University of Minnesota Alumni Association


White Folks in the Fight

Being an ally to communities of color requires introspection more than “help.”

Alumnus Michael Lee (B.A.’15) is a nationally known poet and a longtime organizer and youth worker on the North Side of Minneapolis. During and after the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, Lee saw his community and others across the city erupt in anger.

At the height of the uprising, overwhelmed police and fire departments say they were unable to respond to numerous calls requesting help.

In response, North Side neighbors, Lee among them, spent hours patrolling North Minneapolis, working in part to identify and protect the many Black-owned businesses there from arson.

He wrote this essay for Minnesota Alumni, reflecting on what it takes for members of the white community to be accomplices in the fight against racism.

Michael Lee, far right, and local poet Danez Smith, take a break from helping install plywood over the windows at Juxtaposition Arts, a youth-oriented visual art center in North Minneapolis.
Photo Credit: Jeremiah Ellison

In 2015 upon completing my bachelor’s degree at the U of M, I pursued my master’s at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. While there, my Ethnic Studies professor engaged our class in an associative activity using the words “white” and “black.” This lesson would be one of the most memorable from my time as a graduate student.

We broke into groups, and each was given two large pieces of paper and instructed to write down common societal beliefs, attitudes, and associations tied to both words.

For each group, the associations with the word white were overwhelmingly positive. Words like “pure,” “clean,” “peaceful,” “wealth,” and “civilized,” covered the page. On the sheet dedicated to the word black, words like “dirty,” “bad luck,” “violent,” “poor,” and “uncivilized” appeared.

Over the past five years, as an educator and organizer, I have led this same activity many times with groups of all ages and races. I never preface it with discussions of race, power, or stereotype, but the exercise always organically leads to the same associations and discussions as it did that first time.

This activity illustrates not just how inundated we are with racist messages in our society, but that “whiteness” and “blackness” as social identifiers have been constructed in opposition to each other: Our society’s positive associations with whiteness depend on negative associations of blackness. And if we are to understand this historical moment and our place in it, then we have to understand how our relationships and our imaginations got us here.

In Minneapolis, after days of protest following the murder of George Floyd, both North and South Minneapolis awoke to countless buildings destroyed, most by outside agitators—either organized white supremacist groups or kids from the suburbs or neighboring states looking to enjoy a chaos they did not have to wake up to.

In response, community did what communities do: We took care of each other. We boarded businesses, created neighborhood watches and patrols to defend Black and people-of-color-owned businesses from arson and white supremacist attacks, provided medical care to protestors and shelter to our displaced neighbors.

Droves of white people from the suburbs and elsewhere arrived on both sides of the city to help clean up, to offer resources, food, and essential items to those in need. Many who came wanted to do more, asking questions such as “What can I do to help?” or “How can I be an ally to the Black community?”

While questions such as these are well intended, they reveal precisely what we as white people do not understand about racism and how it functions in this country.

To “help” someone is to offer your power to complete a task, but when that task is over, your power remains. Thousands had the power and access to deliver momentary aid to West Broadway or Lake Street. I find the fact that so many white people were in a position to “help” highlights exactly what is wrong: Momentary and situational help will not shift the social, cultural, and political landscape which allows for populations to have such starkly different access to capital and resources.

Our country has only recently begun to widely acknowledge “white privilege,” though truthfully, the more precise term is “white power.” We as white-bodied people are the beneficiaries of racism, and a history of power secured by plunder and violence.

Lilla Watson, an Indigenous Australian activist, once said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

As a white person visibly living, working, and organizing in North Minneapolis for nearly a third of my life, people (mostly white) often assume that means I’m here to help. I’m not. I’m here because as a white-bodied, working-class writer and organizer, I understand how capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy operate in unison to render specific human bodies disposable.

As long as we are oriented toward a system designed against certain groups of people in service to a dominant group, we will continue to trade any and all life for its maintenance. Whiteness will, if it has to, also dispose of white people in order to uphold itself. The poorest among us are the first to go.

What the educational exercise mentioned at the beginning of this essay reminds us of is that before we were white, we were something else: Irish or Norwegian or Italian, etc. Who we were meant something other than abject power over people and land. If there is to be any hope for us, for a new and safer world, then we must become something else again.

The question isn’t how we can help or be allies. The question is, what will we give up in service of the liberation of our neighbors? How do we reorient ourselves to this world, and to each other? We must reimagine who we are, and the violent systems that we’ve made and that have made us.

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