‘There’s no black in the union jack!’ the stranger screamed, so close to my face I could feel his breath. Aged sixteen, this middle-aged white man towered over me. But the profound feeling of smallness that washed over me wasn’t about height; it was about being told here in Bangor, in the town I’d grown up in, that I had no place. That and the silence that followed.
I was out with a group of friends and this man had just emerged from the crowd to shout in my face. I looked around, waiting for a reaction that wasn’t coming. I knew then I was on my own and the responsibility of calling this grown man out was solely on me. We can’t always shoulder the weight of that responsibility. Sometimes it’s not safe or we’re cut too deep to speak. Not today, I thought, although it wasn’t until he laid his hands on me that I pushed him away. Only then did my friends have anything to say. They pulled me away and told me I needed to calm down.
On holiday some years later I was sat around a table with a group of friends and overheard the white guy behind me say ‘…Where I’m from, we call each other nigger all the time and it’s fine, it’s not racist.’ I clocked his accent and realised we were both from the same area. I flashed back to all the times growing up in Bangor when my friends called me by that word and I pretended it was fine whilst my insides churned. Anger flared. But then I remembered being told to calm down whenever I’d find the courage to stand up for myself, reclaim some of the power and dignity being stripped from me or defend my personal space. I glanced around me, it didn’t seem safe to speak, so I just listened, said nothing and got angry with myself.
Sometimes, that’s all you can do, because reacting and engaging can be triggering, dangerous, damaging and just too exhausting all on your own. But looking back at it now, I refuse to be angry with myself anymore for not speaking out every single time I’m confronted with discrimination. But I am hurt by the people who sat around him nodding because it was easier to ignore than to engage. For us, the pain of confronting racial hatred is so much greater and we don’t get to ignore it, not a day in our lives. If you are a true ally or a true friend, then neither should you.
That said, there’s a balance to strike. This is not a green light to go out feeling like you have to be the fighting force for your BME mates and comrades. Sometimes we won’t need you to speak for us. Sometimes we’ll want to speak for ourselves. Being my ally is not the same as being a ‘white knight’ and you don’t have to get it perfectly right from the start to be a good ally. It’s a learning process that takes time; maybe a lifetime. But what allyship does require is that you are committed to that process, even – if not especially – when it’s awkward or painful.
Issues of power and privilege are hard to grasp and fully understand. There is a lot of contradicting information about how to be a good ally. There is no 10 Step Guide. But here’s a few from me to get you started.
1) Admit you don’t ‘get it’ – and ask
Different people will have different answers, in different situations. Being an ally is about knowing how to support the individuals in your life; when to step in and when to step back. And when you’re not sure, having the humility to ask.
If you don’t feel close and comfortable enough with the person to directly raise the issue face-to-face, take the effort to look elsewhere. There are white spaces, social media groups and online magazines where people write about and discuss this stuff, (such as Gal-dem, Everyday Feminism and Media Diversified) taking the sole responsibility from those from marginalised communities to educate people on their pain. Your single black friend is not the spokesperson for the whole community and if we really want to progress and build stronger movements, communities, families and friendship groups then white allies need to be as committed have to be in confronting racism whenever and wherever it rears its head.
2) Educate yourself
Even if you have close friends who you feel comfortable asking questions of, that doesn’t mean it’s fair to expect them to do all the work for you. To quote Mia Mckenzie, the ‘people who experience racism, misogyny, ableism, queerphobia, transphobia, classism etc. are exhausted.’ And always having to teach or show our pain, even when that means putting ourselves in dangerous or damaging situations, is the most exhausting part. And if anything, it can be particularly painful in close relationships. Teaching about power and privilege cannot continue like this.
The biggest change we need to see is white people stepping up to the plate to self-educate by reading the writings and listening to the voices of BME thinkers instead of leaving all the burden on those you meet and work with. By looking solely at the individual and not the systems that enforce oppression we are doomed to repeat old patterns. And sooner or later, however much strength and patience we can muster – it’s too heavy a weight to carry alone. And we shouldn’t have to.
3) Speak Up
This is the most important rule, and it’s about more than trying to be quieter than the quietest BME person in a given conversation. Being an ally isn’t about shutting up and leaving us to our own liberation. We need more from you than that. For the sake of all the black and brown people hurt and traumatised by clumsy attempts to tackle power and privilege without due care, the current method used in activist circles needs to change. We need pro-active, collective work towards making safe spaces empowering spaces. Want to be equals at the top, not the bottom; in resistance, not in silence. So if there’s an imbalance in your group in terms of who’s speaking, putting forward ideas and getting access to resources – name it as a problem and act on it, because recognition without action changes nothing.
4) Show respect
It’s one thing to say that the exploited and oppressed can teach about the system we live in and have a central role in transforming it. It’s another to live those values. Living them means listening actively and respectfully when testimony is being shared: without interrogating, dismissing or just planning our next intervention.
Discussing and dealing with power and privilege isn’t a favour we’re asking for, when we enter rooms where these painful discussions have to be had; it is a gift we give to others, to empower the movement and make society a freer and fairer place for everyone. Whenever someone shares their story, it is powerful but it is also difficult. And it deserves more than a silent audience; it merits respect and gratitude.
‘Political projects of transformation necessarily involve a fundamental reconstitution of ourselves as well. However, for this process to work, individual transformation must occur concurrently with social and political transformation. That is, the undoing of privilege occurs not by individuals confessing their privileges or trying to think themselves into a new subject position, but through the creation of collective structures that dismantle the systems that enable these privileges.’ – [Andrea Smith]
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Omar Barghouti asks whether Donald Trump, in his recent break with America’s long-standing support for the two-state solution, has unwittingly revived the debate about the plausibility, indeed the necessity, of a single, democratic state in historic Palestine?
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform