How To Be An Ally: A Guide for Woke White People, White People Who Want To Be Woke, and WOC Who Can Empathize
As a black woman who finds herself in primarily white spaces, I often feel silenced. There are always white people who invalidate my struggle, even in places that should be safe for me. WOC (women of color) are often told not to generalize when talking about a societal issue. We are asked to censor our speech in order to make oppressors comfortable, and not attacked, even when we shouldn’t have to. And if we don’t censor ourselves, we are immediately silenced.
Although silencing is the easiest and most blatant form of oppression to point out, it is not the only way WOC can be oppressed. Deeming us ‘exotic’ by pointing out our bodies and hair textures, saying we are pretty or smart for a WOC, appropriating our cultures- these are all examples of microaggressions against us.
Because of white privilege, many white people don’t even think about it when they oppress POC (people of color). It just happens. Certain behavior is just embedded in American culture. This isn’t an excuse though. When made aware, everyone should try to make spaces safer for POC, specifically, WOC.
Here are a few statements by anonymous WOC on times they have been unintentionally oppressed by white people, and how to avoid oppressing them and be an ally:
1. Reverse racism isn’t real.
“HAVING A WHITE MALE COMPARE AND EQUATE OUR STRUGGLES WAS COMPLETELY BAFFLING TO ME. HIS INCAPABILITY TO ADDRESS WHITE PRIVILEGE AND NOTE HOW DIFFERENT OUR EXPERIENCES WERE SPECIFICALLY BECAUSE OF RACE (NOT EVEN MENTIONING GENDER YET) WAS RIDICULOUS. IT WAS EMBARRASSING. GOING TO A PREDOMINATELY WHITE SCHOOL WAS AWFUL. WHEN ISSUES WERE BROUGHT TO THE ATTENTION OF ADMINISTRATION NO CONSEQUENCES WERE TAKEN AGAINST THEM. YOUR TEACHERS MAKE YOU BECOME A REPRESENTATION OF YOUR COMMUNITY AND EVEN WHEN YOU TALK ABOUT ISSUES FROM YOUR COMMUNITY, THEY ARE DISREGARDED AND WATERED DOWN AS “NOT BEING THAT BAD”. THEN BEING LABELED AS AN ANGRY BLACK WOMAN BECOMES A VIABLE REASON TO COMPLETELY DISREGARD WHAT YOU’RE SAYING. SO THEN WHEN YOU’RE TALKING WITH SOMEONE ABOUT SOCIAL ISSUES, IT’S LIKE “OH I HAVE TO CHECK MY ATTITUDE”. BUT THEN YOU HAVE AN ANGRY WHITE MAN YELLING AT YOU, AND EVERYONE JUST AGREEING WITH HIM. IT’S LIKE YOU DON’T MATTER. YOU JUST DON’T MATTER. WHITE WOMEN OUT VOICE YOU WHEN YOU TALK ABOUT INTERSECTIONALITY BECAUSE THAT DOESN’T HELP THEM. IT’S EXHAUSTING, CONSTANTLY DEFENDING AND SAVING MYSELF IS EXHAUSTING” – BLACK WOMAN
Racism is the oppression of a people systemically. In the US, POC don’t directly benefit from this system. We have no power to oppress people, especially not white people. The American system was literally built to benefit white people, specifically white men, only. You cannot call a WOC racist when she talks about her oppressor because she has no power to oppress you. She has right to generalize because the power of white people is a key factor in her struggle. Calling a WOC racist is not only just wrong, but a method of silencing. Stop being offended when a POC says something about white people. Instead, take notes on how you can not do what is upsetting that said POC.
