Last modified on Sun 19 Sep 2021 12.28 BST
I felt overwhelmed: 40,000 hits to my website – 50 times more than the average month – plus 2,000 emails, people tagging me in social media posts to let their followers know they had signed up to my online anti-racism course – but not always actually signing up. The murder of George Floyd had thrown up a very apparent collective sense of white guilt around the world.
I had been doing anti-racism work long before the summer of 2020, so I didn’t understand why – increased volume aside – some of these interactions felt so different to the usual business inquiries I receive. I felt there was such a sense of ownership over me, my time, my words, what I should talk about and when. The more boundaries I put up, the more they would trample over them.
Not only huge volumes of emails and requests to “quickly pick my brain”, but also WhatsApp and text messages from friends and colleagues (some I hadn’t heard from in years). They weren’t checking in to see how I was. They were using me as a priest at confession, to whom they could start offloading their own sins and shame about racism.
When one white woman didn’t get an immediate response from me, her tone mutated from the previous “with love and light” signoff to telling me my activism was “bullshit”. Another flooded my Instagram DMs to “find out” if I had received her email. When she didn’t get an immediate reply, she went through my followers list and contacted a mutual colleague, asking if she could hurry things along.
There was a distinct and clear difference between the intention behind these kinds of interactions and the usual inquiries: these were self-serving. This was a stage performance, a way to manage their perception, so their ego could feel better about all that’s wrong in the world.
Many came swooping in with a freshly ironed superhero cape, it having only just occurred to them that they, too, could do something about racism.
In the weeks that followed I saw a great deal of what I call “performative allyship”: white people cancelling and shaming “those other white people over there’’ on the internet; making a corporate statement to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, without checking in on any Black staff; sharing links to articles that their friends should read that they hadn’t read themselves; donating to charity without any further anti-racist action; liking Black friends’ posts about racism, but not picking up the phone to check in on them at the height of Black Lives Matter; perfectly curating a mini, styled photographic shoot of anti-racism books and using them as props on social media feeds without having ever actually read any of them.
I don’t know how else to say this so I’ll just say it: Black people don’t need white people to rescue us. We don’t.
We have been rescuing ourselves and revolting against the oppressor throughout history. Contrary to the popular belief that only great white men rescued us from slavery, it was the Haitian Revolution from 1791 to 1804, the only successful slave revolt in history, that instigated the global abolishment of slavery.
A number of other slave rebellions in the British West Indies made the British government rethink whether continuing to enslave Black Africans was going to continue to be sustainable. Why? Because there was a huge fear (still present to this day) that Black folk would want to seek revenge and go on a murderous killing spree of white Europeans.
We’ve been revolting, rescuing ourselves and rising up, in spite of systemic oppression, for centuries. We’ve had no choice but to, for our own self-preservation and survival. What we really need white people to do is consciously, consistently and intentionally unlearn racism. It’s no secret that shame and guilt go hand in hand with unlearning racism – but you can’t do this work in any meaningful, or truthful way without experiencing these feelings at some point and you will consistently feel uncomfortable. Trying to do anti-racism work while remaining comfortable, to actively avoid confronting feelings, is just not possible.
Performative allyship has very little to do with reducing harm to Black folk and ending systems of oppression. It happens when you want to skip to the end bit. Performative allyship is leaping from half-listening, straight into action.
Students often find their way to my online anti- racism academy via Instagram, word of mouth or seeing a colleague or someone they admire engaging in the work and feeling compelled to do better at work and in the world around them. A lot come because they want to raise socially conscious children. Others, if I am honest, also come under the guise of guilt. One such student shared something with me: “My performative allyship and saviourism is somewhere between perfectionism, people-pleasing and wanting to make everything OK in the world, so that I don’t have to feel the pain, discomfort, hurt and anger of others. I want utopia so I don’t have to deal with big emotions. I wanted the answers quickly in anti-racism work, so I could do my bit and move on. I realised I can’t make a difference if I can’t face the thought of not being liked or upsetting people.”
This student also realised that what was holding them back from being anti-racist was a common theme throughout all aspects of their life. They had a real fear of not belonging and upsetting people – and a bigger fear of dealing with these feelings. So much so that they would usually avoid them. But much like most students who engage in my work, it has also taken them down a path of healing and addressing parts of their behaviour that need attention. Because you cannot be truly anti-racist without confronting parts of yourself that you hide or ignore.
There’s an impulsive desire to fix, to be the hero of the story, to swoop in and rescue and, for some, it also comes from a place of superiority and/or a desire to be forgiven. It feeds into something called the “White Saviour Industrial Complex” – a term first coined by Harvard professor and novelist Teju Cole in 2012. “White Saviour Industrial Complex is not about justice, it’s about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege… There is much more to doing good work than ‘making a difference’. There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them,” explains Cole.
This can be difficult to understand, and to get right. People really do think they are doing the right thing, but without understanding the consequences. The British charitable organisation Comic Relief came under fire in February 2019 when Stacey Dooley went to Uganda on behalf of the charity and shared a photograph of herself on social media with a young Black toddler, holding him in her arms and cooing at how cute he looked. Some white people were outraged when the (Black) Labour MP David Lammy responded to the photo with a tweet by saying, “The world does not need any more white saviours.”
Of course charities and aid organisations are important, but how aid is presented is key. Any charity that does not have a core mission to empower the communities they are serving is problematic. Instead of showcasing “poverty and trauma porn”, charities could intentionally choose to centre Black voices and share news about the inspiring work being done by people in the community.
Don’t underestimate the power of one-dimensional storytelling and representation and how it can inform your worldview. I still recall noticing, as a seven-year-old, that the only people who looked like me on television were in charity idents, with flies buzzing round their faces, with the white English man with the sombre sad voice as a backdrop. That’s improved, but there’s still a long way to go. There is a fine line between helping and being performative, but nevertheless there is a line.
Being an ally means being able to recognise this. To me, an ally is a person who advocates and works alongside the Black community, who uplifts communities for a shared common goal driven solely by the cause – not so that they can look good.
It is a person who wants to learn how to recognise what everyday racism looks like – from pay inequity to social persecution – and address it. A person who learns to hold the tension between being asked to speak up while, at the same time, also being asked not to speak up on behalf of Black folk and people of colour and just listen. To hold the fear of saying the wrong thing, while having a strong desire to say and do something.
It is a person who learns to actively listen – to respond rather than react – and take considered and thoughtful actions and welcome feedback on inherent racism without spiralling out of control.
It is a person who accepts that there is no certificate or completion date. To accept they will get it wrong and do it anyway. But it is mostly a person who accepts that there is no magic formula, or a one-size-fits-all approach to this work. The only way to be truly anti-racist is go on a journey to unlearn your own inherent racism, because it is on that journey that you will find your unique path to becoming actively anti-racist.
To go back to Teju Cole: first do no harm. That means acknowledging and getting curious about where this innate desire to rescue Black people and be one of the “good white people” is coming from. That means being conscious of your motivations to help – it means being honest.
Anti-racism isn’t about claiming to be the fountain of all knowledge on Black people because you’ve read some books and watched some documentaries.
This is about working alongside, supporting, accepting you are going to get it wrong and showing up anyway. It means accepting that anything worthy of seismic change will not happen without discomfort, consistency and a whole heap of courage.
If someone is in any doubt, they should ask themselves: am I acting because it’s the right thing to do, to centre the needs of others, or am I doing this for myself, to feel better and make myself look good?
The Good Ally: A Guided Anti-Racism Journey from Bystander to Changemaker by Nova Reid is published by HQ, HarperCollins at £16.99. Buy a copy for £14.78 at guardianbookshop.com