Priya Walia, RJ State Fellow, Legal Voice and Surge NW
Since the election, many white allies have come forward to oppose Donald Trump’s racist ideals. However, many have unknowingly created spaces and participated in activism that further perpetuates the racial hierarchy. As a person of color, I hesitate to critique our allies because the stakes are high for me to talk about race. If I make a misstep, I am thrown into a category of unreasonable brown folks, discredited forever. However, as new allies join activist spaces, it is imperative that we address the systemic racism that exists within progressive movements. This piece is not meant to devalue the work that white allies bring to activism but to contextualize the understanding gap between the well-meaning ally and the frustrated victim of racism.
The nonprofit industrial complex is rooted in capitalism, which inherently values money over people. To justify their charitable donations, foundations and donors often require grant recipients to show tangible results for every dollar. This disregards the reality that big social change is slow. To obtain and maintain funding, nonprofits are often forced to address problems with impact litigation or by lobbying for or against a law.
However, if many members of one racial group cannot access the legal system, then justice by legislation and litigation is not justice at all. Laws and lawsuits depend on access to wealth, which by design, has been preserved for white people through the generations. As formal legal racism dissolved, the racial hierarchy has been upheld through property rights, mass incarceration, and the immigration system. So, while a white activist may see reproductive justice as attainable through solely litigation and legislation, a person of color may experience many more social barriers to achieving reproductive justice than just the legal system alone.
Another problematic feature of modern day activism is in the formalization of traditionally unpaid work. While there is nothing inherently wrong with professionalizing work towards justice, jobs in nonprofits are often given to highly educated white women who mimic the unpaid work of people of color. Organic movements on social media are quickly formalized and colonized by white people. The work of people of color is often seen as unpolished, uncivilized, and raw because it reflects a desire to work outside of the established legal system.
White activists must recognize that our frustration with the legal system is rooted in a long history of betrayal. Every Supreme Court win comes decades too late, and every political compromise is more of the same for most people of color, especially those with multiple marginalized identities. The best thing for white activists to do is to listen. Try to understand when your proposed solutions to our problems are not sufficient and follow our lead.
It can be tempting for allies, especially those who come with professionalized skills, to want to shape our agendas based on their expertise. However, solidarity means supporting us, not teaching us, and amplifying the desires of our community. We may be fighting for something you do not understand, something you do not believe in, or something you find impossible. Just remember, every person’s understanding of justice is shaped by their experience with injustice.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of If/When/How