2. We are not exotic. We are beautiful.
“ONE DAY I HAD MY LUNCH AT SCHOOL, AND I HAPPENED TO SIT WITH SOME WHITE FRIENDS. THEY WERE SUPER NICE AND TALKING TO EACH OTHER AND THEY STARTED TO TALK ABOUT BODIES. I AM VERY INSECURE ABOUT MINE AND DIDN’T WANT TO TAKE PART IN THE CONVERSATION. BUT I WAS LISTENING TO WHAT THEY WERE SAYING, AND I DEFINITELY DID NOT MEET THEIR STANDARDS OF BEAUTY. I TOOK OUT MY LUNCH AND ONE OF THE GIRLS LOOKED AT ME IN DISGUST AND SAID, “YOU’RE EATING ALL OF THAT???” I FELT SO EMBARRASSED AND ENDED UP NOT EATING MY LUNCH. THEY THEN PROCEEDED TO TALK ABOUT HOW MY DIET PROBABLY HAD TO DO WITH MY HIPS AND BUTT. I LEFT THE TABLE AND TO THIS DAY I HAVE NEVER TAKEN REGULAR FOOD OUT FOR LUNCH.” – LATINX WOMAN
“I THINK AROUND 9TH GRADE IS REALLY WHEN I STARTED TO BECOME CONSCIOUS OF MY RACE AND HOW IT AFFECTED MY LIFE. AND NOW, LOOKING BACK, THE WAYS I WAS SILENCED WERE ALWAYS SUBTLE – PEOPLE SAYING THINGS LIKE “YOU’RE THE WHITEST BLACK PERSON I’VE EVER MET” AND “YOU’RE NOT EVEN BLACK” JUST BECAUSE I WAS ARTICULATE AND EDUCATED. OVER TIME, I STARTED TO REALIZE THAT THOSE THINGS REALLY MEANT SOMETHING ALONG THE LINES OF “YOU ACT LIKE WHAT I WAS TAUGHT A WHITE PERSON SHOULD ACT LIKE, SO I FEEL MORE COMFORTABLE WITH YOUR BLACKNESS.” AND FOR A WHILE I BELIEVE I INTERNALIZED THESE COMMENTS AS VALIDATION IN SOME TWISTED WAY. NOW THAT I’VE BECOME MORE EDUCATED ON THESE ISSUES HAPPENING TO THE BLACK COMMUNITY AS A WHOLE, I CAN SEE THE SAME PATTERNS IN HISTORY WITH THE “HOUSE NEGRO” AND THE “FIELD NEGRO”. IT’S TAKEN ME A LONG TIME TO REALIZE THAT PROXIMITY TO WHITENESS, EITHER PHYSICAL OR OTHERWISE, IS NOT EQUIVALENT TO MY SELF WORTH, AND I THINK THAT SEEMINGLY SUBTLE INJUSTICE IS SOMETHING THAT MORE PEOPLE NEED TO KNOW IS DEHUMANIZING AND TAKES A LONG TIME TO UNLEARN.” – BLACK WOMAN
The box braids of black girls are not eccentric. Latinas are not ‘spicy’ because of their bodies. Asian women are not submissive. Our stereotypes do not define us. Our features should not be put to the side of the spectrum of beauty and intellect. We don’t have to try to accommodate Eurocentric standards. Don’t assume we are trying to be white. It’s insulting to imply that the closer to white we get, the better off we are. We are beautiful the way we are, and don’t say that we aren’t. If you’re going to compliment us on a feature specific to our race, don’t ostracize it. Welcome and support us as WOC. Don’t try to make us something we are not.
3. We are capable.
“SOMETIMES IT’S FRUSTRATING TO BE THE ONLY BLACK PERSON IN AN ALL-WHITE ENVIRONMENT. WHEN I PLAY AT AUDITIONS AND GET A HIGH SEATING IN GROUPS THAT I PLAY IN, I CAN SEE THE PUZZLED FACES FROM STUDENTS AND PARENTS. I THINK TO MYSELF “WHY ARE THESE PEOPLE LOOKING AT ME SO MUCH?”. THEN I LOOK DOWN AT MY HANDS AND MY MELANIN REMINDS ME. I’M UNDERESTIMATED A LOT. I REMEMBER ONE GIRL TELLING ME “I’VE NEVER MET A GOOD BLACK VIOLIN PLAYER!” IT HURTS TO KNOW THAT PEOPLE FOCUS ON YOUR SKIN RATHER THAN YOUR SKILLS, BUT I NEVER ACT LIKE I’M OFFENDED. I DON’T NEED TO. I JUST LET MY RESULTS DO THE TALKING.” – BLACK WOMAN
