“You only know my name. You don’t know my story…” 

Afrofeminism: The What vs. The How

I’m often asked to elaborate (and in some cases, “define”) afrofeminism. I’ve spoken about how afrofeminism informs my work, explored themes about Love and Afrofeminism series on this blog, and I regularly share afrofeminist perspectives on current affairs and pop culture with my fans on Facebook.

From the work that I do and from the things that I say, I’ve seen quite a number of people over the past year or so been calling themselves Afrofeminists. In fact, just very recently, someone sent me a letter thanking me for offering her a new way to think about her own identity. She asked permission to call herself an afrofeminist because she dug my approach and could relate to most of my commentary, even though she actually had no idea what it meant! It turns out that connecting with people — or even inspiring them — doesn’t start and end with what you are but who you are.

So have I put forth a single definition? No. A single definition (of a single label, among many others I might add) wouldn’t actually help anyone get to know me. I rarely introduce myself using labels; I tell stories, instead… about growing up in Nigeria, about the first time I fell in love, and about the friendships my coming out broke then repaired. I’m so much richer experienced as a complex, whole being than as a cluster of politically correct, ideologically pure sentiments.

“Hi, my name is Spectra, and I’m an afrofeminist”? It would almost feel like cheating: here’s this cute little label that sounds like an amalgamation of afro and feminist, meaning she must have an afro and she must be feminist, and somehow that’s supposed to serve as a shortcut for people to actually get to know who I am. And then, I‘m supposed to gather in large numbers with people who dig the afro and/or the “feminist” and because we totally understand each other, we’ll be better equipped to change the world. Ha! That almost always backfires.

(Don’t believe me? Ask the white “women’s” movement. They still can’t seem to agree on what being a woman means, and are constantly up in arms about which women are being represented, silenced, side-lined etc. Meanwhile, non-women/everybody else is getting away with murder while women are figuring this out).

Straight Allies, White Anti-Racists, Male Feminists, Blablabla

Now don’t get me wrong; labels can be very useful in facilitating initial connections. But people get so hung up on them, activists especially. And as a society, we’ve become so narrowly focused on the theoretical “what” at the expense of the practical “how” of creating change, we’ve forgotten that change happens primarily through our personal relationships, not just passionate rhetoric.

The use of identity labels (the “what”) to build unity and shared understanding often sidelines the need to actually explore complexities and difference i.e. just “how” said identities intersect and manifest in different contexts; since a single word can carry so many subjective meanings for different people, movements are often stumped or stunted the minute they realise that not everyone’s “how” is the same or — even worse — not even functioning.

The Curious Case of “Allies” In General

If my detest for words and definition stems from anything at all it’s the “allies” I’ve experienced in both my personal life and my work as an activist. I’ve met hundreds of “white allies,” for instance, many of who profess their “consciousness” via some digital channel (e.g. an overly serious twitter bio or utopia-inspired vision statement) or, in person, via some self-congratulatory speech masquerading as a relevant anecdote… especially when surrounded by women of color.

“We white allies have so much work to do,” they’d go. “Women of color shouldn’t always have to be our teachers.” When I first heard this tune, it was music to my ears, and oh boy did I fall for it. It worked every. single. time.

“Oh my god, yes!” I’d exclaim, “Wow – truth! You’re seriously my favorite person right now!” (‘Cause it was my turn to offer music to their ears.) In retrospect, I realize that many of my initial responses to white allies were pre-programmed — a socialised reaction to ensuring that white women never lingered too long in their vulnerability without affirming their “goodness.” I resisted any responses that would risk making white people feel wrong–or exposed–in their self-righteousness. In fact, making them feel like they needed to *do* anything at all to earn my trust and respect as a woman of color always felt more like a risk than an opportunity. So I’d find myself dishing out exaggerated, empty, endorsements, couching my emotions in the elation I felt at even just the idea that a segment of white people had taken it upon themselves to give a damn about me.

But, here’s the thing: half the time, I never ever remembered their names, or remembered any of our conversations moving beyond the scope of the burden of racial consciousness they had taken up for themselves as “the good white people.” In fact, it took me quite a while to figure out that most of the “white allies” I’d meet in social change spaces (never – NEVER – at work, or at the grocery store, or in my regular every day life) were only ever “white allies” around women of color, and mainly to seek my/our approval.

I’ll never forget this one time a “white ally” had offered to volunteer at a professional networking event I was hosting for women of color a few years back; she’d insisted that she wanted to “do her part in supporting queer women of color community” by showing up and offering her help. She justified this act of good will with all the right rhetoric too: women of color rarely get this space, as a white ally I’m happy to do labor etc. Honestly, I felt so relieved and grateful for her support. I had no idea that her “help” would become my burden for the entire duration of the event.

It’s as though the minute she walked in, all eager and ready to be put to work, she realised that there’d actually be no more than a handful of white people at the event, and became really uncomfortable. “Oh wow, I’m one of the few white people, here…,” she said awkwardly, as she set down her bag and coat, “So cool.” [Replace with "Fuck! I'm not ready for this."] So what did she do? This seemingly racially-conscious, well-meaning white ally followed me around like a nervous baby duckling for the entire event.  Yup, the entire event. She was so nervous about being left on her own to mingle and – god forbid – socialize with any of the women of color at the event, that she didn’t give me a single moment to have conversations with anyone else but her. Over 100 women of color attended my event that evening, and I don’t think I was able to really connect with any one of them because I had an over-eager, jittery, nervous white girl all up in my business every single minute.

