“I think [Black Lives Matter] is the defining issue of our country and I am willing to sacrifice everything I have, including my money and health, to address this,” my ex-boyfriend, Max Geller, told me recently. Max has dedicated the better part of his adult life to social justice organizing. A few weeks ago, he was arrested along with a few of our other white friends during a Black Lives Matter protest against the killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. A photo of him being held down by riot police, his head firmly pressed to concrete, began circulating on social media. While I worried for a moment whether Max’s head was okay, I certainly didn’t fear for his life. Max is white, and so far, police haven’t killed white people at the same rate they have killed black people.
Following his arrest, Max's white friends began to comment on the photo on Facebook and Instagram. One described him as a “personal hero,” another simply “my hero.” A couple others asked for bail money for Max and our other white friends who were arrested, without mentioning why they were arrested. None of these posts explicitly mentioned Alton Sterling and scarcely referenced Black Lives Matter. All of the updates I saw centered around Max, and hardly any acknowledged who he was in the streets fighting for and alongside: black and brown people.
The Black Lives Matter movement is an umbrella term that has evolved to encompass several black-led and centered organizations like Dream Defenders, Operation Zero, Black Lives Matter Network, and BYP100. These groups have spearheaded protests and organized communities across the country, but many of them haven’t built up national coalitions with hierarchies and official roles. Its diffuse nature has meant that there’s no explicit place or structure for white people, a clear and intentional departure from civil rights groups of the 1960s. While this is a good thing for the most part, it has made their participation complicated and bred a type of well-meaning but sometimes problematic white ally.
As I witnessed firsthand, the response to the photo of Max from whites I know to be smart, liberal allies could be tone-deaf at best and harmful to the Black Lives Matter message and movement at worst. “Unfortunately that became their one and only entrance into the movement for black lives,” Max told me when I asked him about the response from our mutual friends. As part of his participation in the Black Lives Matter movement, he’s careful to avoid reinforcing “the same structures of oppression we’re trying to dismantle,” and that means not centering the experiences of white people.
Growing up, I learned about the crucial importance of white abolitionists who provided shelter and food to black slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad. And of course, white people were part of the movement to advance black civil rights in the 1960s. Bob Zellner, an Alabama-born and raised son and grandson of Ku Klux Klan members, was a student when the Freedom Riders came through his college town in Alabama in 1960. After witnessing a white activist brutally beaten by police, Zeller decided to join the movement “to get my own freedom,” he says.
While some argue that institutional change happens only when white people get out of the way, seeing white people participate in the cause can lead to awareness. “White people saw white people getting brutalized,” says my friend Bob Weisz, who also circulated the photo of Max. It likely took seeing a white person being assaulted to stir up the same fears and anxiety that black people have had to contend with on a daily basis for centuries, Bob says about his own impulse to share the photo.
Groups like Showing Up for Racial Justice, which began after black leaders approached a group of white organizers during the Tea Party’s rise in 2009, are thinking and talking about how to be effective white allies and organizers against racism. Their goal “is to get millions of white people in the movement,” says Andrew Willis Garcés, SURJ’s regional resource organizer. “We actually want to ask white people to step into that messiness and tension.” When it comes to organizing, Garcés says that SURJ has developed relationships with black- and brown- led organizations, but doesn’t expect to be told what to do or say.
But what qualifies as an ally, from black and white perspectives, isn’t universal. “I think a white person can only be a true ally if she works from the desire to dismantle white supremacy instead of merely being fueled by white guilt,” says Katrina L. Rogers, the communications manager of New Orleans’ chapter of BYP100. Rogers is “never under the assumption” that if a white person identifies as an ally that they're “invested in my well-being.” Labels mean little, and “if you're not working with us and taking our direction, you're not an ally,” she says.
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), both organizations central to the 1960s civil rights movement, folded white activists into the civil rights movement with a tacit acknowledgment about their place within it. “I always understood leadership was in the hands of young black people,” says Zellner, who joined SNCC in 1961. One of his fellow workers, who was black, often handed Zellner a broom with orders to sweep up the office, and would tell Zellner that “in the SNCC office I was just a poor-ass field secretary and I had to have my day on the broom.” There was an understanding that “I could be a foot soldier and fellow revolutionary, but I was a follower, not a leader,” he says.
One change that has made it easier for white allies today to step up to police-related injustices is that they don’t face the same danger they did in the ‘60s. “Whites were even attacked more because they were seen as traitors to the race,” most notably in the South, says Charles McDew, 78, a black member of SNCC.
White civil rights workers were targeted not only by white segregationist Southerners, but also by police, according to Zellner. He was 24 years old when he was arrested and taken into East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, the same place where Max was locked up a few weeks ago. Zellner says he was “tortured” there, and describes it as “the most brutal prison I was ever in.”
While the role of white participants in Black Lives Matter shouldn’t be left to black organizers to figure out—black Americans have had to contend with racism and it isn’t the responsibility of blacks to show whites how to be good allies and comrades—white activists and sympathizers to the Black Lives Matter cause should take a page from white activists of the civil rights movement: that black people are the leaders, that the movement is centered around them, that glorifying white participation in a black-led movement is gauche and unhelpful, that this isn’t about white people.
There’s no clear path or prescription for how white allies should operate in a movement led by black and brown people—that’s part of the work. But one refrain expressed among white activists is the idea that the freedom of white people, of all people, is tethered to ending injustices for people of color. Otherwise, “we can’t get totally free as white people, we can’t get peace or rest,” Garcés says. One thing is for sure: it’s the responsibility of whites interested in ending racism to sacrifice their comfort, ask questions, and take cues and orders from black people without relying on us to show you and tell you how. It’s not the usual order of things, but it’s the way forward.
Correction: A previous version of this piece incorrectly named Showing Up for Racial Justice.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.