White Allyship Will Not Win the Fight for Racial Equity

I appreciate White allies, but I don’t hold them at the center of my pro-Black politics.

Recently, White actress, Anne Hathaway, shared her sentiments regarding Nia Wilson’s murder on Instagram. Her statement read:

On July 22nd, 18-year old Nia Wilson was stabbed to death by a White man while waiting to transfer trains at a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in Oakland, California. While the BART police and the Alameda County District Attorney's Office are still speculating what caused this presumed senseless act of violence, Black activists suspect that this was a hate crime fueled by racism. Although there isn’t palpable proof to prove these speculations, Wilson’s death evokes a painful reminder that our Black lives - whether it be at the hands of an American police officer or a knife wielding White man - aren’t deemed to have value.

In an America where Black victims are held under more scrutiny than White murderers, I do not trust popular media or the American police force to tell our stories truthfully and without bias. Throughout American history, it has been more trendy to depict Black people as animals and criminals rather than the casualties of colonization. Therefore, when the Oakland media outlet, KTVU, chose to publish a picture of Nia Wilson holding a gun-shaped phone case, it was satisfying the White gaze while simultaneously attempting to silence and delegitimize Wilson’s life; it was an insidious attempt to silence the voices of Black mourners and activists who had taken to the streets of Oakland to protest and prioritize Wilson’s vicious murder.

The media’s rapid erasure of Black bodies is why celebrity attention is highly valued. When I scrolled through my Instagram on Monday morning and found Kehlani’s Instagram post that detailed Wilson’s death, I immediately recognized the sense of agency and pain surrounding her death. As an Oakland native, she was sharing both her experience and frustration with BART, an institution that at the time she posted, had failed to detain Wilson’s murderer. And as a person of color, Kehlani was commenting on American racism, an institution that has, historically, stripped Black and Brown bodies of life. When Anne Hathaway, a well-meaning White person, shared her own Instagram post, I appreciated the spotlight she extended to Wilson and the call to action she posed to her White counterparts. Yet, I did not praise her use of White privilege nor did I place her on a pedestal for recognizing the value of Wilson’s life.

Following Hathaway’s post, many people on social media rushed to praise the actress for her musings regarding Wilson’s death. It was a level of attention that I had not seen the mass media extend towards Kehlani. This phenomenon was largely due to the notion of the White ally and the influence they wield in Black politics.

One of the most famous and widely referenced examples of White solidarity with Black politics is the March on Washington, one of the core successes of the Civil Rights Movement. Within the Civil Rights Movement, the notion of White allyship relied on the modern concept of influencer marketing. It was believed that each White activist who joined the Civil Rights Movement had a certain degree of influence with their White counterparts; therefore, their presence within and co-signing of the movement had the potential to convince other White people, who were resistant to racial equality, that a post-racial America was possible. They represented what Black Americans had been saying for generations - we, as Black people, weren’t bad or racially inferior and therefore, we deserved the same rights as our White counterparts.

The White ally influencer strategy is why, in 1963, the “Big Six”, which comprised the Black male leaders of America’s largest civil rights initiatives, decided to add four White leaders to the group. It was a decision that would show White America that White people were willing to stand with Black activists and defend their right to freedom. Although their decision would prove to be influential - there were reportedly between 75,000 and 95,000 white people who marched alongside the Black civil rights activists - it didn’t come without a compromise.

When the prepared remarks of John Lewis, the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, were read by the group, the White Archbishop, Patrick O’Boyle, threatened to no longer speak at the rally. In his speech, Lewis had criticized President John F. Kennedy’s civil rights bill and warned that he had plans to march through the South nonviolently. O’Boyle thought that Lewis’ words were too militant and would offend the White marchers. Therefore, in an effort to satisfy the White gaze and to gain mass appeal from a Whiter audience, Lewis’ speech was edited and both him and O’Boyle delivered their speeches to the multiracial audience. In this example, it’s clear that the White ally influencer strategy is tied to the idea that in order for White folk to be convinced of our humanity, Black activists and movements must gain the trust, respect, and advocacy of well-meaning White people. And this relationship cannot thrive if the feelings of White people aren’t coddled in the process. But, with all things, it comes with its limits.

