As first posted on The Inclusion Solution
My team sat in the living room of our house rental for our retreat, swapping horror stories of the ways in which we had been harmed by the white women in our field.
To varying degrees, we had personal relationships with these white women — some of them deep. They consoled us while we were experiencing grief. They supported us in our endeavors outside of our working relationships. We had formed deep connections with them, or so we thought. But we also watched these white women harm other women of color.
I started to review all of my friendships with white women: Could they be my true friend if they love me, but are apathetic toward ending the oppression of people who look like me? Am I the “Black friend” in their argument as to why they can’t be racist?
Friendship as a form of performative allyship
My definition of performative allyship is when someone from a non-marginalized group publicly supports social justice and equity efforts, but only to the lengths to which they look good or gain social capital. This could be sharing and promoting things on social media, bragging about the causes you support in front of people, or joining committees devoted to “the work,” but not contributing much to the cause. This could also look like being in relationship with a select few with different identities as social proof you are not (insert any -ism label).
It was difficult for me to discover that I had some of these performative ally friends, both in my personal and professional lives. I thought someone was my friend in the workplace, and then I would hear from other women of color how this person did something covertly — or more pointedly — racist toward them.
The “niceness” of white supremacy can sometimes confuse people. Many of my white women friends are nice. However, niceness is also oftentimes used as a weapon to police when people experiencing oppression demand change. Niceness can be used as a shield to cover up more covertly racist attitudes and behaviors.
I couldn’t dismiss someone else’s experience just because my “friend” never did something to me personally. I’m actually oftentimes seen as a “palatable Black girl,” seen as an exception to the rules and inclinations of other Black people. Therefore, I am not the one to determine that what these women experienced wasn’t due to racism. I believed the women, but what I couldn’t believe was the behavior of someone I thought of as a friend.
Seeking community for survival
We oftentimes turn to community to foster resilience within systems designed to harm us. Community is there when we can’t trust a company to really be for our best self-interests (speaking from very personal experience). We meet someone who is like-minded, so we want to form connections with them.
Back to the question I asked earlier: Could my white friend actually be my true friend if they love me, but are apathetic toward ending the oppression of people who look like me?
After so much mental gymnastics, I just couldn’t justify the incongruent beliefs and behaviors. I knew the friend I referred to earlier cared (and still cares) about me. Not only did they express their care for me through words, they also showed up and defended me in the spaces I needed them. They were publicly promoting issues of social justice everywhere they went … or so I thought. However, it’s a certain type of betrayal when you see someone who you feel “gets” it is still protecting whiteness and upholding white supremacy.
I didn’t know how to address my friend with this betrayal, and I couldn’t come up with concrete solutions about how we could move forward and maintain our relationship. But I knew that I liked this person and wanted to maintain the relationship in a way that my whole self could be seen and appreciated.
Community harm means community-oriented solutions
As my coworkers and I were continuing to talk, one solutions-driven coworker wanted to talk about how we could address these problems. We all agreed communication is key. And because it was our personal relationships affected by community-level harm, we thought of a community-level solution.
My coworker suggested having a neutral facilitator navigate a conversation about our relationships in the field. We thought it was helpful to broaden the conversation to our field, because our workplace was all women of color, yet we work and collaborate with many white women in other organizations. This wouldn’t be a space of shame and blame, because, as I like to believe in good intentions, many of these performative allies may just need a deeper level of introspection on their role in upholding white supremacist systems. This should be a space where we are all seeking to understand.
During conversations like these, our hope is to have:
- A forum for women of color to share their grievances experienced with white women, whether or not they are considered friends
- A space to challenge white women to think more critically about how their behaviors may be more performative than they originally believed
- A dialogue on what women of color need to repair and/or foster relationships with the white women who have previously caused harm and on how white women plan to hold themselves more accountable in the future.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a space that would be conducive to change if people staunchly believe they have not caused harm, but this could be a good start to bridge those gaps. To address concerns of confidentiality, people would share their experiences with all identifying information redacted. The facilitator would read these experiences to the group, so people will feel more comfortable sharing and their voice still gets heard.
This isn’t a perfect solution, and our white friends need to undergo their own personal journey of reckoning with what it means to benefit from white supremacy while working to end it. This is just one solution, with restorative justice roots, to address the harm caused in a workplace by people who may not see themselves as causing harm. Women of color suffering in silence is never the answer, but neither is placating white feelings for the sake of “professionalism.” We need real, honest conversations to address these issues so women of color feel safe in the workplace, and white women can take accountability to be the true accomplices (rather than just allies) they want to be.