White privilege, performative allyship and Vashon

A friend of mine who (choosing to remain anonymous) has long supported the people on Vashon has helped many people on the island. She shared a funny story about an interracial couple she assisted after they fell on hard times. The Black man, who had moved from Tacoma, joked with her a few days after arriving on the island, saying, “Jennifer, I have a bone to pick with you. You didn’t tell me that there are no Black people on this island.” Although it was a humorous moment, it highlighted the reality that the lack of exposure to the Black community on the island could hinder our efforts to be true allies. I have been wanting to write something to address what is going on with the community, but I haven’t been able to find the right words. I recently had the chance to speak with Vashon’s most vocal Black community member, Terell Williams, about topics such as white privilege, performative allyship, and what it truly means to be an ally which has helped me put what I have been feeling into words.

Bear with me as I address our community and share what I have learned so far.

What is “White Privilege”?

My first topic of discussion is white privilege. I have seen this topic brought up many times on Facebook and overheard conversations in our local coffee shops and restaurants. We all struggle to comprehend what white privilege really means to the community. More often than not, folks on the Island mistake privilege for wealth. As a community facing gentrification as housing costs go up and the indispensable workers on the Island (teachers, healthcare, etc.) are priced out of their affordable housing. Currently, the term “white privilege” has gained popularity, but unfortunately, it is often misused and misunderstood. It became more widespread due to the global protests in 2020 following the deaths of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, Ahmad Aubry, Trayvon Martin, and the Black Lives Matter movement. White privilege means having white skin is associated with positive connotations, giving individuals significant advantages. People perceive individuals with white skin as competent, intelligent, trustworthy, safe, and friendly by default.

In the often quoted and cited 1988 essay by Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy provides 50 examples of unearned benefits demonstrating white privilege. Examples of this include being able to go shopping alone without being followed or harassed. Quickly finding posters, books, and toys featuring people of one’s own race and never being asked to represent one’s entire racial group during pressing discussions of allyship.

White privilege exists due to racism, when individuals discriminate against others based on appearance and ethnicity. Racism continues to exist on Vashon Island, and it is the result of decisions made long ago that continue to affect our systems today. Systemic racism refers to how our systems disadvantage individuals based on the color of their skin, including government, policing, and schooling systems.

Although the concept of white privilege may not be new to BIPOC individuals, discussing it can be uncomfortable for white individuals on Vashon who have not been raised or taught to acknowledge race. It is essential to reflect on the privileges of whiteness and how they contribute to one’s opinions and actions. Most of the community of Vashon fails to recognize that white privilege does not mean that individuals have had an easy life but rather that they do not have to worry about the things that BIPOC individuals must worry about solely because of their skin color.

While talking with Terell, he mentioned that many white men on the island misinterpret the concept of being “privileged,” which they often deny, citing their experience of growing up poor without basic necessities as their own lack of privilege. After our conversation, Terelll explains that being born with white skin in America affords certain unearned advantages. This is not to make white people feel guilty, but it’s essential to acknowledge and maintain awareness of these privileges. People can be privileged in some ways and not in others. Many different types of privilege impact the way people experience life. Citizenship, class, sexual orientation, and sex are just a few examples of privileges people are born into that can afford them opportunities others may not have.

When asked “Is it possible for a gay person to exhibit racism?” most folks will answer with an affirmative “Yes.” I believe this is because we recognize that intersectionality is a flawed and idealistic concept. What applies to one group may not necessarily apply to another.

While the idea of intersectionality encourages us to seek shared experiences, we should not overlook our differences. For instance, when my fellow LGBTQ+ friends speak of our community’s advancements, we highlight the lack of progress in advancing civil rights for Black individuals. So, we ask, “Is it possible for a poor White person to be privileged?” The answer should be a resounding “yes.” While poor White and Black individuals may share similarities, such as struggling to provide for their families due to stagnant wages, poor White individuals do not experience the added burden of racism. It’s important to acknowledge this reality and not deny the harm caused by White denial on both sides of the issue.

White privilege pertains solely to Whiteness and not other aspects of one’s identity. Neglecting one aspect of intersectionality isolates each group and makes them face problems alone. Tyrell spoke of collaboration as the only way to meaningfully address issues without compromising our identities. He added that Martin Luther King Jr’s Poor People’s Campaign spoke to this level of intersectionality. King understood that Black individuals could find common ground with poor White individuals to address the wealth gap, a significant issue in America, and reflected on Vashon.

Dismissing Black people when we call out racism and assuming we’re playing the victim causes more harm and by imitating Black voices when you’re not Black further damages what it is we’re saying.

Tyrell Williamns

What is “Performative Allyship”?

To fully understand what “performative allyship” is, we would need to look at the difference between effective allyship and performative allyship. Effective allies don’t just talk about change; they take action and initiative to lead the change they want to see. Performative allies are allies only in name. Their “support” of a marginalized group is often just when it’s convenient for them and can actually be harmful to a group. This has been a frustration of mine with the community of Vashon. When it matters, the Islanders will protest at the four-way stop disrupting traffic or making paintings of the faces of black people and displaying them in local businesses. However, when the social media buzz of the BLM movement dies down, they go about their lives in silence. Where are these people now while the world is focused on the abortion debate and the perils of TikTok? Why are they not still supporting the black lives movement today? There hasn’t been a protest in 3 years, and the paintings still sit in the local business windows collecting dust with no context as to why they are there.

