Who’s moving the needle on racial justice? Who’s not?
It’s no secret that with Donald Trump inside the Oval Office, we’ve seen an outburst of activism and protest across the country. Americans have gathered in major cities, including Boston, to voice their concerns on a whole range of political and social issues. One of the major focal points being the fight for racial justice, which found a renewed national spotlight in 2013 through the Black Lives Matter movement’s actions in response to a number of deadly police shootings.
BLM and other movements that address such injustices have since seen invigorated interest among black and white Americans alike—especially since Trump took power. But what exactly is the role of “white allies” in today’s racial justice movement? We looked to activists and advocates from around Boston for answers and ideas. (Ed. note: Interviews were edited from reporter’s video recordings for clarity and brevity.)
Martin Henson is an organizer with Black Lives Matter Boston
You describe in some of the articles you’ve been quoted in … that racism functions as a system. How does that system work?
Well, there’s lots of ways to explain it. One way that I generally say it, the simplest way or a very simple way, is that it’s prejudice with the power to enforce, based upon race for the maintenance of power and privilege.
Why do you think that white people sometimes don’t realize they’re part of that system?
It benefits them. They don’t have to. To acknowledge that you’re part of a system that operates to oppress other people. It means that you have a responsibility to change it. And if you don’t want to carry that responsibility, it is very easy and there’s a whole system that will support that ignorance and that blindness to it … “I don’t see color,” all this foolishness that people will say.
Why do you think the Black Lives Matter movement and the election of President Trump and things like that have awakened more people, more white people, to the system?
I don’t know if I would even say that. I would say that they are uncomfortable with their reflection of the world that they live in, and they say, “Oh, okay, well let me change this.” But when it stops reflecting it in such an obvious way, then they’ll just go back to whatever they were doing before.
Do you think some of the people you’ve talked to would be considered allies in this movement?
There’s been a lot of language around allies versus accomplices, accomplices being people who are willing to put their lives, their bodies, their energy, their money on the line to be engaged in whatever struggle it is. Allies kind of, they can mirror the message, they can say certain things, but they don’t really do nothing. They don’t really move the needle.
Alexis Ladd is an activist who recently formed the Fostering Racial Justice Group, which is based in the mostly-white town of Boxborough. The group’s goal is to engage the community in conversations and educational workshops about systems that enforce racism.
Why do you think the Black Lives Matter movement was sort of the impetus that got that group off the ground?
For me, I was … doing that kind of work in my work-work. But I wasn’t doing it in my community. And so … Black Lives Matter sort of … gave me the push … to say … it’s not enough to do it in your work, you need to be looking at what is your total sphere of influence, and my community was a sphere of influence that I hadn’t really tapped into.
So with all the work that you’re doing, do you consider yourself an ally to the racial justice movement?
I mean I hope I am.
How would you define an ally?
I think an ally is somebody who uses their position of power, wherever that is. For my perspective it’s because of the color of my skin. Using that as a voice to challenge power structures and anything that’s actually marginalizing others. And so I think an ally is somebody who’s willing to stand up to make change happen.
What do you think some of the pitfalls can be for allies?
I think white people have a lot of work to do. I think there are some people who may not understand fully what it means to be an ally. And try to take over a movement. When I say that there’s a lot of work to do, white people built the structure of white supremacy, so it’s up to white people to break it down.