“IT WAS MY FRESHMEN YEAR OF HIGH SCHOOL, AND AS A LITTLE BLACK GIRL COMING FROM A PREDOMINANTLY BLACK SCHOOL LOCATED IN WHAT PEOPLE CONSIDER THE “HOOD” OF CHICAGO, I DIDN’T GO INTO MY HIGHSCHOOL WITH THE BEST EDUCATION. I RECALL BEING IN MY FIRST PERIOD CLASS OF WORLD STUDIES AND MY TEACHER ASSIGNED US TO WORK IN GROUPS. MY GROUP CONSISTED OF ME AND TWO WHITE GIRLS AND ONE WHITE BOY. I DON’T REMEMBER THE EXACT TOPIC THAT WE WERE TALKING ABOUT, BUT I DO REMEMBER PRODUCING, WHAT I THOUGHT, WAS A GOOD IDEA AND I SHARED IT WITH THE GROUP. DURING CLASS, THEY ALL PRETENDED I HAD A GREAT IDEA AND WE ALL CONTRIBUTED TO MY IDEA ON A GOOGLE DOC TO TURN IN TO OUR TEACHER. IT WASN’T UNTIL I GOT OUR GRADE BACK, A 73℅, ON OUR PROJECT THAT I REALIZED THAT THEY HAD CHANGED EVERYTHING WE DID IN CLASS WITHOUT MY INPUT. INITIALLY SEEING THIS SCORE WASN’T WHAT BROKE MY HEART, IT WAS THE FACT THAT THEY CHANGED ALL MY HARD WORK WITHOUT NOTIFYING ME OF DOING SO. IN MY MIND, THEY THOUGHT THE LITTLE BLACK GIRL FROM THE “HOOD” DIDN’T KNOW WHAT SHE WAS TALKING ABOUT AND THAT REALLY HURT ME. IT ACTUALLY MADE ME FEEL INFERIOR TO THEM BECAUSE IT PUT ME IN THE MINDSET THAT I WASN’T SMART ENOUGH TO COMPETE WITH THEM AND I DIDN’T BELONG AT THE SCHOOL. AFTER I SPOKE TO MY PARENTS, THEY INSTILLED IN ME THAT I’M IN THAT SCHOOL FOR A REASON, AND TO NOT LET ANYONE STEER ME AWAY FROM MY PURPOSE. I THEN GAINED THE CONFIDENCE TO CONFRONT THEM AND ALSO GO SPEAK TO THE TEACHER ABOUT MY GRADE. DURING THE CONFERENCE, I EXPLAINED TO THE TEACHER MY INITIAL IDEA AND HE AGREED WITH ME. HE TOLD ME MY IDEA WAS PERFECT AND IT FIT THE THEME PERFECTLY. HONESTLY, MY SATISFACTION CAME NOT FROM THE TEACHER’S WORDS, BUT FROM MY GROUP MEMBERS STUMBLING OVER THEIRS TO EXPLAIN WHY THEY CHANGED OUR INITIAL WORK. WATCHING THEM STRUGGLE WITH THEIR WORDS GAVE ME A SENSE OF SATISFACTION BECAUSE IT SHOWED HOW AS A BLACK GIRL COMING FROM THE WEST AND SOUTH SIDE OF CHICAGO, I WAS CAPABLE OF KEEPING UP WITH THE WHITE CHILDREN WHO HAD ONCE HAD AN ADVANTAGE OVER ME.” – BLACK WOMAN
“SO MY MATH CLASS LAST YEAR WAS MOSTLY WHITE MALES, AND IT WAS REALLY HARD TO CONTRIBUTE AND PARTICIPATE. BEFORE I COULD EVEN START TALKING, THERE WAS ALWAYS THIS SENSE THAT I WAS GOING TO BE WRONG ANYWAY. THAT COMBINED WITH THE FACT THAT I WAS THE ONLY WOC AT MY TABLE STRESSED ME OUT. IT MADE IT HARDER TO ASK FOR HELP WHEN I NEEDED IT.” – BLACK WOMANI’ve been told I’m pretty or smart “for a black girl” too many times to count. There are so many preconceived notions that come with being a WOC. White people become surprised when we accomplish things that are out of the ordinary in terms of what society expects us to accomplish. Our expectations are always set low, and it’s offensive. Don’t put us on a lower level. Don’t be astonished when we excel. Don’t ask how we were able to obtain certain resources. Instead, treat us as viable opponents and peers. We might not be systemically privileged, but we can do what you can and more.
