by Mara Jebsen
In 1999, when Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times, my friend Z took it hard. She had just started dating a white guy, and he couldn’t understand why she was crying so much. “You’re no relation to him” he kept reminding her. She’d cry harder.
One afternoon, we were in a lounge at Duke University’s Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, where, that year, we’d meet several times a week. There was an artist-in-residence there —a politically active poet from Durham, who was wildly charismatic, and had made himself a little following of artists from North Carolina, and students at the university. He loaned us Nina Simone CDs, and books of Eldridge Cleaver poems. Z and I usually talked about poetry, but this time talk was all about Diallo’s death and the new boyfriend who didn’t get it. “Maybe you could explain it to him,” she said, looking at me. “Why?” I asked. “Because you’re white,” she said, “and maybe you understand him better.”
I was stung—though I knew better than to show it. In any case, I didn’t talk to him, and in the end it didn’t matter, I figured, as I don't think the relationship was sustained. We were all about 19 at the time.
But why was I stung? Why didn’t I want her to think that I was like that boy because we were both white? How would I have explained to him that it was right that she cared about Diallo because they were both black? What would that conversation have sounded like, had I had the grace to venture it? I think, a solid 16 years later, that the answer to those questions has something to do with the central dilemma of the ally. What is it, in the end, to ‘devote’ yourself to a cause that is not (considered) your own?
I first heard the word “ally” in reference to people who wanted to help out/attend LGBTQ meetings and protests, but who did not, themselves, identify as part of the group. Was it important that the distinction be made that they were not, themselves, part of the LGBTQ community? It seemed important. It seemed a useful term. Not “of”, but “with”— a devoted helper.
Of course, one was more accustomed to thinking of allies in terms of World War II; to be an ally was to be a country temporarily aligned with another country because each had the same enemies, or were working towards some outcome that, in the end, would supposedly benefit all forces in the alliance. Allies, then, could be the ‘strange bedfellows’ that politics made. As I understood it in the fifth grade, ally-ship was all a matter of cooperation based on self-interest.
Nevertheless, this new, domestic use of the word—which was not based on self-interest— made sense to me. In fact, a lot of the newer words for naming what’s happening in the culture make sense to me, like “micro-agression,” “white fragility” and “tone policing.” In addition to this relatively new language, there are useful maps and tutorials which can explain the prison industrial complex, the workings of systemic racism, and more–with stats, graphs, and video. There are beautifully written, explanatory essays, and books of poems like Rankine's “Citizen.” I can't measure the effect of these things. But I do have a white uncle, just turned 60, who admits, shaking his head, that he had always placed racism elsewhere—in the south, in Europe, in the past. He hadn’t know, as he feels he knows now, that its “baked into the cake.” Some of my students, many of whom are wealthy liberals, shake their heads when they realize that their first reading of a book or film is shot through with harmful assumptions about race and class that they didn’t know they were making. Last year, one of them said to me, sadly, “But I wanted to have a beautiful mind; a pure one.”
This is just anecdotal evidence, of course, but trends in how the people around me are thinking about race is something that I've paid attention to in the 20 years I’ve been back in America. For example, ten years ago, I had two groups of friends and the same nuclear and extended family I have now. One group of friends, and my nuclear family, consisted largely people color, who spoke, and joked, and grieved frequently about how race determined experience. The other group of friends, and my extended family, tended to speak and worry and joke only about other things. In the last three years, I see more race-related worry, across the board.
In response to growing media coverage of police violence against black Americans, one hears amonst white liberals, sensations of outrage and sympathy; a sense that the country “loved and believed in” was “not living up to its ideals.” A sense that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
One thing that frightens me, though, is that we have been here,before, with a certain sector of the population newly shocked by their country and their own minds–and that history is not well told. To offer a totally extreme example–recently, my boyfriend showed me “The Weather Underground,” a documentary about the Weathermen. I felt, of course, that I must live under a rock, for I’d never heard of them. Whatever rock I live under, though, my college-students live under it, too, and that’s why I’m tempted to work it into my curriculum this year.
Although I know that the era of the Vietnam war was much different than this one, I still was shocked by the footage of young white Americans so angry and so convinced that brown and red and yellow power all over the world were going to righteously rise up– that they were willing to give up their families and resort to violence to help their “brothers.” Meanwhile, some black panthers called them “muddleheads.”
Joan Didion, in “A Dream of Common Prayer,” includes a white character who engages in domestic terrorism, a girl who is both innocent and damned because she is so stupid that she is a sort of empty container into which a violent, radical idea can be placed. We get from Didion (who is pretty rough on all of her characters, to be fair) absolute disdain for the revolutionary who “risks all,” (which is to say, her family, her humanity, her life, the lives of innocents) but doesn’t understand what she’s fighting for.
But if ideals are not enough–i.e. the desire to 'believe in the country' again, is too naive–then what is it that can inspires the ally to 'get it', to make there right kinds of sacrifice, to be truly trustworthy? Its a problem I am still very caught up in.
This summer, my brother, who is biracial, had an experience in this country that I do not wish to write about here, but which, I can say with certainty, replaced my own sensations of outrage against American racism (and sympathy with blacklivesmatter activists) with stronger sensations: plain rage, helplessness, a bitter sense of irony. For a few weeks afterward, I taught myself not to look at my newsfeed, because every image of another young black man killed or humiliated in this country meant another sleepless night. This sensation had nothing to do with my own “goodness” or “purifying” in my mind. It was “closeness to home” that had hit me (and not for the first time) but it was still something I would still find difficult to pass on to others.
Because she had been discussing black exhaustion, I told a friend of mine (a cultural critic who writes very widely-read essays and journalism on black and feminist issues) about the time in college Z wanted me to explain to her boyfriend why many black americans were distrustful of white liberals, and why one man, Diallo, could create a sense of kinship and fear in people who were no relation to him. I told my journalist friend that I was annoyed with my 19 year old self for her fragility, for not seeing that being an ally meant putting the ego aside so that you could try and help out. And she laughed, a little wryly. “Nobody wants this job,” she said.