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.
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.