Words by Tash Nikol
Illustration by India Elle
Courtney is that white girl you meet in home room. She invites you into her friendship circle but ultimately wants to be closest to you. She offers to share her already-chewed gum in attempt to solidify this bond. You decline mainly because Juicy Fruit is your least favourite.
She invites you to her sleepover where there’s one other girl who looks like you, but you’re still her best friend. The other girl feels the same. When you go to the bathroom you hear her mother warn her to make sure her “new friends” stay downstairs. Courtney reiterates this during hide and seek after you go upstairs to hide under her bed. “But we play in your room all the time,” her other friend says with a slightly puzzled, but pleased expression.
Fast forward short of a decade, and you and Courtney are still friends even though her parents sent her to that “better high school” and you lost touch. She comes round because she likes that you go to the flagship college and that she can meet college boys there. She goes to community college and those boys don’t appeal to her much. You invite her to hang out with two of your closest friends, (women of colour from high school), and they get along really well. That summer, the four of you hang regularly – sunbathing at her pool, riding in her red mustang. Despite this, you still never really get close with Courtney’s friends. Courtney’s friends project a bit of hostility when they call and find out she’s hanging with you. They occasionally say problematic (racist) shit that makes you question whether they’re good friends for her, but she doesn’t understand why. They treat her fine.
You’re at the party you helped to plan at Courtney’s place. She invites a few friends from her time at that “better high school” – although they don’t seem “better”. You notice Courtney has been missing for a while so you and your friend look for her. You find her in her room passed out with her “guy friends” standing over her. You tell them to get the fuck out and try to console her, but she dismisses your comfort. Days later, you bring up the situation, but she makes it clear that they meant no harm. For some reason you find that hard to believe and wonder if she would say the same thing if you’d just left her there. You return to school in the fall and call Courtney a few times. She doesn’t answer. She never returns your calls.
Sophomore year of college you meet Becca. The blonde girl who sits next to you and tells you more than you want to know about her unfaithful boyfriend. She also makes a point to emphasize how you can trust her cause she’s Jewish – although you’re not sure why. You hang out a few times because you have many things in common, like unfaithful boyfriends. She asks for your relationship advice. She likes it when you have her back and the fact that your presence makes her boyfriend nervous in study hall. That is until she doesn’t anymore.
You’re an adult now and you’ve chosen to be more conscious with the company you keep, but you meet Mandy through a black girlfriend. She requests you take over running an arts organization as she steps down to focus on her personal life. The offer is unexpected and something you’ve always dreamed of. She promises that you’re what the space needs for diversity’s sake. She seems thrilled to hand over the torch to you. You accept the offer and Mandy promises to support the transition. You learn the hard way that passing the torch in her words meant no change in power dynamics or transparency. You also learn that the art community that was so used to her presence is not at all welcoming of a newer black woman in leadership.
After experiencing the dynamic of her incestually built team (#teamMandy), being blatantly ignored and dismissed, and your unease with her precarious hands-on finances, you decide to step down for your own sanity.
Fast forward to today, when exoticism and Afrocentric visuals flood our screens and now anything outside of the mainstream is “all the rage”. Kim K, who once had her baby hairs surgically removed, is now laying her edges and sporting cornrows.
A white woman now wants to be our most vocal ally. She’s opened her arms, her homes, and even her bedrooms. But to her surprise our arms and hearts aren’t always open to embrace her. Some of the wounds from gaslighting and manipulation have not healed. Many of us have become doubtful of any notion to trust her or any of our white “sisters”.
“They know we’ve been dismissed, abused, and hurt by many, including themselves. But still, from my experience, guilt and apathy are how they choose to internalize their feelings, causing them to devalue our worth and emotional labour in friendships”.
For me, there’s still an intense apprehension that appears when in close proximity with white women energy – whether on the train or at the office. I love and appreciate each human being or at least I aspire to. Yet I’m extremely mindful in all interactions with white women, because I know this world has coddled them. And that’s what makes their actions towards me and other black and brown women feel so sinister. They know we’ve been dismissed, abused, and hurt by many, including themselves. But still, from my experience, guilt and apathy are how they choose to internalize their feelings, causing them to devalue our worth and emotional labour in friendships.
To my white sisters, the suspicion and hesitance you receive from us is because of the scars we’ve been left to cope with. Take it personally, but not in a way that places you as victim. Take it in ways that allow you to recognize your privilege. Use this and your new-found accountability to determine how to best approach various situations you find yourself in at work with other black and brown women. Free yourself from the contradictions of this notion that many POC activists and outlets, call “The Ally Industrial Complex”. And instead, join us – as we are here, continuously pulling together our emotional labour via past and present day experiences to dismantle racist systems, structures and people. We’re here hoping to find our way into a life that allows space for our voices, our ideas, and the prospect of a rooted and grounded future for those that come after us.
It’s your often unrightfully internalised authority over us that continues to fuel your own microaggressions in the workplace and beyond. Free yourself from that. After being moulded into the most precious members of society for so long, you need to be the one to confront reality. And you can do this by listening to us first. Truly listening is the first way to build trust, and through that major step you can develop a better understanding of how to bluntly address the oppressors within your culture, your families, your friends and your colleagues, so that they are held accountable too.
“Step aside and make room for spaces that may not be for you but provide many black and brown people with solace and healing. It’s okay to not receive an invitation, or to work behind the scenes for us. We’ve done that for you for a very long time”.
Understand how stepping aside in many instances is an advantage for you and the women you care to support. As a true ally, step aside and make room for the voices of black and brown women who have faced nothing but glass ceilings. Because far too often, we are the women who hold the knowledge and expertise to own the opportunities that are instead passed over to you. Step aside and make room for spaces that may not be for you but provide many black and brown people with solace and healing. It’s okay to not receive an invitation, or to work behind the scenes for us. We’ve done that for you for a very long time.
I’d like to close these wounds from the past, and so do many others, but know that you have to be there with us – fully trusting, fully accountable, and truly at our side.