Anti-racist activism and white 'allies': A conversation with Dr. David Leonard

| January 6, 2014
Photo: {Young}ist

I met Dr. David Leonard, Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, on Twitter shortly after my initial critique of Tim Wise. I was pleased to discover that there existed another white man who was not marketing himself as an anti-racist, but instead doing the work with people of colour, while learning from them and taking after their direction.

Dr. Leonard was gracious enough to collaborate with me on this piece when I was just starting to freelance and has been generous in his teaching. I was most moved by Leonard’s work to spread awareness on Marissa Alexander’s case, which was ignored by both white feminism and so-called anti-racists.

As you know, the concept of the white anti-racist or white ally has been put into question. Why do you think this is? Are these words oxymorons? What is a better word?

I don’t like either of these terms for a variety of reasons. (I am indebted to @Prisonculture, and Mia McKenzie for their important and challenging discussions of allies; @FeministGriote has also offered an important discussion in this context.)

First and foremost, they presume that struggles against injustice are the responsibility of someone else -- those who are subjected to the violence of racism, sexism, homophobia -- and that the "allies" are helping or joining forces with those who are naturally on the frontlines. The idea of white allies also reinscribes the idea that whites have a choice as to whether to fight racism, to fight white supremacy. And while this may be true, it turns any agitation into a choice worthy of celebration. At the same time, it turns struggles against racial violence and injustice to a discussion of "what people are" rather than one focused on what people are doing in opposition to white supremacy.

Secondly, the mere fact that we don’t talk about Black, Latino, Indigenous or Asian American anti-racists, at least with the same public resonance, reflects this idea: people may see anti-racist struggle as organic and natural within communities of colour, which not only embodies this logic but erases the risks, sacrifices and hard work necessary to battle racism. The idea of allies reinscribes this binary, whereupon white allies are seen as doing something different, special and necessary, furthering the privileging of white action.

Thirdly, I also have a problem with the entire focus on defining white people in these exceptional terms. White, yet anti-racist -- these are the ideas that emanate from the labeling. As if participation in struggle or consciousness cancels out whiteness, privilege and position within America’s white supremacist hierarchy. No amount of work cancels out my whiteness, my masculinity, my class status or my heterosexuality; no amount of activism erases the power and privilege generated because of white supremacy.

Fourth, the whole white ally or white anti-racist concept works against two fundamental values that serve as my foundation: accountability (indebted to Jlove Calderon for her work), and the work. Labels are about fixed identities as opposed to the work. Labels are about differentiation from others and work to position one as above accountability -- "I am ally don’t question me." The notion of being an ally supersedes the necessary space of accountability.

As whites engaged in political work, justice work and work that challenges white supremacy, we must be accountable to the struggles for justice, to communities of colour, to organizations on frontlines and to the work being done. Whenever I hear someone talking about being a white ally because of their involvement in this action or this published piece, I find myself asking: could they do something to have that revoked? We become determined to prove our exceptionality as opposed to being accountable. When we become focused on showing and being rather than listening and doing, we are not moving the fight forward.  

It’s not about choosing the right word, it’s about making the commitment to racial justice.

Lastly, the focus on individual allies furthers the identification and imagination of whiteness as individualized bodies. Whites being allies with people of colour not only reinforces the idea of white folks representing a diverse community of individuals while people of colour are all the same but also presumes that whites can engage in work as individuals, as lone freedom fighters, rather than as members of communities.

I often hear that "people of colour should not have to educate white folks" and "white folks need to take their cues from people of colour" simultaneously. Is this a contradiction?

I don’t think this is a contradiction. The push back against the expectation that "people of colour educate white folks" is a rejection of centring white desire and need. The presumption here is that white people need/want to be educated about issues of racism, about inequality or about differences in experience, and that this desire should compel people of colour to act. This is all about white desire; it is about white agency and the expectation of Others helping white folk grow, learn and be better people.

To me, that is very different from asking that white people don’t dominate, co-opt and control movements, organizations or communities. Each is about asking whites to put aside their own needs, desires and privileged position. Asking whites engaged in social justice or anti-racist work to "take their cues from people of colour" is about accountability and decentering white desire and white needs. It is no longer about what white people need and want but the agency, action and politics of organizations of colour. It is about being accountable and listening as opposed to demanding recognition, ownership or power.