I learned very quickly that being a “white ally” had nothing to do with how I, as a woman of color, needed them to show support when it mattered. Shoot, it was in a conference room of “white allies” that I found myself on the verge of tears (of anger and frustration), my voice shaking as I tried to explain to a privileged white gay dude that doing community outreach to people of color for a program that claimed to be advocating for diversity wasn’t a “distraction.” The “white allies” in the room sat back and watched the carnage as I pushed, and I fought, and I fell back, defeated. Then the “white allies” came to me after the meeting was over and denounced their brethren — “privileged white guy, he needs to do a lot of work on himself.” Apparently, being a white ally meant reminding women of color that they weren’t “those kinds” of white people, that they had our backs, just only ever in private, conveniently away from any of the actual emotional work involved in standing up to racism.

But here’s an afrofeminist principle for ya… “Relationships Over Rhetoric”

Don’t get me wrong — not all people who identify as “allies” do such a terrible job. I know dozens of self-identifying “allies” who hold themselves to a much higher standard, and actually practice their values. (Stay tuned, I’m running a series of interviews with them in June!). That said, terming oneself an ally doesn’t necessarily imply this standard. Some of my closest friends and family are the fiercest “allies” I have, but they’d never call themselves that. They’d insist, instead, that they’re being considerate, trying to get to know me better, or, as one of my best white guy friends says, “resisting against the default of being an asshole.” And you know what? I prefer it that way.

Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I’d rather experience people–and their politics–through unlikely, awkward, strained, challenging, beautiful relationships built over time. That way, when we do clash or differ, we love each other enough to express the full range of our raw emotions – cry, yell, storm out – and always return to build the deeper, more intimate connections we need to take on the world together, truly united.

When someone fights for me, I want them to do so because they care about me as an individual – or as someone who reminds them of someone else that they care about – not just as some abstract theoretical concept. I’d rather that the “white allies”, the “straight allies”, the “male feminists” of the world do the work to build authentic relationships based on real love and respect, not just politically correct lexicon and rhetoric.

So, despite starting off as an activist who was really excited about the concept of “allies”, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found less use for words and definitions in social justice; labels like feminists, anti-sexists, radicals, allies etc simply don’t mean much to me anymore. Though I certainly see these ideas/concepts as a way of connecting with others initially, ultimately, relationships that last aren’t sustained by what you are to each other, but  how you treat each other.

Falling back on words and phrases that are intended to convey some sort of ideological purity won’t ever trump the transformation you’ll  experience within yourself (and others) if you truly put yourself out there — if you dare to be vulnerable, admit wrongs, take responsibility for your blind spots, hold your damn self accountable, an not for show, but for real.

So, screw the definitions; experience the ideas and world views through the relationships we build with people. Let’s commit to living in principle, and remain mindful of the core values that help us navigate our lives in the gray. Let’s embrace ambiguity, and its potential for unearthing surprise and disappointment in equal measure, because only through the natural bombardment that arises when we converse with strangers, can we learn more about the world, and about each other.

76 Responses to Straight Allies, White Anti-Racists, Male Feminists (and Other Labels That Mean Nothing to Me)

  1. I'm glad I read this. It's something that's incredibly uncomfortable for all but needs to be said. Thanks for taking the time to articulate it. :)

    • Yes! It is SO uncomfortable. For everyone involved. I didn't even want to publish because I was getting so wrapped up in the feelings of shame, awkwardness, potential backlash that would come from inadvertently tripping up people's egos. But it needs to be said. At the heart of my work/writing is my belief that people want to do better. And we can only support each other doing better if we're honest. White allies aren't the only people to blame in the pathology described above. As someone who had cosigned/condoned, not spoken up when I needed to, I let people believe (or at pretend to believe) that they were actually supporting me in the way that I needed. As a woc, I said to myself one day, no more. But I know not everyone is there yet. Placating white people is still a necessary reality for many people (especially when we think about how much more power white people have, and the implications of upsetting someone who isn't ready to confront their privilege/ego e.g. at work!). But anyway, thank you for reading, and for your comment. I really appreciate the engagement.

  2. Melissa Carson Cooper says:

    Thank you, so very much for this. It could not have come at a better time for me. I have called myself a feminist for such a very long time but the past six months I have been wondering about the label, the movement, and what it actually means for me. I very much like you believe that it should never be about the label but the story behind it..

    After researching the western feminist movement I have to say it leaves a lot to be desired as it stands today.. I will always honor the men and women who worked to get women to where they are today but I now just call myself a gender egalitarian.

    I have come to understand that the western movement is not a united front and is not as inclusive as they portray themselves to be. The many women that are double and triple minorities are told they should be loyal to being a woman first and their ethnicity and sexual orientation second.

    I first started following your blog last summer when I was State Director for UniteWomen.org. I resigned my position after only three months.. It was my observations of the movement from the inside and your blog that helped me to start looking beyond the labels.

    I wrote a paper for my English class last year talking about labels within feminism and their influence on unity. For that paper I cited your blog that talked about your speech you presented on April 28, 2012 for United Against the War on Women and how you felt after that speech. I want to thank you for your thoughts, and stories.

    • Wow, Melissa Carson. I had no idea. It sounds like you've been on quite the journey! I'm encouraged to know that my writing was part of that journey in some small way. Thank you for affirming my work by letting me know how it's shaped your own thinking. That means everything.

  3. Mary Margaret Bowen says:

    This is a powerful read. So many ideas here to absorb & think about.

  4. Nicole von Horst says:

    YES YES YES! Have been thinking about labels a lot recently, mostly in terms of how ones deeds can conflict with ones political self-identification – your words fuel my thoughts and move them around. Thank you.

