Lost in Translation: Do Our Allies Really Understand Us?

by Viviane Rutabingwa

Recently I was involved in what I will hesitantly refer to as the most genuinely honest conversation that I have had across black/white racial lines about race. A very close girlfriend had asked us, 4 of her girlfriends compromised of three Black girls and one Asian – already close friends, to go over to her house to meet her visiting white sister-in-law for the first time. We shall refer to the sister in law as Heather.

The night started off great and pretty typical.  Beautiful, smart, dynamic ladies catching up and getting to know each other. Halfway through the night full of many superficial pleasantries (think weather, jobs, sports) and a good meal, one of our regular girlfriends-- happily buzzed-- asks something that would be a typical comment in our circle. In a jovial, blatantly light manner she says, “Oh girl, you didn’t tell me your sister-in-law was white!” We (all the women – Black, white and Asian sans the sister-in-law) all responded with light laughter.

Heather, unamused responded with, “Why should that matter? I just see people, I don’t see colour and I don’t think you should either”

Oh dear...

Heather then proceeded to give us a lengthy lecture which, summarized, spoke about how everyone has personal struggles and we have to appreciate each other beyond color and how it’s just a matter of the good people versus the bad people in this world.

Now placing aside the naive simplicity and plain inaccuracy of her argument as well as the arrogance of a white woman with all her privilege lecturing women of color about how our reality is not really real and it’s all just an issue of not being “deep” enough, this moment in itself was a teaching moment for me. In this moment, I came to realize what a detriment this societal push of color blindness and melting pot mentality has been to people of color. Because rooted in white guilt, it denies people of color the space to legitimize their struggles especially in the presence of whiteness.

After almost an hour of debating back and forth with the 2 white women in the room (who both have black partners, for whatever that is worth) we were unable to “convince” Heather that societal and structural racism is real. She was committed to the fact that although individual racism may exist, those are just bad people, and to make the night even more baffling, the other white friend in the room had begun a side beef on why people of color always hold present day white people responsible for what their ancestors did.

As I contemplated this conversation, what was most telling for me was the age of these white women. These were not old white women from a secluded small town. They both have black partners, black friends and both self-identified as “loving black culture.” They are what we would typically call an ally. So my question was, how did we get here? How is it that our allies do not even recognize our struggle? Why are we still spending hours explaining to them racism 101 topics such as white privilege, white supremacy and neocolonialism?

An absurd product of this rampant ubiquitous “politeness” on race issues was demonstrated to me soon after when at a nail salon a well-intentioned white lady complimented the nail color I chose by saying, “It looks so great on you because of your amazing…tan.” To which I responded by telling her that it wasn’t a tan and I was indeed black. Teju Cole describes this odd phenomenon powerfully: “There is an expectation that we can talk about sins but no one must be identified as a sinner: newspapers love to describe words or deeds as "racially charged" even in those cases when it would be more honest to say "racist"; we agree that there is rampant misogyny, but misogynists are nowhere to be found; homophobia is a problem but no one is homophobic. One cumulative effect of this policed language is that when someone dares to point out something as obvious as white privilege, it is seen as unduly provocative.”

It seems to me that the guilt associated with acknowledging that one is a part of the historical and present day oppressive group be it through color, gender or sexual orientation has come to lie heavy on many a chests. This heaviness is now being translated to us as another layer of oppression by the continuous denial of the truths of our reality and thus the removal of any hope for true recognition. Very eloquently Melissa Harris Perry states in her book Sister Citizen: “Proper recognition is not to be blinded by or be blinded to one’s racial identity”

So friend of mine, if you see me, you see my color otherwise you don’t see me.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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