Center the Movement, Not You

by | Jul 1, 2020 | 0 comments

Black Lives Matter. This is not debatable. And most of you reading this know that. You’re hashtagging it, wearing shirts with it, chanting it. You’re donating, marching, sharing. And that is good, so good. I’m doing it, too. As a non-Black Native and Latine person, it’s my duty to show up and support Black folks right now. But also, as a non-Black Native and Latine person, I’m seeing plenty of white people acting foolish and centering themselves in attempts to help. So, in this edition of Dear Queer White People, we’re gonna go over how not to do that. These points are Tee Jop (Madison) specific, but they’ll work elsewhere too. Ambe!

Lower Your Voice

Sometimes literally. I mean that. Showing up to protests is a big way to support and uplift Black voices and needs. Your voice should never carry over theirs. I saw several white folks unaffiliated with the march organizers bring bullhorns and use them for themselves instead of passing them on to Black leaders whose own equipment was failing. With their personal amplification, they led their own chants independent of the same leaders in the front of the march. Two separate chants led to crowd confusion and many stopped following out of confusion. I know we make jokes about white folks not finding the beat, but dang, it was stolen entirely. Worse still, the march was robbed of the symbolic unity for combating systemic racism and injustices. So listen and follow.

Lower your voice and lower your profile. Take a few big steps back. White folks don’t need to be physically leading marches, holding front banners and interrupting Black excellence. Despite the best intentions, this ends up looking like a photo opp or extreme virtue signaling. It designates you as a leader, which you definitely shouldn’t be in this movement. Black folks routinely face questions on their leadership abilities (please see every comic Phil Hands has done for the Wisconsin State Journal), and biased media and politicians will turn to white folks they assume to be leaders over their Black colleagues. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t be involved, but technical, financial, and organizational support is more needed than vocal leadership. 

Reporters are going to want to talk to you. A local NBC reporter asked me to speak on camera the first night of protests here. I declined and said that I was there in support. Reporters cannot interview you without first notifying you that you’re on the record, so use that time to send them in the direction of community leaders or someone whose voice needs to be heard. I saw a couple dozen interviews with white folks: each one basically said “I’m here to support,” which is pretty obvious because they’re already at the rally. Create space for Black voices by removing your voice from positions of power.

Looking to contribute art? Instead of co-opting Black motifs, make your own regular artwork and auction it off. I’m a beadworker, and one of my favorite pieces was a fully beaded patch of a burning cop car. The artist sold raffle tickets and raised over $1000 for BLM-affiliated orgs and asked other beaders to do the same.

Don’t create your own groups and events for BLM activism. Freedom, Inc. and Urban Triage have that covered (donate to them, too!). The short-lived New Path Forward and other organizations and events steal momentum from the underappreciated work these groups have been doing for years. Running separate demonstrations means each protest loses support. Share existing events, amplify existing groups’ work, and volunteer your time with organizations that already have the infrastructure in place.

Our world is steeped in whiteness and white supremacy. Exclusively Black folks taking the lead very likely will feel unnatural and wrong because we have been conditioned to associate whiteness with validity. Fight that feeling, show up, listen, and learn.

Criticize Your Institutions

Every Madison government office, nonprofit, and business seems to be posting about BLM. But as we’ve seen from our own queer mayor’s private message to Madison police, that doesn’t actually mean they’re supportive. 

So how do we support the good work?

Check to see if the organization is minority-owned/led. This is their lives, and they know how to support their communities.

Do they employ Black faculty or staff, and do those employees stay? They are not an ally if their organization keeps hiring and then firing or losing BIPOC workers. That’s likely the result of dangerous working conditions for non-white folks.

Are photos of BIPOC actually taken at location or are they stock photos? This is a very real thing, and it’s gross. Visiting the location and looking for social media congruence can sort out the fakers.

Are people of color regular contributors to content on their social media accounts? Do they engage with BIPOC outside Juneteenth, recent BLM activism, Black History Month, Indigenous Peoples Day, and so on? We exist every day the rest of the year, and token activism is demeaning and harmful.