    • :) Thanks @zarachiron:disqus. I hadn’t even intended to write this. It was supposed to be an introduction to something else. I sat down to write and just went in this direction. (And what I was actually supposed to publish is still in drafts haha). Shows that sometimes the most important work/writing is the one that’s driven by spirit and subconscious. Thanks for reading — it was long!

  5. Wow. This was a tough read for me. But I am glad I forged through. There I go, patting myself on the back for just showing up.

    I especially liked your hit on being old-fashioned and experiencing people. that is what I have come to see as the real stepping stone, rosetta stone too, maybe, to moving forward.

    I am no longer going to be an "ally" or "feminist" or "afroirishblahblah". I'm going to be me and get to know you. Together, we'll figure this shit out and have big laughs trying.

  6. Sylvia says:

    Great article. Thank you. I guess we are all still finding our feet. Having an honest opinion like this one helps a lot.

  7. Regina Christianson says:

    I just predicted that this article will be required reading in colleges and seminaries. I'll do what I can to promote it. This is important.

  8. Mary Ann Kaiser says:

    Love this article – thank you! I have long thought of labels as a way to sort of push-back on systems, in just naming things as they are and using them as a reminder of problems, and I have thought of any label-critique as a sort of fear- based, don't want to deal with the consequences, (of being associated with feminism, anti-white supremacy, queers) approach. But I'm beginning to see the narrow-mindedness of my understanding of any critique and am growing weary of their use as well – or at least, the expectation to stick to one or to have a particular definition to one. Love, love, love, your thoughts on this! Thanks!

  9. Mary Ann Kaiser says:

    Love this article – thank you! I have long thought of labels as a way to sort of push-back on systems, in just naming things as they are and using them as a reminder of problems, and I have thought of any label-critique as a sort of fear- based, don't want to deal with the consequences, (of being associated with feminism, anti-white supremacy, queers) approach. But I'm beginning to see the narrow-mindedness of my understanding of any critique and am growing weary of their use as well – or at least, the expectation to stick to one or to have a particular definition to one. Love, love, love, your thoughts on this! Thanks!

  10. Thank you so much for this. I've been working in one of my grad courses this semester to break down my need to be "one of the good ones" and to stop relying on my ability to say the right, academic, safe things that I learned in undergrad. This piece was an excellent reminder to lean in and dig deep, as I've finally internalized that real, honest human connection is often the most impactful space from which to operate. Looking forward to reading the rest of your work :)

  11. Cathy Kroll says:

    on transcending labels, rhetoric, and categories in favor of seeing those right in front of us…

  12. Ruby Levine says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this. It’s really getting me thinking.

  13. I disagree in principle and theory on the grounds that in my learned opinion, self ascribed labels (and subjectively imparted labels) are divisive by nature, and do nothing in terms of breaking down the well established/recogniszed barriers between productive and healthy human interactions of virtually any kind. Are labels in any way functional? Of course they are, and I have a few of my own- but they are not how I identify with myself, or towards others in referring to myself- ever. For that I have my name, and I happen to be comfortable with the one my parents gave me, and if I want you to know me (or more about me), in fact, I welcome you get to know me, in fact.

  14. Bill Barrow says:

    Since everyone's a unique individual, banding together around some goal and creating labels to approximate what that association means will naturally be an artificial and awkward experience at times for all concerned. Maybe trying on the label is just the first step, a statement of intent, not something that should be seen as having already achieved Enlightenment and comfort.

  15. Jess Miller says:

    This is like a hug and a smack upside the head at the same time. It was exactly what I needed to hear for reasons only tangentially related to any kind of activism, and also is beautiful. Thank you.

  16. Debra Porta says:

    Love this

    • Mitch Gould says:

      Well, this is a philosophically deep piece, and it ought to be pointed out that it operates on the level of relatively advanced activism. Unfortunately, the average person wouldn't even be able to understand what the author is complaining about. The world still desperately needs terms like "strait allies" for the precious few "strait people' willing to even *begin* to assist with gay rights. For a lot of reasons, it's vital that strait allies–even when they're not being of much use–can be clear about their strait-itude. For the other cases of allies, I have no expertise and no comment.

  17. Vegetarian Cannibal says:

    Thank you for writing this…I’m still on the fence. I consider myself a political person. Hell, being queer, black, and female forces me to. And yet I still struggle with words like “activist” and “ally” too. Each person has a different definition, and now I wonder if there even is a right answer. As a child, I internalized words like “social justice” and “activism.” My father was the first in his family to get a college degree and now my younger is a Rhodes Scholar and I am a published novelist. Is that a sort of “activism” in itself? By being visible and loud, I am shouting for queer women of color everywhere. But who can say if that is enough? Who decides these things? Other queer women of color? White people? Activists like yourself? Myself?

    What is the “right” way to go about social activism? Yes, lip service is one thing and proactive dedication is another, and yes, there will ALWAYS be those assholes who jump into the activist arena for the feel-good praise. But then there are also quiet folks who, in their own way, silently work behind the scenes to create change. Not everyone thumps their chest or begs for a gold star.

    Activism is a personal journey. And we should not discourage folks who WANT to contribute since there are still many “isms” in the world to fight. Sexism, racism, and classism are just a few. We can still find ways to foster growth and progressive change by educating potential “allies” rather than blowing them off for not being the ideal activist upfront. I think there are many people who want to help but just don’t know how. But that’s just my two cents. Good blog post, Spectra. :)

  18. This is really interesting! Thank you for bringing all of this up. I have a few questions/confusions, and the caveat is that I know very little so I hope you excuse my ignorance:

    Is it possible that some of this silliness is caused by a bit of a semantic issue? There seem to be two concepts that I feel are distinct (but maybe they cannot be separated). On the one hand, there is some pure ideal about how society should be (these deserve an 'ism' suffix.) These correspond to labels that people should be allowed to wear freely, regardless of their accidental background (is this true? maybe this is bullshit. who am I? where am I? is this even real?). So, for example, instead of referring to myself as a "feminist ally" I usually just say I'm a feminist (that's actually a lie, I usually don't announce anything of the sort unless prompted; it's easier to point out a specific thing that's happening and say 'Hey! Hey you! Stop doing that! That's hurting that other human! Stop it!'). On the other hand, there are traits that are somehow more fundamental, things we didn't ask for, lived experiences we are stuck with (do I get to say we? I'm just some white guy. Who knows…). These should not be free, but should be matters of fact.

