Non-Black POC Racism, Making Mistakes, and Being A Better Ally
Everyone needs to step up against racism, not just white people.
A moment of learning
The other day, I had the hopefully un-unique experience of realizing that I might be inadvertently supporting white supremacy.
To be clear, I hope it’s a common thing to realize that you might be supporting things that you don’t want to intentionally support so that you can stop doing it. To be super clear, white supremacy needs to be dismantled, and if you’re accidentally supporting it like I was, you gotta stop.
If you can’t tell from my profile photo, or didn’t happen to look, I’m a non-Black POC. I’m ethnically Japanese (and a tad bit Korean, if you believe 23andMe), although I distinctly identify as American, being that my family has been in the country since around 1890. I went to undergrad at Berkeley and got my protesting chops in, and consider myself to be pretty anti-racist, so imagine my surprise and discomfort at feeling like perhaps I was accidentally supporting institutional white supremacy in a Slack community I’m part of.
I hadn’t really been vocal about my stances against racism in this Slack workspace, as I’d say I’ve been plenty vocal on my public Facebook wall, and generally didn’t feel the need to be extremely vocal in this space about Black lives mattering, or my stance (articulated much better here by author Kimberly Jones) on why rioting is an unfortunate but understandable expression of protest.
What made me question myself and even my identity as an anti-racist was being told by a Black member of the community that he didn’t feel connected to the space and felt like we, as a community, weren’t doing enough to make meaningful change.
I know that he might not have been talking specifically to me. It might have been directed towards others who had stayed silent about the murder of George Floyd by police and the subsequent protests met with more police brutality. But regardless, I took it personal - and I’m glad I did.
Why? Because it caused me to really take a moment and re-evaluate whether or not I was really doing what I could to help. It’s true — I HAD been silent in the space. Why was I so quiet? There’s a lot of reasons to unpack, so come along with me as I unpack my giant bag of privilege.
The first reason I hadn’t posted anything was that I was just exhausted, and didn’t have the right words. I wasn’t sure what to say, and on Facebook I was exhausted from posting and reposting videos of police brutality, the Asian American community’s role in upholding white supremacy and how it needs to stop, and think pieces on how rioting and looting is an unfortunate but acceptable form of protest for oppressed groups. I was emotionally drained. Probably not as drained as Black Americans are drained daily by the emotional work of not being murdered, but for me, I was pretty spent.
That said, the main reason I didn’t feel like I needed to be vocal was because I felt like the majority white community here was one of the most progressive, socially-conscious groups I’ve been a part of. Since joining two years ago, I felt like I’ve had really honest talks with a lot of white people about racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, heterosexism, economic impediments to opportunities, and privilege in general.
I didn’t speak out more openly because I didn’t feel the need to — that somehow the Black members of our community would just know that even though I was being silent in the spaces we occupied together, that of course I was on their side. I let other vocal anti-racist white allies take up the space, since I figured it wasn’t the job of POCs, non-Black or otherwise, to take up the fight against racism and I’d let these white allies pull their fair share.
That said, while we’ve talked about diversification in the work that we do, and we’ve talked a lot about it, not much has changed.
Out of our group of professionals, it’s about 4% Black, severely lagging behind the demographic of the US, which was about 13% (according to US Census estimates of 2019). Obviously our community has a diversity problem, but as a non-Black POC, I wasn’t even seeing it in my own backyard.
Was I really trying to help out? Did I check in with the Black members of my community to see if they were doing okay?
I excused it as that I wasn’t sure if that would feel like tokenizing them. I didn’t really know what to say, and I didn’t want to offend them in any way. I had seen some Black activists talk about allies not checking in at all and feeling like they were alone, and also some Black activists who are sick of everyone checking in on them — of course they’re not okay. I erred on the side of doing nothing.
I guess I was concerned more about me than I was about them.
Owning my privilege
This is called privilege, folks, if you haven’t been paying attention. Not having to face a problem because of one’s fragile ego, or because it doesn’t directly apply to you is basically the exact definition of privilege.
This privilege check was pretty rough, personally, and I honestly felt personally attacked. My defense mechanisms all shouted “But we’re not racist!” and I wanted to point out how I was speaking up in my other communities, and that I’ve been donating to bail organizations and the NAACP, but I fought the temptation and spent the day frustrated and quiet.
Because after all, in comparison to centuries of oppression and living in the constant fear of being killed by police for just existing, my privilege check is nothing.
I still felt that swing of panic, fear, shame, guilt, anger, and defensiveness before finally getting to the acceptance that it wasn’t about me. It was about a systemic issue that, when it comes down to it, I benefit from. I never used to think about it this way, but when it comes to the Black Lives Matter movement and my little Slack community, based on my privilege I am standing closer to the oppressors than the oppressed.
