March 24, 2019
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For white allies of Black Lives Matter, good intentions aren’t enough

I recently shared an article on social media in which a #BlackLivesMatter activist outlined feelings of discomfort with white allies, particularly at protests and related actions. Despite often good — sometimes confused — intentions, the author argued, white involvement can be problematic.

Sometimes white anarchists show up and shift attention and activities toward what they have identified as just targets. More often, and more personally for the author, whiteness itself is a reminder of the brutality of the white supremacy to which #BlackLivesMatter ultimately is responding.

I shared the piece because I believe that being supportive to a movement requires listening. Listening can be uncomfortable, but it’s beneficial to understanding how to be most helpful. Much of the piece resonated, from having seen white protesters be condescending with suggestions, be eager to receive attention and to expect some degree of affirmation for their participation.

I don’t support #BlackLivesMatter because I want affirmation or because I want to “help” people. I do so because the movement is, at present, one of the most active and engaged recognitions of the lasting negative experiences faced by people of color in this country.

Confronted with responses like this in the past I have felt uncomfortable, but that discomfort pales in comparison to the discomfort of the author. Feeling uncomfortable when realizing that the things I once accepted as truths might be built on shaky ground — that the Civil Rights Movement is behind us, that Martin Luther King Jr. was the sole voice of that movement, that all we need to do is to join hands and give peace a chance — is, for white people, a temporary inconvenience and one that passes. It is not perpetual structural and psychological warfare. It is not seeing family and friends get killed by police with no authority. It is not seeing the nation come together for tragedies involving law enforcement but not for people who look like me and live experiences similar to mine while many write off my anger, sadness, rage and lower life expectancy by going out of their way to remind me that, actually, #AllLivesMatter.

I know that every good intention in the world does not stop my presence from triggering a reminder that the same systems that disproportionately set me up for success — or at least do not actively try to wrest opportunity from me — do not extend to all.

That is outside of my power, but at the very least I can know and acknowledge it and offer my support in a context that is most useful. Showing up at a rally is the bare minimum of human response and support I can offer. I don’t expect to be celebrated for it. The real power I have is to challenge the systems in which I am comfortable, from which I benefit disproportionately — and to do it because it is my moral obligation without the expectation of getting high-fived.

It was not surprising to encounter some white objections to the piece I shared. Some wrote it off as racist; others suggested it’s hard to believe Martin Luther King Jr. writing such a thing. Such responses reinforce the author’s proclaimed discomfort.

It’s why I am choosing to not link or reference the specific piece here — because I don’t want the vocal minority of hostile readers to take out their identity-fueled hot takes on the original author. Setting people up in that way, after all — to be inundated with more hate and ignorance — is no way to be an ally.

A gay friend responded to the piece in this way:

“I feel the same way about straight people who work in LGBTQ advocacy. It can be very exhausting to work with them, especially because you know that their heart is in the right place but they often end up being extremely condescending and overbearing.”

Specifically, this part of his response stood out:

“Non-minorities often think that they deserve a cookie for doing the right thing. It’s a little ridiculous.”

Good intentions aren’t enough, which is a good thing. Remaining comfortable, listening and stepping outside of a comfort zone are more important than, say, throwing temper tantrums on the internet.

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was a teenager. He’s an owner-partner of a Portland-based content production company and lives with his family, dogs and garden in Cornish.


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