    But then there's this question of what the relationship is between a lived experience and a chosen belief system. Surely we cannot deny there is *some* relationship, but it seems like the part making people uncomfortable lives precisely in this spot. Like in deciding how much (any?) automatic expertise we place on someone who has a lived experience. Are the aforementioned 'allies' flawed because they think they know what they do not know? (probably) Or is the flaw more fundamental? Is it impossible for them to ally to an ideal based solely on abstraction whose purpose is highly *non*-abstract, and in fact has to do with people's actual lives. I don't know. I'd like to hope that I might do something to help out people being mistreated that aren't me, but maybe this is an arrogant thing to think? (I'm not being facetious, it's totally a possibility.)

    Of course the next thing I have to do is whine: 'But then what am *I* supposed to do? How can *I* help? It's not fair!'

    And maybe that's the point. Maybe the point is who cares! Who cares about me and my discomfort about the ambiguous nature of my existence. There are more important things going on. Like afrofeminism. (Again, not facetious.)

    Apologies for the ramble. It's unclear if there's any point to be made, just thought I'd share my thinks in case other people want to help me sort them out.

  19. Alicia says:

    Thank you so much for this…I wish I had more to say than that, but you really just put words to a lot I have been grappling with lately.

  20. RoiAnn says:

    LOVE. Thank you. YES. Deciding which stories to share and when to stay silent, standing up and speaking up – everyday challenges – how we meet these is more real than any words we use in our attempts to label ourselves on the right (or left) side of the fence. And your friend’s line “resisting against the default of being an asshole” – priceless.

  21. Hi @3729df472a281cda60e4112316e03682:disqus, thanks for your comment. I believe we share similar views. But I do gently challenge you to review how much of your comment as a “white ally” has essentially attempted to recenter the narrative I put forth as a woman of color a la “let’s see things from the white person’s side.” Newsflash: People of color are always forced to view things from the white person’s side — we’re living in a predominantly white supremacist world. We kinda have to in order to survive. This is why we encourage where should critique, endorse when we should challenge, and take on the burden of politeness even when we’re emotionally triggered… just to make sure we don’t scare or discourage the “well-meaning” white people.

    I hear what I hope is your larger point about everyone being on their own journey. Absolutely. And in this particular case, no, that white person never learned. They still pretty much move in predominantly white spaces. She’s a bad example, but I get that people can have moments like that which wake them up.

    But again, given what I expressed in this post, that you were moved to mainly comment with advice for understanding white people better I think actually highlights some of the issues I brought up in this post, which is this idea that people of color should continue making excuses/justifying white ally behaviour even when it’s harmful/not helpful from the person of color’s point of view (not the other way round).

  22. I really appreciated reading this. I feel like just the notion of labeling yourself an ally is really off-putting, since it seems to me that someone else should decide that's what you are. And, to label yourself an ally to any group as large as women, or people of color, is just immediately untrue since those groups are far from monolithic. I feel like that so often leads to people just "collecting" acquaintances to help them feel less tied to their whiteness or maleness or whatever. I hope we can start putting out there honestly who we are, what we think, and what we feel and allowing folks to identify us as allies if they want to and vice versa.

    Most important for me though, is that I can't imagine anyone that doesn't fuck-up and step out of being an ally. And, if that happens with people that are political connections, you probably just burned a bridge. But if it happens with friends or loved ones, there is some real hope of learning from those moments (even if the bridge is still burned!)

    Anyhow, this is turning into just a bad rehashing of what I got from reading this! Thanks for putting this out there though!

    • Well said, Colin. I agree. I don't think it's very necessary or useful to get preoccupied about the labels we apply to Just Trying to Live in Solidarity With Our Fellow Humans.

  23. mhuzzell says:

    As a general point, I absolutely agree with you — in fact, I came to read this post in the first place because a friend linked to it saying that you’d made some of the same points I’d made to her in conversation a few weeks ago, when I declared that I’m giving up all labels and just going with “ethical”. But in between then and now, my opinion has changed a little bit, and what happened in the meantime is that I visited my (white, American) family.

    The thing about labels — any labels — is that they put you onto a “team”. And I know that it’s pretty basic human group psychology, but knowing the mechanism (that it’s easier to take an action if you feel like you’re doing it as part of a group) doesn’t make it any less powerful. So when your family are literally yelling at you and telling you you hate fun because you called their racist joke racist and asked them not to make it, or that you “ruined Christmas” by “overreacting” to your 12-year-old brother repeatedly using the n-word (because “he’s just doing it to get a rise out of you”), and so on, it helps to be able to tell yourself “this is what it means to be anti-racist” (or “white ally” or however you prefer to put it). It’s hard for people in privileged groups to risk social alienation by challenging others who share their privilege,* especially within their own families, and being able to hang those actions on a label can help lend courage to do that, even if it’s just a psychological confidence trick.