Many white folks, including Tim Wise, say that racism needs to be fought not to "help" people of colour, but because all people are hurt by it, including white people. Do you agree that racism hurts white folks?

While I understand the importance of this work -- and clearly as an educator I see the power of teaching about racism, white supremacy, white privilege and injustice at a predominantly white campus -- I think our focus cannot focus on white desire or happiness. Whether or not it hurts whites is the wrong place to start. The centring of whiteness, of white humanity, desire and history, is a core element of white supremacy so our conversations and actions should not and cannot focus on "how racism hurts" white America.  

When we talk about white supremacy, we need to focus on the structural violence directed at communities of colour -- we are talking about issues of life and death, from health care to food insecurity, from labor exploitation to systems of mass incarceration. Segregation, state-sanctioned violence, war, poverty, racism -- white supremacy operates through and within global injustice. White people are not suffering in any of these contexts. As it relates to the criminal justice system, health, economic security, wealth or education, white people are not hurt by racism. Recognizing intersectionality and varied levels of privilege, racism empowers, privileges and protects white America. To claim otherwise is factually inaccurate and troubling.

I do think it is important to talk about racism, how ideologies of white supremacy invariably lead to injustice and violence within particular white communities. For example, throughout history, whites have mobilized around racist law and order narratives that imagine Black men as a perpetual threat against the safety and security of white women. The dominant white imagination of the Black male rapist thereby erases the root issues of sexual violence -- patriarchy, rape culture, misogyny. This is an example of how white supremacy, how stereotypes, white racial framing, the scapegoating and criminalization of Black bodies, hurts white women and society as a whole. White supremacy and rape culture hold a dialectical relationship. Yet, our focus should be on the challenging the violence of racism, the perpetual daily and structural consequences of white supremacy.

Do you think that being a white man gives you more agency to do anti-racist work with folks who might not be ready to hear it from people of colour?

I always find this discussion to be fascinating because white supremacy codifies power and privilege in whiteness within every aspect of society. Why would anti-racist work be any different? When I walk into a classroom, I am often seen as more objective, as embodying what many view as an "expert" and a "professor." When I walk on campus, whether wearing a hoodie or argyle sweater, I am seen as non-threatening, as belonging and as being desirable. White supremacy codifies agency, choice and freedom, so it would be ridiculous to deny its existence within the spaces I occupy as a teacher, a writer, a commentator and an activist.

We all have agency. The constraints and limitations of these choices are one piece of this puzzle. Whether or not we are celebrated or criticized for exercising that agency is yet another piece of the puzzle.  

I have a role, to teach. I have a role to challenge racism, to educate those who believe there is equal justice under the law, those who think that racism is a thing of a past, who perpetuate rape culture through jokes and media culture, who think that sports are innocuous rather than a site of racial pedagogy.

Do you feel it is important that there be spaces solely for people of colour, even if it means that you are not allowed to enter?

Whether or not I think they are important should not be the issue. Rather, when I am told directly or indirectly that this is a space for organizing, community-building or conversations that because of my social location I am not "allowed to enter" (or that my presence would change the dynamic) I should respect that. I should listen and be accountable to these desires. So, yes, I think there are clearly spaces where, despite my passion and knowledge, I should not enter.

Do you have any tips for white folks who are trying to engage in anti-racist work?

As mentioned above, it’s crucial to focus on action, and on the work, rather than naming ourselves as "good" white folks. This necessitates whites thinking themselves as white, not as white anti-racist or allies. It is important to think about one’s whiteness and what it means to be white within contemporary society.

It’s crucial to push back the urge to make every conversation about "self." It is crucial to move beyond "I am an anti-racist individual" to see oneself as part of an anti-racist community. It is crucial to move beyond just talking, and listen. It is crucial to push beyond the desire to be seen, to be praised and to be celebrated, to consider instead the ways that we can facilitate justice and equality in ways not seen.

In many ways, white anti-racists often fall into the trap of viewing change through activist work rather than as organizers, as teachers and as members of communities of "ceaseless agitation" and change. For myself, I focus on words like those articulated @prisonculture, "JUST DO THE WORK. Don’t talk about, 'reflect' on it, pontificate, Just ACT. That’s it." And while doing the work, be accountable.

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This article and photo originally appeared on {Young}ist and is reprinted with permission.



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