4. Speaking for us isn’t helping us.
“IN MY SOCIOLOGY CLASS WE WERE DISCUSSING WHY HUMANS TEND TO STAY WITHIN THEIR COMFORT ZONES. SPECIFICALLY, WE WERE TALKING ABOUT THE INSTITUTION OF MARRIAGE AND HOW PEOPLE ARE MORE LIKELY TO DATE WITHIN THEIR RACE, CLASS BACKGROUND, LEVEL OF EDUCATION, FINANCIAL BACKGROUND ETC. BECAUSE IT’S A HIGH SCHOOL SOCIOLOGY CLASS AND FOR MOST OF US THE IDEA OF GETTING MARRIED IS UNFATHOMABLE, WE STARTED TO DISCUSS THE WAYS IN WHICH KIDS AT MY HIGH SCHOOL HAVE VERY HOMOGENEOUS FRIEND GROUPS. FOR A REASON THAT ESCAPES ME NOW, I TRIED TO EXPLAIN WHY ALL THE BLACK KIDS STAY TOGETHER IN THE LUNCHROOM. I EXPRESSED THAT IT’S MUCH EASIER FOR ME AS A BLACK PERSON TO TALK AND JOKE WITH OTHER BLACK PEOPLE BECAUSE I ASSUME THAT THEY WILL LAUGH WITH ME, RATHER THAN USE ME OR MY IDENTITIES AS A PUNCHLINE. I ALSO EXPRESSED THAT COMING TO MY HIGH SCHOOL’S AFRICAN AMERICAN CLUB MEETINGS FELT LIKE COMING HOME AFTER A LONG AND TIRING DAY OF WORK. SUBSEQUENTLY, ONE OF MY WHITE FEMALE CLASSMATES EXPRESSED THAT THE REASON STUDENTS- AND HUMANS IN GENERAL- TEND TO CONGREGATE WITH PEOPLE WHO ARE LIKE THEM IS BECAUSE HUMANS ARE INHERENTLY LAZY. INSTEAD OF TAKING THE TIME TO “EXPLAIN OURSELVES” TO PEOPLE WHO MAY NOT SHARE OUR EXPERIENCES, WE’D RATHER JUST TALK TO PEOPLE WHO KNOW OUR STORIES. IT’S LIKE WHEN I TALKED ABOUT MY FEARS OF BEING HURT BY NON BLACK PEOPLE, SHE COMPLETELY TUNED OUT. SHE INTERPRETS MY PRECAUTIONS AS “LAZINESS” WHEN IN REALITY IT’S A DEFENSE MECHANISM – SPECIFICALLY FOR PEOPLE LIKE HER.” – BLACK WOMAN
“AS AN ASIAN YOUNG WOMAN AND A FEMINIST, SOMETIMES I FEEL A LITTLE SCARED BY WHITE PEOPLE VOICING THEIR OPINIONS VERY BOLDLY. I WANT TO BE ABLE TO BE VOCAL. DUE TO THE FACT THAT I’M ASIAN, PEOPLE MAY EXPECT ME TO BE QUIET AND SUBMISSIVE BECAUSE THAT’S A HUGE STEREOTYPE OF THE ASIAN RACE. I WANT MY STORY TO BE TOLD BECAUSE I AM APART OF THE MINORITY. I DON’T WANT WHITE PEOPLE SPEAKING ON MY BEHALF. IT’S DEFINITELY NOT FAIR WHEN SOMETHING I HAVE TO SAY ISN’T CONSIDERED AS IMPORTANT AS WHAT THE WHITE PERSON HAS TO SAY. A LOT OF PEOPLE DON’T UNDERSTAND HOW RACISM FITS INTO FEMINISM, AND WE NEED INTERSECTIONAL FEMINISM TO FIX THAT. THERE ARE TOO MANY PEOPLE WHO CONSIDER THEMSELVES FEMINISTS BUT FAIL TO INCLUDE PEOPLE OF COLOR.” – ASIAN WOMAN
“I’VE FELT SILENCED BY WHITE WOMEN, SPECIFICALLY WHITE FEMINISTS, WHO REFUSE TO LISTEN TO WOC IN CONVERSATIONS ABOUT INTERSECTIONALITY. IT’S AN ALLY’S JOB TO LISTEN, LEARN, AND UNDERSTAND THEIR PRIVILEGE NOT TO TAKE OVER OR HIJACK A CONVERSATION ABOUT ISSUES THAT DO NOT AFFECT THEM DIRECTLY” – BLACK WOMAN
“WHEN WHITE PEOPLE ACT LIKE THEY KNOW MORE ABOUT BEING A BLACK PERSON THAN AN ACTUAL BLACK PERSON, IT MAKES ME FEEL LIKE I’M NOT EVEN WORTH THEIR PITY BECAUSE THEY ‘KNOW MORE ABOUT MY EXPERIENCE THAN I SHOULD’. SO, THEY DON’T HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT THE THINGS I WORRY ABOUT. SINCE THEY ARE ‘SUCH EXPERTS’, I AS A PERSON WHO IS ‘LESS EXPERIENCED IN THEIR IDENTITY’ AM NOT ABLE TO TALK ABOUT WHEN THEY ARE BEING RACIST OR MISOGYNOIRISTIC.” – BLACK WOMAN
No one can understand and explain the struggle of a WOC but a WOC. We are the most oppressed people in this country because of our races and sex/ gender ( I say this to be trans-inclusive). When white people try to explain our struggles or act as though they are more familiar with them than we are, they are completely invalidating our struggles. Also, do not dismiss our struggles as though we are exaggerating when we express our frustration. Just because you may not experience it, doesn’t mean the struggle doesn’t exist. For us, these struggles are reality. If we can’t even claim our oppression, then what is our worth? We cannot be spoken for. We have to speak and advocate for ourselves. Speaking alongside us and showing support is different and much appreciated.