    For the record, I can attest that it still works (for me) to have the internal prod of “calling out racist jokes as racist and braving the blowback is the ethical course of action” — and I think that that is a better way for me to internally categorize that action than “this is part of the anti-racist struggle”, because the latter is a bit aggrandizing. But sometimes it takes a bit of aggrandizing to get up the courage to say something, and I kind of think that if that’s what it takes, then maybe it’s still better than eschewing labels but then failing to call out others within your own privileged group.

    …Although I realised as I started to try to conclude that that it’s probably that very act of internal aggrandizing that leads so many “allies” of various sorts to be so goddamn self-congratulatory and patronizing to the people they’re trying to ally themselves to. So, y’know, fuck it, maybe labels aren’t worth it after all.

    *NB: I am not not NOT saying it’s “just as hard” as living as a member of whichever-relevant disprivileged group; I don’t think that’s a comparison even worth making, though I’ve seen people try to make it (and it always goes horribly awry). Whole different kinds of struggle, there.

  24. BP Markus says:

    This is great, Spectra, and I agree it's something awkward and uncomfortable but it does need to be said. I'm a white woman (my facebook anonymity photo doesn't show it :)) and I think the most important thing you pointed out was… hmmmm how to put it… a of times I think white people somehow want to be or make themselves the center of attention, but maybe realize deep down truly challenging white dominance means they'd lose the privilege they enjoy. I have seen this happen, where conversations where privilege comes up, people of color suddenly have to cater to the hurt feelings of whites. Et cetera. That probably doesn't sound right, and it's overly general probably too. What I'm trying to say is, you nailed it when you said it's about genuine relationships. If you call yourself an "ally" but only socialize with white people in your day-to-day life, that's a problem.

  25. Radi says:

    Thank you for writing this, Spectra. I’m a woc (originally from India), and reading and understanding your perspective on allies has been an eye-opener. I’m involved in secular activism in my local community, and see the same patterns being repeated here, except that I’m a brown-skinned person in a lily-white group, wanted only inasmuch as I am willing to put up with being the token poc – I apparently don’t rate being actually included and welcomed past empty words.

  26. I wish I could speak to you privately, or at least not on an internet commentary board (though I am sure most would deem this a safe space). This is my first time reading your work and this particular article has sent my brain into a sort of a tailspin of thoughts and emotions ranging from my own difficulties wading through the sea of labels (and prejudices) to define my own amorphous sexuality; to recognizing, understanding, and (for lack of a better term) dealing with my own white privilege; to my work on the Troy Davis campaign, which, I had thought I viewed purely from a human rights perspective, but looking back at the racially charged campaign I am wondering if I was a sensitive enough to the racial issues at hand. I'm pretty certain I'm not one of those insufferable white allies who are self-congratulatory and claim to "not see color" (ugh) but I'm also not certain if I am a "good" white ally. Your inspiring call to be a good ally through one's personal relationships is wonderful, but I (sadly) don't have that many friends of color, at least close friends, and going out to specifically seek friends of color seems overwhelmingly problematic…and now I am rambling on and on without probably adding much to the discussion at hand…Well if you have time/inclination to respond in any way, I would be very appreciative. :) Keep up your good work!

    • Courtney Hegert, I appreciate your honesty and openness here. I’m working on a series that highlights advice from other white women about how they’ve been able to navigate some of the complexities you’ve mentioned in your post. Ultimately, it’s every person’s responsibility to take charge of their own personal development (including racial consciousness). And yes, I wouldn’t recommend burdening people of color to educate you, but seeking out relationships with people with diverse backgrounds, because you actually want to get to know them, and for them to get to know you, so that you can learn from them, and that they can learn from you, I don’t necessarily think is wrong – it all depends on how you approach it. If you seek out black friends because you want black friends to make you better, then wow.

      I realise there might be a very fine line here given your motivations, so perhaps these questions would be more helpful: how did you come to meet your other friends? what motivated you to develop deeper relationships with some of them vs. others? Name those motivations. Are they driven by ‘identity’ or some other shared value/interest? In what spaces did you meet those friends? Do you frequent the same spaces? Do you believe that if you explored other settings for meeting people, you would actually meet different people? And, as with any relationship, what do you have to offer new people? Again, who are you? Hint: You’re more than just a white woman. You have interests, likes, dislikes, favorite movies or music, a tale of bad dates to share… be brave enough to be human in pursuit of connections with people different from you, in spaces different from what you’re usdd to, and I think you’ll be surprised.

      • Just found your site through Facebook. I’m looking forward to the series on advice from white women and interested in hearing how you identified and selected the women you interviewed for that project. Did you have specific criteria for determining that they had successfully navigated those complexities?

        Thank you for choosing to publish this piece in spite of your concerns. I have to believe it’s possible for us to discover authentic ways of collaborating and supporting each other.

  27. Annie Menzel says:

    I love this! Philosopher/sociologist Bruno Latour similarly writes of the dangers of the shortcut that academics take when they label themselves or what they do as "critical" (like "critical sociology") from the outset. This is because the label tends to carry with it a pre-formulated diagnosis (have-nots are getting screwed over) that ironically precludes actually listening to the stories that people tell about their own life, attending to the complex picture of exactly how power is working. Plus it feels so automatically virtuous to be "critical!" Thank you Spectra!

    • Hi @3a89aee86a2a3b646b562aa720506631:disqus. I hadn’t made the connection between what I wrote here and the culture/process of academic critique. Interesting. I’ll look up the philosopher you mentioned. Thank you!

  28. Corey Lee Wrenn says:

    Great article, lots to think about, thanks for writing

  29. Emil Skovgaard Andersen says:

    I never understood this whole "allies" concept – I have comrades, and they come in all configurations. I have never defined myself as an ally, I just fight in mutual solidarity with my comrades against a big pile of interlinked social, cultural and economic ills that does a lot of hurting everywhere in a multitude of various ways! No need to make it more complex than that.

