Originally published on The Establishment and republished here with the author’s permission.
We should be allies, not advocates.
A few months ago, I was enjoying comedian Aziz Ansari’s Netflix show Master of None. The series had been applauded for tackling issues like racism in Hollywood, interracial relationships, and street harassment. But I was watching purely because I think Aziz, the co-creator and star, is pretty funny.
Halfway through the season, the show began to turn me off.
During the episode “Indians on TV,” Dev – Ansari’s character – is copied on a racist e-mail about casting Indian actors for a show. When Dev’s friend suggests that he leak the e-mail, Dev responds, “People don’t get that fired up about racist Indian or Asian stuff. I feel like you only really risk starting a brouhaha if you say something bad about black people or gay people.”
I thought: Did this Indian American man just critique racism in Hollywood and throw shade at black and queer people in the same breath?
At the time, I dropped the thought because I wanted to enjoy the show without deconstructing it like a critic or an academic. But I was reminded of the topic again during the Oscars, when hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite and #NotYourMule emerged on social media.
Apparently, some people of color took the Aziz Ansari approach to representation in Hollywood: They addressed the diversity problem by pointing fingers at black folks.
Many complained that black actors had more representation than other people of color, while others criticized Chris Rock for not mentioning other people of color during his spiel on representation.
In response, hashtag mogul, Mikki Kendall, created #NotYourMule, which she intended to critique non-black people of color who don’t show support on issues that affect black people, but expect black people to advocate for them.
The discussions on representation in Hollywood got me thinking about how non-black people of color can support one another in their quest for equality.
We all need allies, but fighting battles on behalf of other groups can create problems and add to the oppression people of color already experience in society.
Racism Affects Us All Differently
When we talk about oppression in our country, we have to recognize that it affects us all in varying ways.
As people of color from different backgrounds, we all have unique challenges, face different and often opposing stereotypes, and have particular ways we interact with the police.
To the latter point, I’ve heard many non-black people of color oppose Black Lives Matter because it doesn’t include other people of color. Some argue that the “Black Lives Matter” slogan should be altered to include anyone of color.
However, these arguments fail to recognize that black interactions with the police are often different from those of other people of color.
As we know, black people are disproportionately targeted, harassed, and killed by the police.
Had Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, and Tamir Rice been Asian (East, South, or Southeast) or even Latinx (another highly targeted group), their chances of run-ins with the police would have significantly decreased and their lives might have been spared.
Saying “people of color” or “all lives” in place of “black” erases very specific racism targeting black people and removes the focus from the main social issues we’re fighting against. Black activists already know that all lives matter.
Yet, when statistics show that a black person is killed by the police every 28 hours, the immediacy of the situation requires us to focus on black lives.
We can’t water down the issue by including all lives, as our interactions with the racist institutions in our nation vary.
Even People of Color Can Be Anti-Black
Those who denounce black activists for not acknowledging “all lives” must also recognize that, to some members of other communities of color, black lives don’t matter.
This was apparent in February, when around 10,000 people rallied in New York yelling “All Lives Matter” in support of Peter Liang, a Chinese American officer who fatally shot Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man.
While some of the protesters did call for the indictment of all officers who killed unarmed black people, many others showed up to support Liang despite the unjust loss of another man’s life.
Liang was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for the shooting, and many would agree that the sentence was probably because Liang was Asian American.
Had he looked more like the officers who killed Mike Brown, Eric Garner, or Tamir Rice, Liang might not have even seen a trial.
Though the protesters didn’t acknowledge it, they were rallying for Liang to receive the same kind of above-the-law treatment afforded to white officers.
They were protesting for white supremacy to be extended to Asians.
When non-black people ask black folks to rally for their causes, oftentimes they’re asking us to stick up for the same people who scream #AllLivesMatter, while literally ignoring that black lives are lost in the process.
We cannot fight for causes that deflect attention from, or support the loss of, our own lives.
And it’s difficult to support those who would turn their backs on us the minute they have an opportunity to gain from anti-black politics.
We Should Be Allies, Not Advocates
Though we have varying struggles, we all want to be treated as human beings.
We want our nation to recognize that our lives matter. We can do that as allies, but black people can’t always be advocates for other people of color.
There’s a difference between an ally and an advocate.
Allies support a person or group, while advocates fight for, or on behalf of, that group. Allies provide backup support while advocates take center stage as the main face of a movement.
In many cases, people outside the group can do more good by being supportive as allies than by inserting themselves into the fray as advocates.
Advocating for a group you don’t belong to can do more harm than good.
Black activists may be quick to initiate trending discussions on social media and rally behind a cause, but we aren’t experts on how to overcome oppression for all people of color.
We can’t be at the forefront of movements of other racial groups because we may get their experiences wrong.
Many of us don’t fully know what it’s like to be, for instance, a person of Japanese descent living in the US. We only have an outsider perspective, and because of that, we can get things wrong.
Some of us aren’t up on the latest news in or historical implications of communities of color, domestically or abroad.
Many of us may make the mistake of bringing up the problematic “model minority” argument when speaking about Asian Americans.
Some of us need a reminder on the difference between Latinx and Hispanic. Even the most socially conscious, “woke” black person will need to be educated on how to support the causes of non-black people of color.
Additionally, when a spokesperson for a marginalized group is not of that group, there’s the problem of speaking for, rather than with, a community.
In being the main spokesperson for a group we don’t belong to, we take the microphone away from people who are perfectly capable of advocating for themselves (many of whom already are).
We do not need to silence the voices that are already trying to be heard.
As we already know, representation matters – in media, in government, and in social justice movements.
Black girls need to see black women leaders. It’s inspiring to see that the prominent members of the #BlackLivesMatter movement are women. That makes me, as a black woman, feel more included in the movement.
Similarly, other people of color need to see themselves reflected in their social justice movements. It’s more empowering when your leader is one of your own. So, even for their own sake, non-black people of color shouldn’t depend on black people to lead their movements.
Everyone with a cause needs allies, and black allies are ready to support other people of color in their struggles. Non-black people of color, please give your black friends, associates, and allies a hashtag we can use to show we have your back.
Please let us know what time your rallies take place, and share information on how we can support your causes. But don’t ask us to put our issues aside to fight on your behalf.
It won’t help, and it’s not our job.
Read more at The Establishment here:
- The Pains of Being Woke
- The Dangers of the ‘Cool Girl’ Ideal
- Why Are We Scared to Admit That Pregnancy and Childbirth Can Be Sensual
Shae Collins is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She enjoys educating and uplifting by aiming a black feminist lens at pop culture on her blog. She’s been published in EBONY, Ms. Magazine, For Harriet, and Blavity. Laugh with her on Twitter @ShaeCWrites. Read her articles here.