There's a fine line between being an ally and an accidental supremacist

There's a fine line between being an ally and an accidental supremacist
Photo credit: ryanwilliamsvirden.com (Form Follows Fuction Blog)

Baby showers are supposed to be fun.

Actually, that’s a lie. Baby showers are usually lame, but this one was different. There was music and pizza, exotic salads and Garret’s popcorn. Most importantly, there was plenty of alcohol and yellow cake, which we all needed, after the week in American history that brought us President-Elect Donald Trump.

To be honest, I was just happy to be there. As the only female in a house bursting at the seams with testosterone, I was enjoying the abundance of estrogen and pretty shoes in the room. With a plate overflowing with fresh greens, I found a spot in the corner of the room. Soon, an old friend, who just so happens to white joined me at the table.

Though our hues differ, a majority of our beliefs are probably closely aligned. She committed herself to educating kids in a neighborhood that many people and resources abandoned decades ago. Truth be told, she could probably recite Marcus Garvey or Toussaint Louverture better than I.

She has been an ally long before we called cross-cultural alliances such a thing.

Our conversation started innocently enough. Work. Cubs. Marathons. Old boyfriends. The election. Cubs. Marathons. Old Boyfriends. The election.

During the exchange I confessed my recent anxieties about driving through a predominately white suburb. The entire time I drove 30 miles per hour, played gospel music, and contemplated what I would do if I got pulled over.

Our discussion about the police continued until she disclosed that an organization of Black officers requested to come speak with her class of predominately Black students. She emphatically told them that they could not.

“The police are the problem, not us. We are not the problem, they are.”

I stared down into my cup of whiskey and ginger beer for what felt like an eternity. If I opened my mouth I was never going to get invited out again.

I glanced up at her. She couldn’t be challenged. She was sure she was right.

And maybe she was but that’s not the point.

The reality is that it shouldn’t have been her call to make. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of her students’ parents had requested more cops on their street. I couldn’t help but wonder how many students in her class already feared the police. As the mother of two Black boys and the sister of a Black cop, I can’t afford to teach my children the fallacy that they can stonewall themselves against the police. Her well-intentioned opinion was marred by the privilege of having a second person removed perspective. Her righteous indignation would have played well in the movies but it fell painfully short in real life. Black children don’t have the luxury of being ignorant, ill-prepared, hostile, suspicious, or unfamiliar with how to interact with law enforcement.

It was time to pour myself another round.

The doorbell rang and I was grateful for the distraction. My other friend at the table didn’t continue the conversation and I was grateful. Because of babies. And hope. And pizza. And there was no need to waste the whiskey.

As the night progressed, I laughed and giggled. I also continued to think about my friend’s words, her decision, and the delicate line that ‘allies’ must walk when they believe they are championing the cause of the disenfranchised.

Intrinsic to the role of an ally must be a core belief that the community has the ability to save itself (and the intelligence to make the best decisions for itself).

Anything that assumes otherwise, anything that promotes the savior’s narrative over the community’s voice, is steeped in a superiority complex - no matter who well-intentioned it is. Imperialism, colonialism, and even institutionalized racism are sustained on the notion of saving “lesser” peoples from themselves.

I decided not to pursue the conversation, in part, because I believe that intentions should matter. I knew that her heart was in the right place. Besides, I had also learned my own lesson in privilege, when many years back, a older woman in the same neighborhood told me that she didn’t think I should work in her community because I wasn’t from her community.

The nerve, I thought, as I clutched my imaginary pearls around my neck.

For a second, I wanted to grab the keys to my luxury car, speed out of the neighborhood and never look back.

Recognizing my own position of privilege was a sobering and powerful lesson, but one that I never forgot. In a post-election world, where the rights of everyone who is un-White and un-male is poised to be challenge, this experience reminded me that the best way to be an ally is to demand that those who I am trying to help have a seat at the decision table for their own lives.

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    Kay S

    Kay Smith is a Chicago-based freelance writer and blogger who focuses on race, politics and urban culture. Having worked on public policy at the state, regional, city and community level, her opinions have been featured in the Chicago SunTimes and a host of news websites (under very mysterious sounding pseudonyms). Follow her on Twitter @kaywillsmith or contact her at kaywilliamsmith@gmail.com.

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