If you’re looking to support nonprofits, what does their board look like? Again, if it doesn’t have diversity, then they probably don’t value it much either. Take your donations and support elsewhere.

And finally, are they actually paying BIPOC for their work? While we will often work for free (I’m guilty of this), organizations using our lived experiences for social or monetary benefit is exploitation and contributes to the massive wage and capital gaps amongst communities of color.

The recent plywood murals across the city provide glaring examples of meaningful versus empty support. What should be a beautiful chance to appreciate Madison’s amazing Black artists is dotted with hopefully well-intentioned white folks missing the point entirely.

A particularly misplaced design has white-skinned and black-skinned hands clasped in a traditional claddagh design. It seems like a nice symbol of unity, but this interpretation fades at any scrutiny. The white hand is clasped over the Black hand in a dominant position, and so more of the hand is seen. It is physically larger and extends well past the center of the mural. Worse still, the artist physically raises it above the Black hand that drops off into the lower right corner. The skin on the Black hand appears ashy and unnatural, and the cuff detail is straight out of Dutch colonial Africa. The artist has then tagged their Instagram handle to that cuff, taking up more space with whiteness in an already limited region. Were these artistic choices intentional? Probably not. Would a Black artist have made them? Absolutely not.

Much of the remainder of white artists’ murals can be categorized as “Pastels with Platitudes.” These light, bright colors, imbued with physical and metaphorical whiteness, literally paint an alternative reality. They void the messages of the movement to cover the hurt and pain that created it. Their sugar-coated centrist sweetness makes them particularly enticing for social media likes, news coverage banners, and pedestrian photo opps. They cover Blackness and uphold white fragility over greater change. 

Support businesses that support Black artists and Black workers.

Understand Your Biases

Cut off your dreadlocks, cover up dreamcatcher or headdress tattoos, stop talking about that trip you took to Africa and over-pronouncing Spanish. It makes us uncomfortable. It’s weird. It’s cringey. Just, stop. Each of those behaviors happened during BLM marches in this city and were perpetrated by folks who want to help but can’t address their own bigotry.

Most racial biases are less obvious. Check your microaggressions, microinvalidations, and racial gaslighting. In the workplace and classroom, protect and validate BIPOC peers. 

If a person of color says something is racist, it is. Blaming us for the racialized statement, questioning our interpretation of the event, and whitewashing our narrative to your own comfort are all further abuses on top of the initial incident. Believe us the first time.

Do not demand peaceful protests or say that looting is wrong and unnecessary. If theft and broken glass halt your support, then you were never a supporter to begin with. Petty crimes, witness to a crime, or imagined association with crime have been a death sentence for Black people. I’ve now seen multiple Madison-focused social media groups happily reporting sellers of looted goods back to the police, completely unaware of their role in continued state oppression.

And stop saying this police brutality is unprecedented. We saw it at Standing Rock four years ago and Ferguson six years ago. BIPOC have been fighting for so long, and your surprise is exhausting: it means that you haven’t noticed how much work we’ve been doing and forcing us to question our ability to create change.

It is absolutely impossible for you to understand racism. It is not something you have experienced in your body. Phrases like, “I understand” and “I totally get it” aren’t needed right now. Try offering support through consensual communication, financial donations, food, and standing up to racist behavior.

While few of these actions explicitly harm Black folks or other people of color, they all wear on Black emotions. Cause Black pain. Erode Black comfort. Realize that we live in a racist and anti-Black world, so the only options to combat these injustices are to be anti-racist and pro-Black in every decision. 

Right now there is so much good, positive attention on Black community leaders (another plug for Urban Triage and Freedom, Inc!). Follow what they say and know that the work isn’t done until they say it is.

Stay strong, keep learning, and keep fighting, white queers of Madison!

Like this? Follow me on IG @wetearthwoman or drop some bannock money to my PayPal at [email protected].

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