Asian Americans play an interesting role in society. We’re also discriminated against, but some of us (specifically Eastern Asian groups) benefit from white supremacy as model minorities. I’m still a “slant-eyed Ch — k (note the improper racial slur I often heard growing up) with a small dick who is good at math” in the eyes of a lot of people, but I also usually don’t get followed around in stores by security guards. I might get suspicious looks while walking around my predominantly white neighborhood, but I also at least got to rent an apartment here. Sure, my family lost a house or two during the internment camps of WWII, but my family was never enslaved.
I’m also gonna point out the anti-Black racism that is pretty prevalent in Asian American communities. I’ve heard pretty racist remarks from a lot of Asian Americans, and this sentiment was really solidified by the Rodney King riots, where mostly Korean and Asian American businesses were looted and busted up by angry Black protesters. Let’s not forget the officer who ignored the cries of others to intervene and kept the crowd back while George Floyd was murdered also was of Asian decent. So while Asian Americans still face discrimination, they’re not being killed disproportionately by police.
I realized that a lot of my frustration at being called out about my silence was that I felt in the middle — stuck trying to enlighten white folk about anti-racism, while being prodded by the Black community to do better myself. There was a feeling of “Dang, I’m trying my best here, isn’t that enough?”
No, frankly. It’s not enough. Unless we’re moving forward with material change, what good is just talk? Where’s the concrete action? Where’s the proof that the needle is moving? I think the reason I was so frustrated, was at the end of the day, I agreed with my peer calling the community out as supporting white supremacy.
Here’s the thing that I realized after all of this — oppression is a spectrum, and most of us reading articles on Medium are both oppressed as well as oppressors.
In some ways, I have a lot of privilege. I have two university degrees, I live in the suburbs, I’m a cis-heterosexual, light skinned, abled-bodied male with American citizenship.
I’m also underprivileged in that I’m a person of color from a relatively poor family.
I was focusing mainly on parts of my identity that are underprivileged, while ignoring all the ways that I had privilege.
This revelation, that I had a lot going on for me while I’m at the same time underprivileged, made me a lot more empathetic to poor white people. Just like non-black POCs, they exist in a complex intersection of privilege and oppression. It’s hard to feel privileged when you’re white and living paycheck to paycheck. The same goes for a lot of other intersections of identity and the difficulty in owning privilege when we’re confronted and we’re still stuck focusing on how we’re being oppressed.
Think of all the white women having to go to work dealing with a boss who makes crude sexual jokes but HR doesn’t do anything about it. Or the queer white men who get sexually assaulted at a higher rate than straight men.
The world can be a terrible place to people who are different from the rich, educated, white, cis-hetero, abled-bodied men that seem to be the cultural standard of what people think of when they think of Americans. By realizing that so many people don’t fit that mold, I came to understood why so many generally well-meaning people are still (perhaps unintentionally) supporting these terrible structures of power.
We’re all scared and fearful, and trying to make it in a world that doesn’t universally accept us as complete human beings. When we feel like we’re hanging on a ledge, it’s much easier to kick the person hanging onto our foot rather than pulling them up with us.
Does that excuse the oppression of others? No. Full stop.
Black lives matter
I was not being the ally I could have been because of my own fear. My fear of offending the Black community. Of speaking up and making a misstep and being called out for it.
Fear is not an excuse, however. It’s understandable, but it’s not an excuse.
I let my fear of looking stupid or ignorant or racist get in my way of speaking up about the institutional racism present in my community. But to reiterate the Desmond Tutu quote being used everywhere “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Silence is showing neutrality, which supports the racism.
Speaking up is the role of an ally. As an ally, your job is to do your best, even if the group you’re trying to help might criticize you. They might not even want to accept you. And that’s the cost of privilege.
To be an ally is to do the hard work, to show up and stand up for others with less power than you have. It’s to do it without praise, or gold star stickers, or likes and hearts on social media. It’s fighting for justice simply because it’s the right thing to do.
I think an even more appropriate quote from Desmond Tutu is this:
“Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”
We need to have these hard conversations about whether or not we’re actually helping. We’re probably going to be lacking, and we might screw up and get criticized or yelled at. No one will necessarily give us a pat on the back, and we don’t deserve one.
So. Are you serious about breaking down systemic injustice? Then make the choice to embrace the hard work ahead.
A movement is more than protesting when it’s trendy and then going back to normalcy. It’s more than participating in Blackout Tuesday and then going back to your daily life like nothing has changed. Participating in change is a marathon, so if you’re really up for the challenge, then get ready for the long haul. I’m signing up for it. I hope you will too.
Not sure how to start? Google it and get going — there’s a lot of lists of how to help. How might you take a single action every week towards progress? How might you take a single action every day to ending racism?
Let’s get to work.