Spectra Speaks: Our Voices, Our Stories, Our RevolutionSpectra Speaks: Our Voices, Our Stories, Our Revolution

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

"This is me not caring."

“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.

Comments

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    • :) 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!

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

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

  3. Vegetarian Cannibal  /  May 30, 2013 at 7:06 PM Reply

    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. :)

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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).

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

    • 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.

    • 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!

  9. Corey Lee Wrenn  /  June 1, 2013 at 5:22 PM Reply

    Great article, lots to think about, thanks for writing

  10. 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.

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  12. The Wifely Person  /  July 23, 2013 at 11:38 PM Reply

    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  /  July 30, 2013 at 8:52 AM Reply

        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.

        • 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.

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    • 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 :)

  14. 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.

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  16. 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.

    • 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

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  18. 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/

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