In an online group I belong to, someone shared a post by Ally Henny, an author and activist. The post reminded readers that quoting Martin Luther King Jr. on MLK Day does not absolve one of racist behavior. King’s legacy was about challenging white supremacy and systemic racism; therefore, we should reflect on his life and death from that perspective. One person found the post “rude” and left the group. However, discussing white supremacy and systemic racism is not impolite; it is necessary to confront and overcome these evils. As one person pointed out, being a racist is not just about hating Black people but also about apathy, silence, and ignorance. Overcoming these issues is essential, even if it is uncomfortable or challenging to do so. We cannot celebrate King’s legacy while silencing those who continue to fight against racism today.

Performative allyship is based on self-gratification and doesn’t hold yourself accountable to the community you support. For example, posting a black square on Instagram without any follow-up action isn’t enough. It’s essential to actively live as an anti-racist rather than just trying to prove you’re not a racist or appear trendy.

Authentic allyship is not about amplifying your own voice, but rather listening to
the voices of people within that community and what they are saying. They need to be uplifted.

Graham Ball, 2021 J.D. candidate, Penn State Law

To truly be an ally to a marginalized community, you must actively support them and continually support them. This can take different forms – not everyone needs to protest or post on social media; that’s not what allyship is about. The point is that allyship requires challenging yourself and stepping out of your comfort zone.

Real allyship involves follow-through. Posting on social media can raise awareness, but tangible actions should accompany those posts. Have you had a difficult conversation with a family member or read a book about anti-racism? The key is to take responsibility for your actions daily and make sacrifices that benefit others, even if it means standing up for something unpopular.

Ultimately, consistent action speaks louder than words. The Facebook groups on Vashon should make people more publicly accountable, and it’s not enough to post a black square or make a statement – natural allies actively work towards social change and uplift others rather than seeking attention or recognition.

How to be a Better Ally

Listening is an essential part of being a white ally. Listen to your black friends and their stories. Listen to how white people make them feel. Listen without talking over them; you don’t understand the black experience and have nothing to say.

Give yourself permission to feel uncomfortable. For instance, if you jump into a hot tub and it’s freezing, you will feel angry and shocked. However, you won’t be as upset if you expect the water to be cold. Expecting discomfort removes the blame and guilt from racial conversations. White guilt, sadness, and discomfort are all natural feelings when working towards anti-racism, but you shouldn’t let them stop you from continuing the work. Acknowledge your feelings, handle them privately, and move on.

Expecting mistakes is also essential when working on anti-racism. You may feel uncomfortable with your white privilege and getting called out for it. Accept the criticism, apologize, and learn from it. You may say something racist due to internalizing white supremacy while growing up. Don’t expect to be perfect, as the journey to racial equity is similar to snowboarding. You should expect to fall a few times before you get the hang of it. But you should keep getting up and fighting for racial equity.

Don’t wait until you know everything before joining the fight for racial equity. Feeling like you need to learn more before fighting for racial equity is a common trap. However, it’s not true. You’re intelligent, compassionate, and willing to help, so join the fight and learn along the way. No one knows everything about black history, redlining, or every new politically correct term. Speak on what you know and be open to learning what you don’t.

Validating the experience of black people is also vital. Don’t dismiss their experiences of racism as not about race. When a BIPOC says that someone did something racist, believe them and support them. As Tyrell mentioned, don’t write them off as being a “victim.” I have seen this happen on the Island as one black man moved to the community and pointed out the racism happening to him, and the comments that followed later were that he was just being a victim and left the island. Blacks are experiencing racism from white people on Vashon, so listen, support, and validate the reality of it.

It’s also important to educate other people on Vashon about racial equity. Don’t start conversations with accusations or Them vs. Us mentalities. Instead, start the conversation with love, compassion, and understanding. Talk about your genuine concern for the black community on Vashon, and hope to get others involved in the cause. Black people shouldn’t have to explain why they should be valued or why something was racist repeatedly.

Lastly, here are some more steps you can take to become an active ally:

  • Start by understanding your motivation for wanting to be an ally.
  • Educate yourself on issues related to racism and bias.
  • Be aware of your own biases and work to address them.
  • Practice active listening and truly hear the perspectives of Blacks on Vashon.
  • Acknowledge your privilege and use it to advocate for change.
  • Continue the conversation with other Vashonites.
  • Speak up when you witness instances of discrimination or bias.
  • Work to make a change in this community, friend groups, and family.
  • Help dismantle systems of oppression that you may have benefited from.
  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes along the way.
  • Remember, allyship is a lifelong journey, not a quick fix.

This article has been submitted by a Vashon Resident (or non-resident somehow connected to Vashon) who chooses to remain anonymous. Anyone can submit an article on any related island subject should they choose. Articles submitted to Vashon-Maury.com through our “Submit an Article” process are carefully reviewed for grammar, spelling, and accuracy to the best of our ability, though we sometimes miss the mark. Articles posted from these submissions are the opinions, statements, and facts provided solely by the Author and do not reflect the opinions or statements of the Vashon-Maury.com business and/or the Vashonites community.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.