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Decentering Whiteness in Activism

Somewhere around tumblr, there are posts arguing that the “A” in LGBTQIA should stand for ally, and not asexual. Over the years, I have seen people who identify as asexual mocked and discriminated against for their lack of sexual desire. The clamoring for inclusion of the term “ally” in the ever growing list of letters has always made me very uncomfortable. I have written about my discomfort with the word in the past. In short, being an ally very rarely entails the risk that simply existing as a marginalized person brings. An ally can always leave. An ally can always withdraw. An ally can choose to stop supporting a cause or go find a different group of people supporting that cause. A marginalized person cannot stop being Black, Brown, trans, a woman, or whatever it is that causes them to be marginalized. For this reason, I am very cautious of any male identified person who labels themselves a “feminist,” and yet does not use their platform to uplift women, but instead uses it to silence women who question why they have been granted a position as gatekeeper of feminism.

Last week, Coloradans for Justice, along with other groups, had organized a protest.  The protest turned into a large, unplanned march.  We marched in solidarity with the protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. The march was largely successful, and sparked another smaller protest the next day.

After the first march, organizers of the previous night’s event were alerted to something that disturbed many of the protesters who were out Tuesday night. When protesters chanted “Black Lives Matter,” frequently, they heard the chant changed to “All Lives Matter.”

I was at the back of the group and we were chanting “Black Lives Matter,” but this was a large protest. I believe the many people who came forward to say they heard “All Lives Matter” and questioned the need for White allies to change the chant, especially at such a crucial protest centered on the lives of Black people, and the worth of their lives. In addition, I have since seen people admit to changing the chant and have even been told by one protester that another instructed them TO CHANGE THEIR PROTEST SIGN to “All Lives Matter.”

This sparked an intense discussion on the event page the day after the protest, when the second protest was being planned. Many Black posters gave reasons for how they felt changing the chant to “All Lives Matter” erases their blackness. Many White posters defended their choice to chant “All Lives Matter” for many, many reasons, in spite of being told in many ways by other protesters of many races that changing that particular chant in that particular way erases Black people, and indeed, the purpose of the protest.

Denver is a very diverse city and frequently when Coloradans for Justice has held an event, Kenny Wiley, one of our organizers, will say “Black lives matter, Brown lives matter.” This is because there are many cases of police brutality experienced by the Latino population. I’ve always felt this was a good way to acknowledge the oppression and injustice faced by the Latino community as well as the Black community. I’ve never felt the need for Kenny to throw in a “All Lives Matter” to appease White supporters.

While there are certainly White victims of police brutality, there are far more Black and Brown victims.  We have seen time and time again that even holding something that appears to be a weapon is enough to justify the death of a Black or Brown person. Holding a toy sword. Holding a toy gun. Holding a toy gun in the toy gun aisle of Wal-Mart. Doing these things while also NOT BEING WHITE is enough to get you killed and your killers will go home and sleep well that night. Not only that, but the mainstream media will jump to the defense of the police officer/s who shot you while your family has yet to see your body.

If you’re going to use the word “ally” and you’re going to show up to protest in solidarity with a group of marginalized, oppressed people, you need to be prepared to take a seat. Usually it’s a backseat. This should not be an issue. While your presence, the visibility of your skin and gender, can be a powerful statement, your words may not be needed. You are able to send a message just by showing up. This is also something a marginalized person cannot do. When marginalized groups show up to protest, the media is quick to say they are rioting, while when White people actually riot, it is called terms like “spirited.” Oppressed people destroy symbols of oppression. Non-oppressed people fuck shit up over a sports team’s victory or loss.

Decentering whiteness and working to dismantle White supremacy takes a lot of work, and to be honest, a lot of that work is learning to be silent or how to amplify the voice of the person you are supporting. It doesn’t mean your opinions aren’t valid, but they simply may not be needed at that moment. Save those opinions and speeches for when you are talking to another non-marginalized person who doesn’t believe what oppressed people are saying. Your words have power. Your words have merit. Use them when they are needed. White people, especially men, are used to being heard. We are used to having our opinions be given equal weight simply because it is a White person saying it. We do not realize this is a part of White privilege. A big part of White privilege is the ability to be ignorant that you have privilege. People of color are used to having to shout, and even then, have their voices ignored. White people who are unaware or still fighting awareness of privilege do not believe that people of color have to fight, because they, as a White person, do not have to fight. Please believe me, people of color have to fight.

I’m going to give an example of a time when I chose to stay silent in order to decenter my whiteness. I’m not doing this for activist cred, I am doing this to give White people an example of how to really support a person of color whose voice needs to be heard:

I was at the last Denver Sheriff’s Department reform meeting. These meetings are run on a tight schedule. Statements and questions are kept to under 2 minutes, and they only allow a certain number of people to speak at all. I had raised my hand and was in line to ask my question. Frankly, I already knew the answer to my question, but I wanted to get them to say it out loud. Two other people were set to follow me. A White man, and a young Black man.

The moderator announced that only the first two of us would be able to ask our questions, that they did not have time for the third person. Of course, this meant that a young Black man would not get to ask his question. I saw the young man’s shoulders slump. It was obvious he was very disappointed. When the moderator turned to me, I said “I’m actually going to pass, because I would like this young man to get to speak, because I feel what he has to say needs to be heard.”The White man in line also elected not to ask his question, in favor of the young Black man speaking. We had each given up our time in order to give a young Black man an opportunity to speak. By doing this, and not demanding we be heard, we decentered Whiteness from that conversation.

It was the right thing to do. The young man spoke of his mistreatment at the hands of the Denver police force, both as a young teen and as a young man. What he had to say went beyond what the other man and I had to say.

