Allyship in the White Space

Featured Illustration: Mikyung Lee

grey-line-png-6

The moment is mostly a drunken memory. A house full of sweaty, white bodies reeking of entitlement. Whether or not they belong here has never crossed their minds. Each of these people probably supported Bernie or Warren in the primary. They might have donated to Black Lives Matter on occasion. On paper, they did everything we hope to see from white allies. Yet under this performative mask lay the stench of privilege which had not been cured. A blend of think pieces, retweets, and diversity seminars could only do so much to cover it up. A gentle breeze would not be sufficient to blow the veil away.

I came into that house as a tempest. I had never intended on doing so. My persona had been a cheerful, funny guy who got along with everyone. Not much was supposed to bother me because why would it? In reality, I stormed into the party that night with an ego battered by one unresolved transgression after another. My college was undoubtedly a diverse school, populated with young Karl Marx’s and Angela Davis’s. My peers wholeheartedly believed in the progressive ideals they espoused. When it was time to march, they marched. Bluntly speaking, these were the white folks who would be at our side in the fight for justice.

Nevertheless, I carefully avoided these very people for the majority of my undergrad. There was a certain safety I missed in the White Space, one I couldn’t name for years but always felt. Other nonwhites silently reaffirmed what I knew to be true as they carved out spaces for themselves, both intentionally and unintentionally. To be in these safe spaces was to enjoy a shared lived experience, to truly exist.

I carefully constructed these spaces for myself for three and a half years before they mysteriously vanished at the start of my final semester. Desperate to fill a social void, I ventured into the White Space. Almost immediately, the White Space reminded me where I belonged. Gone were the circles of Brown folks sharing stories of their immigrant families, replaced by walls of flannel-covered backs, with me on the outside.

To be in the White Space as a Brown person was to experience a unique exclusion and erasure.

I would have expected nothing less from those in my home state of Ohio, who reveled in their displeasure at my presence. No one in the White Space said anything I could declare a slur or flat out racist. Yet the strained smiles and the averted eyes communicated an uncomfortableness in my being.

These observations soon became a part of my shtick. The very white companions leading me into the White Space guffawed as I dunked on their peers. Eventually, they began to notice some of those cues themselves. I would be quietly assured that I was safe with them. However, these silent affirmations did nothing to soothe my ego. A chuckle and a smirk only did so much to dull the humiliation of being reintroduced to a rich white boy who forgot my existence for the third time in as many weeks. I would snap, I knew this. I anxiously tried to bring those who I related to with me into the White Space, but to no avail.

I did snap that night. It was nothing particularly egregious that set me off. Nonetheless, I swung my hand in a drunken rage at someone who questioned why I would be so upset. Even in that moment, an inkling of self-preservation deeply ingrained in me kept my fist open instead of closed. It didn’t matter that I swatted him instead of knocking him out. I lost several white allies that night who were horrified I would react violently. Some of them returned. But for the others, the disturbance I brought to the White Space was not justified by whatever infraction I perceived.

I don’t wish to cast aspersions on or judge the intent of any individuals in the White Space. But what I understood that night was that white allyship is for the outside. The moment they stand up against an injustice in the White Space, their membership is null and void. There is certainly a social reckoning happening within every community today. I wrestle every day with how to purge the anti-Blackness and misogyny latent in my community and myself. For those with an abiding connection to the White Space, I can only hope that they will eventually devalue their own membership. Until then, they may want to reassess their self proclaimed title of “ally”.