Six ways to be a better ally
In July 2013, when #BlackLivesMatter was founded, I had just booked a flight to Uganda to volunteer with a micro-loan organization. Before leaving, I marched for Trayvon Martin, changed my Facebook profile to black, and frequently wrestled online with #allLivesMatter trolls. On a scale of zero to woke*, I felt like this Asian American ally was a 10 out of 10.
Then I got to Uganda and for the first time in my life I was regarded as a white person, or mzungu, by locals. Despite being a third-generation Chinese American, being defensive about my privilege was not going to help. I’ve learned that doing the work of an ally means moving through a situation, and not around it. Here are some practical steps for how to be an ally to black liberation struggles that I have learned along the way.
1 Regardless of how hard your life has been, you cannot equate it to the black experience
Yes, you grew up poor. Yes, you were bullied. But often being black or brown is a matter of life and death, especially when it comes to police brutality and violence.
2 Let go of thinking that you must be the hero
A white male friend of mine was put off joining a Black Lives Matter occupation of LA City Hall when he was asked by organizers to ‘step back’ and take direction from black leadership. ‘I thought this movement was about everyone working together and whites and blacks not being kept apart,’ he told me.
While your support is needed, let go of thinking that you should be rewarded for showing up. This is a life and death struggle. Asking non-black allies to ‘step back’ is not about segregation, it’s about centering the organizing efforts around the people who are most affected. It is not about you.
3 Advocate to put more qualified black people in positions of power
If you work in an organization that says it is committed to diversity, look around and see if there are qualified black folks who are being overlooked for leadership positions. Do you have the power to change this? Use it!
4 Credit the freedoms you have to civil rights activists
Today, many non-black people reap the benefits from black activists who died for the right to be treated equally – although there is still a long road ahead, especially in terms of equal work opportunities.
Despite successes, the struggle is far from over as people of colour continue to navigate life with a target on our backs.
5 Don’t use being a ‘person of colour’ to avoid talking about privilege
‘When you call me “chink” this is like calling me the N-word.’
I used to call out anti-Asian racism by using parallel examples of anti-black racism as a quick shorthand. I have stopped doing this because I realized I was making inaccurate equivalencies between black and Asian experiences. While we share the common experience of being targets of racism in white-dominated countries, our skin colour targets us for violence in different ways.
6 Be willing to talk to other non-black people about why black lives matter
The work of explaining the politics is exhausting and emotional. I often let my challengers think they’ve won when I choose to walk away from frustrating discussions.
The work of explaining and undoing racism shouldn’t fall on those most affected by it. It should also be taken on by those who continue to benefit from it.
Kristina Wong is a performer, writer, actor, educator, culture jammer and filmmaker.
* Aware of social injustice, often used in relation to race.