I didn’t know that young man, but I had a feeling in my gut that if three White people had been in line, all three of us would have gotten to ask our questions. Indeed, the look on the moderator’s face when two White people declined to ask our questions so that a Black man could be heard, was priceless.

After the forum, I talked with the other man who had elected to not ask his question so the young Black man could be heard. He was also an organizer who has done work against racism in his community in North Denver. I wasn’t surprised to hear this because it is always unusual when you see a White person step back to give a Black person a chance to speak.

If I am talking to other White people, I should talk about dismantling White supremacy and the need to decenter whiteness. I can talk about the centuries of structural oppression that has resulted in such high numbers of incarcerated and dead Black and Brown people in the United States. I don’t need to talk to people of color about their lived experience of oppression. If I am in a group where people of color are discussing race, I have already been given a gift. I have been given an opportunity to learn. They don’t need to learn about me. Generally, when this happens, it is because I am with people of color who know I will not insert myself into their discussion. As a White person in a Black or Brown space, I need to be aware that I am here to learn, and generally have little to teach.

What if you have questions? First, ask yourself, “Could I Google this?” if the answer is yes, don’t ask the question. This is especially important in online discussions because asking for an explanation while someone is already giving information can derail the conversation. If someone quoted someone and you didn’t catch the name and would like to read some of their work, then ask after the conversation has ended and if that person is open to questions. If the conversation was deep and the person you want to ask seems troubled or needs space, respect that. Their need for space is more important than your need for a quote at that moment.

I don’t call myself an ally. I will say “I support this cause,” and then do my best by showing up as often as possible and doing what needs to be done. A lot of my work with Coloradans for Justice is clerical and supportive. I get permit paperwork done. I make Facebook events. I write emails. I write press releases. I canvass. I bring snacks and I make sure the amp is charged and the bullhorns have batteries. I make protest signs with generic sayings for people who want to hold a sign. I bring supplies for people who want to make a sign. I take pictures and video, and then upload it. I tweet. All of these things are things that need to be done in order for protest events to be peaceful and effective. All of these roles are activist actions. This is a part of my activism, and I find it rewarding to see people holding my signs, making signs, showing up and knowing it’s because I talked to them online or in the street. All of this is a huge reward, even if it is not a public reward. It is all the reward I need.

When we are talking about Ferguson, we often say “this is a movement, not a moment.” In order for the movement to be maintained, there need to be more White people willing to take a backseat. To do the clerical and supportive work. To bring the activist cookies. There are a ton of things White people can do to further this movement, including talking to other White people. Black and Brown people do not need to hear about how oppressed they are and how much White supremacy sucks from White people. I promise you, they already know.

Tired.

It has been a long 10 days since I responded to @KennySWiley’s tweet asking if there were people in Denver interested in organizing a National Moment of Silence. At the time, I was on my break at work, reading about the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Like many people, I felt helpless. Like many people, I felt tired. The killing of Black people in the United States by police, security and vigilante justice, as well as the incarceration of so many inside the Prison Industrial Complex is genocide. This is not new. This has been going on for centuries.

So I responded. When someone asked if I’d done this before, I said no, but there was a first time for everything. Thanks to my years of working as a secretary, as a customer service rep, and as a nurse, I have learned you can get a lot done quickly if you have the determination, the support, and the time to make things happen. Thanks to the advice of and work of complete strangers on Twitter, I was able to help navigate the process of finding a space for the NMOS. It was the work of many. We called to the community, the clergy, and Denver responded.

Last Thursday, and tonight, at the Denver March for Justice, I heard many people talk about how tired we are. And some people don’t like that language. We are full of energy. I agree, I am full of energy. Being out of college and having free time made it possible for me to take a part in co-organizing these events. For that opportunity, I am grateful. But I admit, I am also tired.

I am tired of ideology that Black people are disposable. I am tired of the killing of my Black neighbors. I am tired of the loss of these fathers and mothers and sisters and brothers. I am emotionally, spiritually, mentally exhausted. Every 28 hours, another Black person is killed by police, security or vigilante justice. I am no where near as tired as the members of the Black community. I cannot fathom the level of exhaustion felt by people for whom waking up and going about their day is a revolutionary act.

I spend a lot of my time tired. I’m a nurse. I work nights. I frequently have to move my sleep schedule around. But I have found the more tired I am, the more I can accomplish. I call this “being a special kind of tired.”

I am tired. I am the kind of tired that forces you into action. The kind of tired that demands you find caffeine and push forward. I am the kind of tired that tells me I will not really rest until I work to make change happen. I am the kind of tired that fuels effort and change. I am that special kind of tired you become when you have been pushed to your limits.

The world has pushed me to my limits. As Kenny said, I have moved past the point where blog posts and twitter posts and arguing with my relatives on Facebook is sufficient. I must act.

Tonight I had the opportunity to take a member of the march home to Longmont, Colorado. This man, who marched in Selma, Alabama in the 1960’s, talked to me about his years of activism. The injuries he has received, the injuries he has cared for. Being in the Civil Rights Movement, he learned the skills of a field medic, and if he was not marching, he was caring for the injured. He shared his poetry. He told me about people I will never see in a history book.

He is tired. He has been tired for years. But he keeps going. He keeps pushing. He is that special kind of tired.

Never assume complacency from a tired person. Yes, we are tired. But it is this deep emotional, spiritual exhaustion that has pushed us to action. Many people have reached this state of exhaustion and are moving. We cannot stop moving. We must push forward. One day, there will be real rest. There will be time for enjoying the sun and the grass and the sky. A good book. But for today, our exhaustion is fuel.

We are tired, but we are not out of energy. We are exhausted, but we will not rest. We are going to change the world, and that requires a special level of tired to get the work done.

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