the very least stand as symbols of a racist culture in all our achievements. This is tough to live with, but it is also necessary, I think, if we are to be humble and realistic about the role of race.
I don’t know how to fully cure my own narcissism and enjoyment of being noticed when I do activist work. For now, the main avenues I’m starting to take or am already actively taking include suggesting people of color as alternatives when invited to do major work, donating financially to and signal-boosting the work of people of color, and focusing on working primarily with white peers in my anti-racism work so that people of color aren’t stuck with the burden of education. This last one is of course tricky, because white people cannot be the experts on racism, but my working theory is that it’s a necessary evil that can be addressed at least in part by immersion in the written work of people of color and by constant openness to correction by people of color.
For those who are considering similar questions in your quest to avoid identifying as an “ally” and instead focus on doing anti-racist work out of the spotlight as a white person, I’m curious what conclusions you’ve drawn about your own role in the movement. And of course, I’m always open to criticism on these thoughts from readers of color who are interested in offering feedback!