On June 2, Idahoans came out in droves to support a vigil for George Floyd, a Black man killed by a police officer in Minneapolis on May 25. As the Black Lives Matter movement has captured the attention of many white people, who now feel a call to action. Some may be calling themselves allies for the first time, and some may be wondering how they can best support Black and Indigenous people, and people of color (BIPOC).
“I feel like we’ve been getting a lot of ‘what should we do?,’” said Inclusive Idaho Executive Director Whitney Mestelle. “Something for the Boise community to think about is, there needs to be a deep level of understanding about the burden that puts on us. Asking a Black person to put in extra work while we process our feelings, do work in the community and still experience everyday racism can be a lot.”
BIPOC activists, organizers and academics say that allies should center marginalized voices, examine their own inherent racist biases and teach other white people about racism. However, they warned that Black Americans are not a monolith, and there are many ways white people can fight racism every day if they begin to educate themselves. That said, allies are an integral part of BLM as a social issue.
“Allyship isn’t a noun: It’s a verb,” said Angela Taylor of The Treasure Valley NAACP and the DIGNITAS Agency. “What I hope is that the momentum continues. It’s been 400 years of oppression and change won’t happen overnight, and we need allies to make it a movement, and then we’ll see change.”
Taylor said that it has been encouraging to see people start to show up, but wants people to know that attending rallies isn’t enough. She said allyship goes from awareness to action to accountability, meaning that people must first show up then stand up and finally speak up. Taylor said it’s also important for allies to listen and hear when a member of a marginalized community shares their frustration and pain. An important piece of allyship that creates change takes place when members of the dominant culture lend amplitude to BIPOC voices.
One facet of the problem is that Idaho is 91% Caucasian, and advocates say that can make it more difficult for members of the dominant culture to see the world through the eyes of marginalized and minority people. While overt racism continues to be a challenge in the Gem State—according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were seven organized hate groups in Idaho in 2019—subtler, more covert forms of racism may be just as damaging.
Covert racism, those advocates and academics say, occurs when white supremacy has been baked into people’s everyday lives to the point that they unknowingly accept it and fail to challenge racism when they see it.
“Everyday choices [people make] show that the mentality of segregation is strong,” said Boise State University Professor of Sociology and Director of Ethnic Studies Dora Ramirez. “Activism begins by understanding that racism is embedded in the way we function in everyday society.”
Ramirez said one of the best ways people can begin practicing activism is by admitting their complicity in covert and passive racism. She said that “racist” can be a frightening label and some people can have difficulty acknowledging their racist behaviors That often means people whose values align with social movements like Black Lives Matter that focus on the plights of marginalized people often act out of keeping with those values.
Systemic racism, which is of a piece with passive racism, extends to the most basic parts of people’s lives, down to their participation in the economy, with intergenerational wealth, easy access to financial services and a lack of barriers to social upward mobility all contributing to some people being more likely to succeed than others based on their race. In a New York Times interview, Neel Kashkari, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, said that race issues in America are tied to economic issues, and issued a call for improving economic outcomes for all Americans.
Beyond working to change economic inequalities, Assistant Professor of English at Boise State Reshmi Mukherjee said people must learn by replacing damaging narratives and assumptions with knowledge that more comprehensively represents the truth.
“The system we are born into is so racist, but you must unlearn biases,” said Mukherjee. “People must learn and educate themselves, and it starts with learning the right and true history. Reading and learning is a big part of understanding human beings, [and] from there, people can learn to have empathy without pity.”
Mukherjee said empathy without pity is about doing things for others, not for one’s self, and that allyship can become a problem when attached to a savior complex that undermines a BIPOC’s ability to advocate for themselves. She said to be helpful white people must remember it’s not about them feeling good, it’s about helping the cause.
She was alluding to when activists, however well-meaning, engage in sanctimonious activism, putting their own anger, labor and messages ahead of the marginalized voices that allies ought to spotlight. According to Inclusive Idaho Director of Community Outreach Austin Foudy, being mindful of how one’s activism impacts the activism of others, and prioritizing and lifting up the labor of the people meant to benefit from activism are hallmarks of responsible allyship.
“Allies should utilize their platform and privilege to amplify the voices of disenfranchised and marginalized people,” said Foudy. “And that work can feel altruistic, but people need to recognize it’s not about them.”
Oftentimes. when allies put themselves at the forefront of the fight it is counterproductive and works to erase BIPOC voices. Foudy said the tendency white people have to assume that they know what’s best in matters of racism is absurd. He acknowledges that everybody makes mistakes and, as an ally, it’s important to admit when you’ve gotten something wrong, accept criticism, listen to BIPOC and remember there are many ways to fight racism.
“One tangible action people can do is social media,” said Foudy. “You can attack the system of oppression on social media by using that platform as a tool to raise awareness and be vocal about injustice.”
Allyship can be messy, and many longtime activists said it can be difficult to get it right the first time people do it. Tai Simpson, social change associate at the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, said it takes reading, reflection and engaging other people with topics of activism to build up one’s chops. Sometimes, she added, the best support can be to talk to friends and family, and do introspective work to uncover and overturn personal bias—but don’t expect someone who’s BIPOC to be a teacher or guide through that process.
“Allyship is a practice, which means it takes commitment, not just in serving social justice movements, but also a commitment to undoing their own bias, prejudice, and ideology that perpetuates oppression and marginalization,” Simpson wrote in an email. “Folks who practice allyship have to do so without high-fives, or gold stars, or accolades; we don’t applaud fish for swimming.”
Protesting and demonstrating are the more familiar ways in which people fight racism. However, because it’s a multi-faceted issue that must be attacked in a similar way, there are multitudes of ways allies can support the cause.
Education and the use of social media are effective but for Nastasia Cisco, owner of Lumos Optical, allyship is more personal, and includes caring about BIPOC as people in your neighborhood, and being concerned with the feelings and safety of people who have been marginalized or threatened. As a Black person in Boise, she said she feels sensitive and noticeable in the community, adding that support from allies can take the form of making that visibility more bearable.
“I’m not telling people what to do, but there are human faces behind the news: We aren’t some nebulous Black community,” said Cisco. “I’m just asking people to observe and if a Black member of the community is just existing by walking down the street, ask yourself how that makes you feel, because everyone should be excited that Boise’s becoming more diverse.”
While diversity is an important piece of the activism and allyship puzzle, organizers at Inclusive Idaho said that creating inclusivity for Black people requires a different skill set, though the two are often confused. Where diversity means BIPOC might live in a community, inclusion is the work of making them feel welcome there, and Mestelle said that too often, BIPOC feel like they aren’t a part of their communities.
“I encourage people to take a look at how they’re engaging in this work and listen to BIPOC, because we aren’t going to stop engaging in activism,” said Mestelle. It’s important for all people to engage today, tomorrow and forever until everyone is equal.”