February 13, 2017
White allies have a long history of centering themselves in Black-led racial justice movements and telling leaders how to protest. In 1964, during Freedom Summer, a number of White participants often showed up to explain to Black organizers and community members what should be done. In the late 1960s, during the Black Power era, collaboration between liberal Whites and militant Blacks was nearly impossible due to white guilt and paternalistic attitudes toward the demands of Black activists. Time, U.S. News and World Report, the New York Post, and other White media outlets characterized the Black Power movement as a radical attempt to establish violent Black supremacy over Whites. These interracial tensions were on full display at the 1967 Convention of the National Conference for New Politics when Black and White revolutionaries met in Chicago to overthrow the existing “power structure” of the country by “creative disorder.”
We are seeing history repeat itself once again, as a number of political pundits and White people, on social media and elsewhere, have been calling out the Black Lives Matter movement for being, in their word, “divisive.” The characterization of the movement probably stems from the fact that it is diffuse, meaning that there’s no explicit place or structure for White people. “While this is a good thing for the most part,” writes Collier Meyerson in Fusion, “it has made their participation complicated and bred a type of well-meaning but sometimes problematic White ally” who can be tone-deaf and harmful to the movement.
Last week, in Canada, a White man named James Di Fiore—a self-described freelance scribe, political pundit, “happy stay-at-home daddy,” and “White ally”—wrote a Huffington Post piece calling for the Toronto chapter of Black Lives Matter to “martyr” one of its leaders—Yusra Kholgari, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, Toronto—asking that she resign because he doesn’t like her choice of words, which he deems “hate speech” against Whites. Yes, he feels entitled to tell Black folks how we should express our rage and lead a movement we’ve created.
His essay suggests— with his condescending, smug fragility masked in fauxrage—that his and other White allies’ support for the movement is not contingent upon an intuitive sense of morality and justice for all, but from Black folks gaining validation from White people and making sure they don’t feel “alienated.” Di Fiore writes, “Now, normally my white skin would admittedly preclude me from even suggesting that a black activist should hang up the megaphone, but Khogali has made a habit of directing violent, hateful language towards people with white skin, so much so that I feel comfortable calling her out. She once mused that just by having white skin, white people are sub-human. She tried to qualify that statement by saying white people did not have a high amount of melanin, which prevents them from absorbing light, and with it a sense of moral clarity. Now, maybe if this was her only controversial statement all could be forgiven, but this is a pattern of hate that can’t be ignored any longer. In April 2016 Khogali tweeted ‘Plz Allah give me strength to not cuss/kill these men and white folks out here today. Plz Plz Plz.’”
Di Fiore is tone-policing, language-policing, and whitesplaining—while simultaneously acknowledging and justifying the latter: “And to be honest, I really don’t care if this comes off as ‘whitesplaining.’ That’s a word designed to get white people to shut up about important issues. It’s part of the lexicon among some activists that doesn’t serve the greater good, which is supposed to be justice and equality for everyone.”
The problem is that people like Di Fiore, despite claims about supporting racial justice, are still invested in a biological notion of race, rather than a relation of domination. As one of my academic friends reminded me, whiteness is tied up in relationships, so when someone says, “White people suck!” they hear “Your German grandmother is an asshole and your French Dad is a fuckface and your childhood was a lie!” Which is why they take it so personally.
That’s what people don’t get about “white fragility” and “white tears.” White people aren’t getting upset because they feel some affinity with whiteness as a racial construct, but because white references family and loving relations. So to call into question white privilege and call for the end of whiteness is to call their existence, their families, their friendships, and their power into question.
Respectfully, it is time for James Di Fiore to throw his pen out the window, sit on the snowy ground in a stadium full of empty seats, and wait for Black Jesus to return his proverbial soul to the light and warmth of the African sun. Because his call for Khogali to resign smacks of classic White paternalism; he wants her gone because she doesn’t fit into his idea of what a “good” Black activist should sound like. She’s not playing according to the script in his head, so therefore she must be discredited and banished from the movement.