  30. Nick Rosoff says:

    Awesome work! You touch on a topic that desperately needs attention and relate it very well to your own experiences. The desire for sucess seems to drive most people to claim titles that are absolutely meaningless. I feel that there needs to be a revolution in values so that a DO something culture replaces the BE something, celebrity worshipping culture that America is mired in. It is not the destination but the journey that truly matters.

  31. Beth Jenkins Stubbings says:

    "Meanwhile, non-women/everybody else is getting away with murder while women are figuring this out." YES.

    But what does it take to get people to work together without wasting time with labels and posturing? The shame and awkwardness you write of as you debated whether or not to publish this post is mirrored in the guilt and nervousness of the "ally" as she tries to help but inevitably puts her foot in it (ask me how I know). I will remember this post as I work to make my actions not only speak louder than my words, but consistently with them.

  32. I'm reminded of one of my favorite lines from "Lawrence of Arabia":

    "With Major Lawrence, mercy is a passion. With me, it is merely good manners. You may judge which motive is the more reliable."

    I like to think I'm an ally out of "merely good manners", though I suppose I'm not really qualified to be the judge of that.

    I was referred to this piece by a friend of mine in the course of a private chat we were having. I can easily appreciate why she holds you in such esteem. I just started following you on Twitter (provided Twitter has fixed their technical issues of the last half hour, anyway!) and I look forward to getting to know you, at least inasmuch as one gets to know someone through such remote distance.

  33. Extremely interesting read. The focus on relationships is a very important reminder I need to have and wish more people would hear. I look forward to reading more from you Spectra. Thank you!

  34. Charhys Be says:

    Spectra, you have said this in a way that refutes ALL deniability while faithfully encompassing the complex corset of emotions I've experienced in social change spaces. I was shushed by "allies" way back when I was still tuning my voice on matters of race, gender and sexuality. What you've shared says it all without apology and without losing the love we seek to draw upon to heal. Thank you, sis.

  35. Havlová says:

    I am so glad you put this out there. And thanks (I guess?) to the white people who decided to use the comments to process their feeeeelings about how haaaaaaard it is to be an ally. For demonstrating Spectra’s point.

  36. Love this article. Completely agree – the emphasis needs to be on relationship, not on rhetoric.

  37. Madeline Morrow says:

    Really great post – thank you for the reminder. I am a white hetero woman, and I will try harder to make sure I am acting as an ally – not claiming to be an ally. I'm thinking the key is doing my own work to ACT as an ally, not defining myself as an ally to avoid the constant work needed to NOT slip back into comfortable privilege.

    • Shirley Worth says:

      What would happen if people did *not* "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" but rather find out what *they* would have you do and do that!

  38. Mira Mickiewicz says:

    This is awesome! But hmmm would sharing it on social media be exactly the words-not-action phenomenon that the article so eloquently strikes against?

    Really good food for thought. Especially thinking about "radical" as not being such a useful term. Radical what? You could be radical about anything and that doesn't mean you're in the same boat with other radicals. Case in point, I suppose.

    Also, I hadn't really thought about this before, but I think one reason I don't tend to use these kinds of labels for myself is that using them somehow implies a steady-state perfection that, at least in myself, is unrealistic. I prefer to try for as many moments of being that kind of person I want to be, and in the end maybe I can look back and decide if I deserve that label of "white ally", "feminist", etc. To me it is all just basic integrity.

  39. Steve Discourse Held says:

    I dig it. I have plenty of memories of times when I DIDN'T stand up and call people out. Those memories, and articles like this, always serve to motivate me to want to turn future experiences into "wins." Its not enough to tally in my mind all the racism/sexism/etc/etc/what-have-you I've seen in my life in order to justify my politics/ ideology/etc, as I am sometimes guilty of. Its disappointing to know that I have had so many opportunities to stand up and didn't. So I think that's the transformation you speak of. I want to be able to say that I did the right thing in those past situations, and since I cannot, that feeds my resolve now to make sure I don't let things slide with little more than my contempt.

  40. [...] thing, nor is it confined to the lobbyists we send to the capitol.  It’s about being more authentic, loving, just, and consistent in our actions, attitudes, and relationships with all people regardless of the marginalized spaces [...]

  41. Jamiey Dale Kelly says:

    This is excellent!

  42. Beqi Brinkhorst says:

    I so agree. My anger at racism comes from one awkward, overemotional, personal place: my best friend of 21 years, who is black and who I have personally witnessed racism toward; her family who treats me as one of their own even as my own family disrespects me; and the people I've met along the way who are good people and who deserve to be treated with respect. I'll stand up and fight for them, and I'll fight for everyone else who's a victim of racism. Because when you love someone you have their back.

  43. Beqi Brinkhorst says:

    So never, ever wonder where my loyalties lie. If you are my friend, even if you are my friend of three decades, and you harbor racist ideas, you cannot be my friend. I'm not neutral on this, and I'm not apt to become so. Because as far as I'm concerned, you don't deserve my or anyone else's friendship.

  44. Beqi Brinkhorst says:

    Part of being someone's friend means not letting your other friends be nasty–directly or indirectly–to them.

  45. Shiloh Lillith says:

    Thank you. I completely agree with you. I am sick of labels. I don't want to be looked at though the prism of my color and I don't want to have to look at anyone else that way either. I want to engage with people as people and not as labels. Right now with what is happening in this world it is especially important not to get sidetracked into PC behavior designed to steer us away from confronting uncomfortable truths.

