An Open Letter to the White Ally by James Odoch

James with his partner Cat

The last few weeks have been an incredibly sensitive and eye-opening time for many of us.

Colleagues, friends, and family have been forced to deal with issues usually ignored and some of us, especially amongst you, our White Allies, are trying harder than ever before.

I’ve witnessed this at work first-hand. A small problem that was escalated to HR became a big problem as emails were exchanged and misconstrued, though it was eventually solved with a phone call. It was fine. In this call, however, it became clear very early on that the HR personnel was very keen to listen and learn. Great. Except, I don’t know a thing about HR. I couldn’t fix the problem myself.

People are finally starting to listen. While it’s great that we’re being listened to, we don’t have all the answers. All we know is how to play by the rules (1) of the game we’ve seen unfold before our eyes.

As demonstrated by the last few weeks, however, even that isn’t enough. We can do everything right and still have everything taken from us.

So, where do we begin? If you must come to us for guidance, we can start by defining the rules of the game together. We don’t get to see how the game is played when we aren’t there to witness it, and so we’ll need you to fill in the blanks.

We need to disrupt the status quo. But how?

We live in an age where nothing is real unless you want it to be. Facts don’t matter and everyone’s a skeptic. A quick glance-turned-20-minute scroll on social media is all you need to have even your most casual biases affirmed and cemented. It is on this playing field that Black people are now having to prove what we’ve known all along to be true: these systems weren’t designed for us. In fact, they were carefully constructed to stifle us.

Where South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation sought to confront the ills of their recent past and begin to build towards a healthier, more prosperous future. And with this act, Apartheid ended. While what followed was fraught with its own successes and challenges, Slavery and Colonialism in the West were never truly allowed to end in the same way.

Their mechanisms remained in place, even if their gears were no longer overtly greased by the state. What is left of them can be seen in acts of negligence as grand as Grenfell or in aggressions as minute as a comment on a colleague’s hair.

Not challenging and rectifying a country’s past gives its citizens the luxury of living in ignorance, oblivious to the effects that do not adversely affect their present. Herein lies the problem around the problem: how do those still suffering from the past convince those benefiting from the present?

How do you even communicate such an idea to a White family that would have been long-suffering even before the pandemic? How do you ask a Black man to consider how his complaints might be received by said family when he’s being suffocated by an arm of the state?

The events of the year so far have allowed us to open a substantial dialogue, but as long as colonial mechanisms continue to be amplified in insular workplaces, living rooms, social media echo chambers, etc., this dialogue can only go so far.

So how do we fix it? No idea.

We can keep doing what we’re doing, but a lot of you have eyes and ears that are welcome in places where ours aren’t. You know how to play the game there better than we do.

1. A friend/colleague/quasi-mentor of mine asked me to consider changing this from ‘rules’ to ‘terms of engagement’. He makes a lot of sense; the point isn’t to layout some rigid, immovable criteria to follow, but rather to feel out a way to make this all better and easier for everyone by understanding what we all have to work with. Still, by this point, I’d hammered home the ‘game’ metaphor so hard that I couldn’t unpick it, so…

Sorry bruv.

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