Although Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the most notable figures of the Civil Rights Movement, marched with White allies, he also knew that they wouldn’t win Black people the fight for freedom. While King did deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, his repertoire also includes “Where Do We Go From Here?”,  where he named economic equity as a unwavering requirement for racial equity. In this radical piece, King calls for the rebirth of America; he claims that, before America can reach true equity, its racist and capitalist systems must be torn down and rebuilt again thus ridding the country of the White supremacy it was built upon. This speech suggests that King’s commitment to calling out the “White moderate” and use of the White ally influencer strategy was a means to an end; he understood that true racial equality wouldn’t simply be achieved through White allyship and was, rather, recruiting more soldiers for a fight he would die defending.

In this same speech, as he listed the feats of the Civil Rights Movement, King framed the Black activist as the hero. Although White labor unions had helped fund and  organize the March on Washington and White federal judges in the South had delivered crucial decisions on behalf of the movement, and White activists had shed blood alongside black activists, King knew that the Civil Rights Movement, similar to the modern movement for Black lives, had to center Black protagonists. In our modern movement, White allies, such as Anne Hathaway, cannot be the heroes and heroines or sidekicks of our narratives; rather, they must be the secondary characters - those who come along for the ride and support our efforts but do not steal the spotlight.

The limited impact of White solidarity is why King was murdered on a motel balcony in 1968; it’s the reason why, 55 years after the March on Washington, we are having another national conversation about racial relations in America; it’s why Anne Hathaway, 55 years after the March on Washington, is making a desperate call to White Americans to encourage them to check their racial privilege.

That is why Anne Hathaway or any other well meaning White person is not the solution; they’re only a piece of the puzzle. If we’re insistent on waiting for White people to relinquish their power, we’re going to be waiting for a very long time - possibly forever. Those in power are never willing to simply give up their power. Instead, their power must be taken. And when it is taken, it cannot be transferred from one group to another.  That is not the answer, either. Rather, it must be vanquished so that no other form of racial supremacy can exist in this world.

We can praise Anne Hathaway for writing a poignant Instagram caption, but we must recognize the very limited power of White solidarity. When we speak of White solidarity, we tend to forget that White Supremacy does not simply lie within an individual’s heart; that racism cannot be eradicated if White people simply learn to love Black people. Rather, White supremacy is a system that protects Whiteness and leverages race to oppress anyone who delineates from its strict margins of skin color. To achieve racial equity in America, instead of changing the hearts of White Americans, it is imperative that we eradicate the country’s racial caste system. White supremacy is, therefore, bigger than Anne Hathaway or any other well meaning White person; their good deeds are not going to win us the fight for racial equality.

For now, White allies need to understand that it is not enough for them to recognize their privilege; instead, they must reinvest their privilege back into our communities without having to displace our people, as Whiteness is currently doing in Oakland, the same place where Nia Wilson took her last breath.

Further Reading & Sources Mentioned:

“Nia Wilson Had Big Plans. Then She Was Killed in a BART Station.” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/25/us/nia-wilson-bart-stabbing.html

"Where Do We Go From Here?," Address Delivered at the Eleventh Annual SCLC Convention https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/where-do-we-go-here-address-delivered-eleventh-annual-sclc-convention

“In March on Washington, white activists were largely overlooked but strategically essential” https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/in-march-on-washington-white-activists-were-largely-overlooked-but-strategically-essential/2013/08/25/f2738c2a-eb27-11e2-8023-b7f07811d98e_story.html?utm_term=.6485b294c668

“The protests over Nia Wilson’s murder, explained” https://www.vox.com/identities/2018/7/25/17613382/nia-wilson-murder-john-lee-cowell-bart

“Anne Hathaway’s thoughts on Nia Wilson’s murder are really worth reading” https://www.vox.com/identities/2018/7/26/17616966/nia-wilson-murder-anne-hathaway