  46. The Wifely Person says:

    What a fascinating piece. I especially enjoyed being reduced to a label throughout most of the article. Wow. I felt so inadequate, so downtrodden, so reduced to unworthiness based on the color of my skin and… not by the nature of my character. I stopped at a variety to points to examine how poorly I fared within your parameters.

    Until I read the last graph: “So, screw the definitions; experience the ideas and world views through the relationships we build with people. ”

    While I recognize your need to express your point of view, I wonder what you would have said if a white woman wrote this same article and changed “white” to black” in each instance. What would your reaction have been?

    I truly believe that you are absolutely correct in the final analysis and that is what I will take away from the essay. As for the rest of it, you are as guilty of racism as your “white allies.”

    • Here we go… This isn’t a forum for passive aggressiveness or sarcasm. If you’re not interested in learning and are simply here to invalidate and derail, please find another forum to air your grievances about encountering a woman of colour who’s committed to telling the truth. It’s clear you have a lot to learn about white privilege, and I sincerely hope you make that learning possible by cajoling your ego to lay down its sword, listen, reflect, and become a better human being that isn’t just concerned with their own pain, but about helping others heal from their own. I hope you get there some day. I’m just not willing to waste my time to help you do it when you’re clearly not even interested in finding the starting line. Be well.

      • The Wifely Person says:

        Odd, I wasn’t being sarcastic at all. And I felt you were guilty of doing exactly what you accuse me of right now. You neither know me nor what I do nor what I believe, but you lump all white women together because of the color of our skin. Just as women of color are different one from the other, so are your pale skinned compatriots. Had I said what you said in your essay, I most certainly would’ve been branded a racist.. Perhaps from your position, you failed to notice that I agreed with your final analysis. What I objected to was being objectified and labeled. It’s not okay if I do it to you….and it’s not okay if you do it to me.

        Justice, justice, ye shall pursue.

        • Zara Chiron says:

          Miss Wifely.

          There are many insightful articles on this site that clearly demonstrate that Spectra does NOT “lump all white women together”. You were clearly being sarcastic in your comment and to outright deny that just invalidates the rest of what you have to say.

          Every word that you write shows just how ignorant you are of the privilege that you have as a white woman. Go ahead and substitute black for white in the essay – and it would not even make any sense!!! Caucasians in general do not need allies to support their struggle to exist in a world that treats them with dignity and unbiased equality because they are the very ones who have repeatedly behaved in ways throughout history and to date to create this ongoing global inequality in the first place! Inequality meaning, the non Caucasian “compatriots” suffer the consequences and must fight to be seen as equal. That alone renders your cry for racism completely illogical.

          Many men have no clue about what women go through in the sexist world that they have created even if it is staring them in the face, the women are screaming it to them or even when they are the (“oblivious”) perpetrators. The same applies to the average Caucasian who has no inkling about what non Caucasians go through in this “white dominated” world. And this is the truth.

          The truth hurts, but what hurts more is what people of colour have to live through every day fighting to have justice in a world that is inherently unjust and it never helps to have this very real experience undermined and trivialized by a warped paradigm blinded by privilege. As Spectra said, I suggest you look elsewhere if you are not ready to take a step put of your privilege and face the truth.

        • What @zarachiron:disqus said.

  47. [...] is not the be-all and end-all of anti-racist work. I’m willing to talk when they understand that an anti-racist praxis for White people means being vigilant. It means constantly examining your thoughts in order to identify and eradicate racist [...]

  48. Wish Blossom says:

    <3 These words resonate with me sooo much. It's like your expressing all of the thoughts I have a hard time articulating properly. Keep doing what you do!

  49. Elizabeth Howard-Ahern says:

    Just a thought on this interesting article, have you read Donna Haraway's 'Cyborg Manifesto' which challenges ideas of 'naturalism' and 'essentialism' (i.e rejects any kind of universal homogenous feminism) as theories which either exclude women who don't conform to the theory and segregate them from "real women" or represent them as inferior. In so doing she also rejects the idea of identity in favour of the concept of 'affinity' which I find a much more helpful concept when considering the labels that we apply to ourselves and/or each other. As a cyborg (a creature of both myth and reality, both real and not real, artificial and 'natural') does not require a stable, essentialist identity, feminists can instead consider creating fluid and changing coalitions based on "affinity" instead of identity. To ground her argument, Haraway analyzes the phrase "women of color", suggesting it as one possible example of affinity politics. It's interesting reading and might be useful with your thoughts on identity :-)

    • Spectra says:

      Ooooh, this sounds really interesting, Elizabeth. I’m digging the top-line concepts you’ve shared here already. Going to add it to my GoodReads to read at some point. Thanks so much for sharing :)

  50. kittenforever says:

    I just have to say that I agree with all of this, so thank you for putting my thoughts to words more eloquently than I ever could.

  51. Alice says:

    Me: I think this article is full of
    potential to dive deeper into healing (many) divides.

    S: “We white allies have so much work to do,” they’d go. “Women of color
    shouldn’t always have to be our teachers.” When I first heard this tune, it was
    music to my ears, and oh boy did I fall for it. It worked every. single. time.

    Me: It sounds like you were hurt? That you opened yourself up to the
    possibility of a white woman helping (a vulnerable state?) and they let you
    down. How would you define for the reader to distinguish the women who spending
    their time “acting” vs. just don’t know what steps to take and are in new
    social circles that make them feel awkward? What kind of clues would tell us if their heart is in the right place and this is a truly new, awkward situation vs. an ego trip?

    I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around a woman showing up to help is just trying to get her ego fed vs. feeling socially awkward and vulnerable, and was merely looking to you as the host/leader for support. If she just wanted her ego fed, wouldn’t she prance around the room stating her antidote whilst getting her ego fed?