Yet, Di Fiore isn’t really the issue; the problem is bigger than his piece or his attempt to determine the direction of Black Lives Matter in Toronto. In fact, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about white people like James Di Fiore in his 1963 Letter From A Birmingham Jail:
“I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’”
I have no patience or sympathy for Di Fiore, who is trying to maintain White supremacy, unwittingly or not, by scrutinizing one activist and deeming her unfit or a serious threat. By framing Khogali and her words as the problem, he’s re-centering his needs; he’s too focused on what will persuade White people who somehow need to be sold on Black Lives Matter with the right packaging. But the stakes are too high, the issues are too much about life and death, for us to focus on what will inspire Di Fiore or other faux or fickle supporters to resist White-supremacist aggression.
If White accomplices want to engage in real talk about solutions to racism, listening needs to be fundamental. White accomplices need to recognize the real issues and dangers we face and that includes efforts to silence and mute our rage in the face of state sponsored violence and terror.
The movement for Black lives is not about white feelings, white egos, or fulfilling white fantasies. And our movement for justice and basic human rights does not have to be tailored to pacify or recruit “potential” White allies. We have no use for conditional solidarity.
The truth is that White allies need to do the emotional labor of dealing with the blowback of centuries of racial trauma. If you don’t have an equal investment in relationships with Black folks or other people of color, you need to get use to being reactive and defensive. Swallow it. No one wants to hear that they falling short, that they are the source of pain and suffering, that their advantages and happiness are the results of oppression, violence, and unyielding social death. Yet, if you see Black rage as an inevitable part of a historic transformation, you will not take the raw language tactics and strategies personally. And you will certainly not deem yourself qualified to recommend who should and should not remain in their own movement! Instead, you will hear justified anger, reasonable outrage, and a call to action. The wording isn’t the point— it’s the injustice.
Let’s be clear: This is not about one White man’s shrill attempt to appoint himself large and in charge. This is about Black autonomy and the right of oppressed people to deal with their oppression in their own way. It is about expressing inelegant rage because our lives are on the line. It’s about the fact that the combination of finally coming to grips with history and the open resurgence of White Nationalism and white racism is enough to make anyone use inelegant phrasing.
People like Di Fiore and many other so-called White allies are protecting their sweet deal and don’t want anyone to ruin it, not the supporters of Donald Trump or Black people trying to destroy the White-supremacist super-structure that preserves and protects white privilege by extension. Their definition of being allies is to get Black people to help them fight the right-wing extremists who also threaten their interests. People like Di Fiore are comfortable only in a climate of reasoned discourse, where science is revered and all people are given their voice so long as it is not too loud and discordant and doesn’t make them feel bad.
They are terrified by the White neo-fascists gaining power all over Europe and North America, and they expect Black people to be equally terrified and want the same things. But Black people fight the neo-fascists for different reasons and according to different rules. Which freaks them out. Because angry Black people freak them out! And because the suggestion that Black people are not going to center and prioritize their white comfort above all is incomprehensible to them.
Real progress requires deep emotional labor on both sides. Black people need to heal, while White people need to work through the fact that our existence is predicated on death. That’s some heavy shit, but that’s the work that needs to be done. Get on it and stop complaining about Black rage or not having a seat at the table we built.
Black people have earned the right to be pissed off, especially now. Black movements are complex, multidimensional and guaranteed to move some White people into their feelings instead of into a space of clear, objective thinking that is required of any potential ally.
Attacking the messenger rather than acknowledging the context and truth of the message is part of the dynamic that Black Lives Matter exists to challenge and change. White responses to raw, righteous words function as a litmus test to reveal where folks stand. Are you fragile or are you woke? Are you willing to look in the mirror to check yourself or do you simply want Blacks and other people of color to hold your hand as you prove you are one of the good ones? So-called allies like Di Fiore would be more effective using their skin privilege at a KKK cross-burning or alt-right gathering rather than centering their feelings and judgments in a Black-led movement.
So be vigilant and pay attention to the disingenuous allies around you. When those who should be listening, who should be passing the mic, who should be standing in the way of violence and terror, start policing Black tone, language, and messaging to appoint themselves authorities on our words, our movements and our lives, you’ll know what’s up and how to tell them to GTFOH, out of the trenches with a quickness because we don’t need those kind of White moderates that Dr. King warned us about decades ago. Black people need space to work through some heavy shit. We can't afford to prioritize White liberals’ fears of neo-fascism over confronting our own traumas and challenges.