A few weeks ago, I watched Catfish on MTV while I was getting my hair braided in a friend’s room on campus. As I tend to do when watching any television show, I watched an episode that focused on a black guest. Those episodes are always the ones that offer my friends and me the most to talk about while watching. After all, the majority of us are black and more inclined to have a focus on black issues. We are able to identify more with the episode because we can more readily relate what we see on the show to our lived reality. The episode was going fine. Nev, the show’s host, was working to find a woman’s online boyfriend who was living states away. Nothing in the episode was extremely provocative, until we all noticed that on the day Nev was going to meet the guests—who had already been established as black—he had decided to wear a Black Lives Matter shirt.
The first thing we did was rewind the episode to make sure that we saw the shirt correctly. When we paused the show, with the shirt in frame, there it was: a black shirt that simply said Black Lives Matter in a comic sans-esque font. There were so many questions in the room: “Why would he even pack that on a trip knowing he’s going to be around black people?” and “Why does he even own that shirt?” The shirt showed a lack of understanding that I have seen before in the way that the majority of white liberals on and off Columbia’s campus engage with the black community.
Granted, I would rather deal with a nonblack liberal over a white supremacist any day, but better doesn’t always mean best. The instances of activism that I have seen where people focus on displaying their support for black liberation seem constantly performative on this campus. Wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt doesn’t have any positive impact on the black community. It’s not going to make the black community any more trusting of you. The only thing that it will serve to do is make you feel better about your own complicit existence in anti-blackness.
Nonblack liberals should know that a shirt, an Instagram post, or a Twitter thread is no match for giving of time and money to black liberation causes. Just wearing a t-shirt or re-tweeting to make you feel better about your personal relationship with the black community is self-serving. Whether this attempt to feel better is conscious or unconscious, it still is based in problematic thought. It treats all black people as a monolith, places you in a paternalistic white savior role, and still does nothing to better any component of the situation.
It’s not just bad social media posts that put nonblack liberals in a place apart from actual action toward black liberation. It’s also the idea that voting for liberal candidates, or that not being racist on an intrapersonal level, is enough. Neither of these things make you a true ally to black causes. True allyship comes from working with the community actively and not attempting to speak over black people when they bring up their issues. No one knows what is better for the black community than the black community. There’s simply no way for you to be a good ally and still be intent on talking over the marginalized. However, that’s what I have seen countless times since I became involved in issues revolving around black liberation on campus. The lack of true allyship shows when black liberation groups have open meetings or rallies and organize protests and all the nonblack people with Black Lives Matter shirts, stickers, and social media posts aren’t present.
I’m black, the majority of my friends are black, and I have spent my life in predominantly black spaces. I came to Columbia as a freshman with the notion that I would get involved with black-based activism, so I actively sought out black activist spaces. I feel that this background gives me more information than any nonblack person involved with black liberation. It’s not your liberation, and thus you can’t decide on what actions and terms it will be achieved. Therefore, we don’t need nonblack people wearing Black Lives Matter shirts if they aren’t doing their part to make the movement less of a tagline and more of a way of life.
Sabina Jones is a sophomore in Columbia College majoring in english. Her column Transatlantic Trade runs alternate Fridays.
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