    S: (‘Cause it was my turn to offer music to their ears.) In retrospect, I realize that many of my initial responses to white allies were pre-programmed — a socialised reaction to ensuring that white women never lingered too long in their vulnerability without affirming their “goodness.”

    Me: I’m a white woman from New England and grew up in lower middle class white neighborhoods. Whenever I have found myself around black people I have found refreshing their realness and soulfulness and honestly have always craved it… Seminal
    experiences are the #1 way white activists begin their path and like me some
    whites have to learn that white privilege even exists. My seminal experience came from finding my soul mate in the body of a black man from Mississippi, after moving south to
    Virginia.

    I am the white woman you describe, sitting at the table wanting to befriend black women at a meetup group and feeling vulnerable due to my ignorance. I agree you have
    to be strong enough to feel vulnerability and awkwardness, but what WE do with
    THAT, from THAT point forward is what progresses our cause isn’t it?

    S: I resisted any responses that would risk making white people feel wrong–or
    exposed–in their self-righteousness.

    Me: Why? I’m certain that the many times I’ve been self-righteous I haven’t realized it and if I’m putting myself in your circle then I’m 1) open to change and hearing your input and 2) please ask more of yourself to guide me through this.

    S: “In fact, making them feel like they needed to *do* anything at all to earn
    my trust and respect as a woman of color always felt more like a risk than an
    opportunity. So I’d find myself dishing out exaggerated, empty,
    endorsements, couching my emotions in the elation I felt at even just the idea
    that a segment of white people had taken it upon themselves to give a damn
    about me.”

    Me: Does this express the depths of your vulnerability and hurt? Isn’t also the very thing that prevents progress?

    I think all that matters is people have their heart in the right place and that they are open-minded to learning and growing. All people have to go at their own pace, taking time to chew before it can be swallowed and used to nurture the soul.

  52. Alice Violet says:

    Me: I think this article is full of
    potential to dive deeper into healing (many) divides.

    S: “We white allies have so much work to do,” they’d go. “Women of color
    shouldn’t always have to be our teachers.” When I first heard this tune, it was
    music to my ears, and oh boy did I fall for it. It worked every. single. time.

    Me: It sounds like you were hurt? That you opened yourself up to the
    possibility of a white woman helping (a vulnerable state?) and they let you
    down. How would you define for the reader to distinguish the women who spending
    their time “acting” vs. just don’t know what steps to take and are in new
    social circles that make them feel awkward? What kind of clues would tell us if their heart is in the right place and this is a truly new, awkward situation vs. an ego trip?

    I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around a woman showing up to help is just trying to get her ego fed vs. feeling socially awkward and vulnerable, and was merely looking to you as the host/leader for support. If she just wanted her ego fed, wouldn’t she prance around the room stating her antidote whilst getting her ego fed?

    S: (‘Cause it was my turn to offer music to their ears.) In retrospect, I realize that many of my initial responses to white allies were pre-programmed — a socialised reaction to ensuring that white women never lingered too long in their vulnerability without affirming their “goodness.”

    Me: I’m a white woman from New England and grew up in lower middle class white neighborhoods. Whenever I have found myself around black people I have found refreshing their realness and soulfulness and honestly have always craved it… Seminal
    experiences are the #1 way white activists begin their path and like me some
    whites have to learn that white privilege even exists. My seminal experience came from finding my soul mate in the body of a black man from Mississippi, after moving south to
    Virginia.

    I am the white woman you describe, sitting at the table wanting to befriend black women at a meetup group and feeling vulnerable due to my ignorance. I agree you have
    to be strong enough to feel vulnerability and awkwardness, but what WE do with
    THAT, from THAT point forward is what progresses our cause isn’t it?

    S: I resisted any responses that would risk making white people feel wrong–or
    exposed–in their self-righteousness.

    Me: Why? I’m certain that the many times I’ve been self-righteous I haven’t realized it and if I’m putting myself in your circle then I’m 1) open to change and hearing your input and 2) please ask more of yourself to guide me through this.

    S: “In fact, making them feel like they needed to *do* anything at all to earn
    my trust and respect as a woman of color always felt more like a risk than an
    opportunity. So I’d find myself dishing out exaggerated, empty,
    endorsements, couching my emotions in the elation I felt at even just the idea
    that a segment of white people had taken it upon themselves to give a damn
    about me.”

    Me: Does this express the depths of your vulnerability and hurt? Isn't also the very thing that prevents progress?

    I think all that matters is people have their heart in the right place and that they are open-minded to learning and growing. All people have to go at their own pace, taking time to chew before it can be swallowed and used to nurture the soul.

    • Spectra says:

      Thanks for your input. Please see other comments (and responses) that talk about how white people tend to re-center the narrative on themselves whenever a POC expresses their pain. Sometimes, listening, without justifying the source of that pain is what is necessary. And however good your intentions, a follow up lecture on how POC can be doing more to ‘help white allies along’ only adds salt to the wound. I encourage you, from a place of love, to reflect on that. Best, Spectra

  53. […] indie films about Bosnia so I can think of myself as good despite stepping over homeless people. That protective sheath of self-congratulatory liberalism, buttressed by money, is a real siren call. In a way, I’m thankful I’m too poor to be […]

  54. Hi there, thanks for the affirmation, and asking for permission. I don’t permit reposts. But you’re free to grab a paragraph or two, and add link to my blog for folks to read the rest. Thanks.

    Spectra Speaks
    “Your Voice is the Most Important Part of Any Movement” http://www.spectraspeaks.com/

    Follow Me: Facebook | Twitter
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  55. Tina Marie says:

    Wow. You're great. Add?

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