Black Lives Matter: “I’m white and I’m here to help”

In the Summer of 2020, I visited my sister in San Francisco during the height of the Black Lives Matter riots. People – many of them white –  throughout America were combing our major cities in search of statues of racists such as confederate soldiers and Christopher Columbus. Of course in their rabid rage and determination to erase racism, the white saviors of the city missed some – the San Francisco street names, cities, housing developments, and even entire counties named after Spanish colonizers who slaughtered and enslaved thousands of Native Americans. 

During my visit, I stopped at Dandelion Chocolate in the Mission District (don’t get me started on how those missions were built!). While looking over the menu, I let a white woman go ahead of me. As she ordered, she began to unload a truckload of white guilt onto our unsuspecting black cashier. “I’m getting really sick of this virus,” she says. “But you know what I’m more sick of? The administration in Washington. Keep protesting. Keep rioting. Keep looting. Don’t let me off the hook.” “I think you’re doing a fine job,” the cashier replies. “Ya I know, but don’t let people like me off the hook, you know.” As if she hadn’t already made herself clear, she mimes a circle around her face: “Don’t let people who look like me off the hook. Hold us accountable.” While the cashier is patient with her, it’s clear he’s uncomfortable and getting frustrated. I’m next, and I keep thinking to myself, how am I going to confess my sins – how am I going to top that? Overcoming my performance anxiety, I placed my order without any play-by-play, and I think both the cashier and I were relieved.

This fifteen-minute encounter is a microcosm of white allyship in the era of BLM.  While this woman was right to realize the reality of racism in America, it’s clear that she saw little more than skin color. She didn’t know anything at all about this person, except that he could absolve her of her sins. She felt better after the conversation, but how did he feel?  Too often, white people use the BLM movement to help themselves, leaving the world utterly unchanged in the aftermath.

This fifteen-minute encounter is a microcosm of white allyship in the era of BLM.  While this woman was right to realize the reality of racism in America, it’s clear that she saw little more than skin color.

Ronald Reagan famously said that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” A lot of black people right now are hearing “I’m white and I’m here to help.” BLM protesters and supporters, many of them white liberal millennials, have been quick to claim their ally status on social media and in the streets, chanting “ACAB” (All Cops Are Bastards). In their aim to stand in solidarity with black lives, they’ve recognized their white privilege, admitted their inherent racism, and have even gone so far as to beg black people for forgiveness

But if their intention is to help black people, it’s unclear whether their demands would accomplish this. While some of the BLM organization’s demands are evasive, such as “end the war on black people, economic justice, [and] divest-invest,” others are much more specific. BLM’s partner organization, Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), calls for, perhaps most notably, the defunding of police, but also the abolition of prisons, police unions, and body cameras; decriminalization of drugs and prostitution, and retroactive reparations like the forgiveness of all student loans and a guaranteed minimum wage for black people.

Hopefully, everyone shares in the justified anger of BLM protesters when it comes to George Floyd and the black victims before him, whose lives were unjustly lost at the hands of cops, and most agree that there needs to be reform. Moreover, black people in America deserve reparations like affirmative action for our despicable past as a nation. It’s important to note too, however, that this grocery list of demands may not be the happy ending we’d all like to see. 

[Instead] of concerning themselves with their own stamp of virtue, white allies should think critically about what policies they aim to enact and how these might affect the black lives they claim to stand for.

While the founders of BLM have openly denounced capitalism, this isn’t a widely-held view among black voters, and many black business owners have been deeply impacted by the lootings that occurred as a result of these protests, although a vast majority of them were peaceful. Additionally, racially diverse cities would uniquely feel the consequences if an upheaval of our police system, like the one M4BL suggests, were to occur. Black people are, on average, eight times more likely to be victims of homicide compared to whites, and the homicide rate in these cities has increased over the years. As a result of the more recent spike in gun violence, some have protested for more police officers. This might be because according to a Princeton study, more policemen correlates to a reduced number of crime. What’s more – black voters actually want more policemen in their cities.

This unsettling reality is what makes white allies of the movement, like the one at the cafe, seem out-of-touch with black Americans, their neighborhoods, and their communities at large. They make sure everyone knows that they are on black people’s side and that those who don’t raise their fist for BLM aren’t – and the slogan makes it easy for them to suggest as much. But instead of concerning themselves with their own stamp of virtue, white allies should think critically about what policies they aim to enact and how these might affect the black lives they claim to stand for. Black America doesn’t benefit from white guilt and pity, and they don’t need white people and white politicians jumping in and out of black causes for their own gain.

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About Valentina House

I'm a candidate for a BA in political science with minors in public policy and business. I'm a curious political observer, passionate writer, and religious and empathetic person. One rule I try to live by is to talk to everyone as though they know something you don't!