5. Acknowledge your privilege, and use it for the better.
“ONCE I WAS TALKING WITH A FRIEND OF MINE WHO WAS WHITE. SHE WAS PISSED OFF AT PEOPLE SPEAKING UP ABOUT PREJUDICE AND RACISM AT SCHOOL. SHE SAID THEY DIDN’T APPRECIATE THE ALREADY LIBERAL ENVIRONMENT. I TRIED TO EXPLAIN TO HER THAT PEOPLE HAVE TO SPEAK UP ABOUT THINGS OTHERWISE NOTHING WILL GET BETTER. SHE INSISTED THAT IF THEY WERE UNHAPPY THEY COULD JUST LEAVE. I TRIED TO EXPLAIN THAT PEOPLE SHOULD NOT BE DRIVEN OUT BY PREJUDICE. SHE IS NOT A BAD PERSON AT ALL, SHE HAS JUST NEVER HAD TO DEAL WITH RACISM AND HER SILENCE IS CONSENT TO PREJUDICE.” – LATINX WOMAN
“OUR SCHOOL HAD A BLACK LIVES MATTER “PROTEST” DURING THE AFTERMATH OF THE MICHAEL BROWN SHOOTING. MY PHYSICS TEACHER MADE A COMMENT ABOUT HOW SHE WAS GLAD NONE OF US DECIDED TO JOIN IN THAT NONSENSE. A BOY AGREED AND A CONVERSATION ENSUED ON THE MATTER. AS THE ONLY POC IN THE ROOM I FELT AFRAID TO SAY ANYTHING, BUT I DID. I TOLD THE BOY THAT THE REASON WAS VALID. NON-WHITE PEOPLE GET KILLED AND DO NOT GET PUNISHED BECAUSE IN THE US BLACK AND BROWN LIVES DO NOT MATTER. THEY DESERVED TO BE ANGRY ABOUT IT AND THEY DESERVED JUSTICE. HE TOLD ME THAT THE BOY WAS BUYING CIGARILLOS AND ASSAULTED THE CLERK. I SAID,”YOU MAKE NO SENSE. SO YOU ARE SAYING THAT BECAUSE HE STOLE LESS THAN EVEN $5.00 WORTH OF MERCHANDISE THAT HE SHOULD BE SHOT AND KILLED” I HEARD THE PERSON BEHIND ME SAY “CHILL OUT, YOU AREN’T EVEN BLACK” WHILE THE TEACHER CHANGED THE SUBJECT BACK TO PHYSICS BECAUSE SHE FELT IT WAS GETTING TOO INTENSE, AND “SOMEBODY’S FEELINGS WERE GOING TO GET HURT” – LATINX WOMAN
White privilege is an advantage in this society. It allows white people to receive opportunities that POC would not be able to obtain easily. A lot of the time this privilege allows white people to remain comfortable, ignorant, and sheltered from social issues that are thrown in our faces inherently. If this privilege is acknowledged, white people can use it to advocate for POC. Instead of reveling in privilege and compromising the comfortability of a POC, use it to make spaces more safe. It’s a weapon we don’t have. When used correctly, it can be useful. Privilege can be used to stop the silencing of WOC. If someone interrupts a WOC you can say, “Hey, ___ was talking”. You can use privilege to call out other white people for their microaggressions and disrespect of WOC/ POC.
6. Educate yourself and be consistent.
Intersectional feminism is not a fad. It’s not a trend. In order to be an ally, it is important that you remain politically aware (woke). It is important that you are educated enough to assist marginalized groups that may need help advocating for themselves because of systemic oppression. You can’t drop the movement. Consistency is key. We cannot drop the movement because it is a fight for our lives. You shouldn’t either. A good way to educate yourself is to listen. Listen to WOC. Try to understand our struggles and support us.
Listen to us. Fight with us. Create safe spaces not just for POC, but for WOC. Be an ally.