THE BLOG
08/22/2014 04:01 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2014

How White People Should Write About Ferguson

A lot of friends have been sharing this article about things white people can do for Ferguson, but I find it confusing for several reasons.

I'm skeptical of the term "white ally" as I am skeptical of the term "male feminist." As a white person, while I strive to support the protestors in Ferguson and am strongly opposed to racial subjugation, I also am very cautiously aware of the fact that all of my life experience has been skewed through the lens of white privilege.

For this reason I find myself in the paradoxical position of being a writer/activist who endeavors to (and makes a living off of) problematizing the various kinds of systemic oppression of various peoples in a variety of public forums. I also am aware that in the past, and even present, a lot of discourse about race and politics has been dominated by white voices. I think it would be an error for me to speak on behalf of a group of people who have been victims to a prejudice that at the same time has afforded me benefits, many of which I am probably unaware of and frequently take for granted.

Yet, I also feel being silent is a part of the problem, and a form of intolerance itself. As Desmond Tutu once said, "If you are neutral in times of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor." While I don't want to speak on behalf of people of color, I also don't want to sit in complacent silence while terrible acts of violence are being committed.

For me, this is the paradox.

A couple of years ago I was asked to give a speech about leadership to an audience of students in my hometown. Out of curiosity, I asked my friends what leadership meant to them. My friend made the brilliant statement: "sometimes being a leader is knowing when to follow." Her statement clarified an issue that I had been unable to put into words when I spoke about my experience being child-rights activist as a teenager.

In high school I participated in highly publicized volunteer work overseas, I also gave speeches about the importance of helping struggling children in third world countries, and started a volunteer group that fundraised for years to build a school in Sierra Leone.

As I got older and went on more volunteer trips, read more literature, talked to more people, I realized that in many ways I was participating in an insidious repetition of colonialism. I was mythologizing the experiences of "poor people of other cultures", treating them as homogenous, speaking from an experience I didn't have, an experience I'd only witnessed through the eyes of a white girl from Canada. I then took those stories, wrote them down, utilized them in speeches that then made money for an organization. The organization was founded in Canada, mainly by upper-middle class white Canadians, and made its money by sending mainly upper-middle class white people overseas to "witness third world poverty first hand, then taught them to "create change" by sharing the stories of the third world when they return to Canada/America.

Honestly, I was going into the developing world and listening to the experiences of people who I could never fully understand, and then retelling them in my own words to Canadian audiences, to raise money for an organization that benefited from such trips. If the fault does not lie in the basis of such pointless volunteer trips, it then lies in the privileged retelling of others' lives for the purpose of sympathy and profit.

Even if my intentions were good, and I ended up raising money to build a school or whatever, I was still going to these countries to do meaningless work as a means of finding myself. I was essentially recreating the old imperialist myth, as Zizek puts it in The Pervert's Guide to Ideology: "That when the upper-class people lose their vitality they need a contact with lower classes basically ruthlessly exploiting them in a vampire-like way, as it were sucking from them the life energy. Revitalized, they can join their secluded upper-class life." I was essentially narcissistically profiteering off the benefits of systemic inequality. I am skeptical of speaking or writing about race for this reason.

In the case of Ferguson, it is important to keep our privilege in check. I don't know that I am a part of the problem if I don't write anything. I do believe I am a part of the problem if I don't support those protesting in various ways. My issue with the article about what white people can do is that it asks us to speak honestly about Ferguson. I think, if we are white, maybe we shouldn't assume we have the authority or the experience to lend our words. To speak about racial discrimination in Ferguson as white people may not be a lie, insofar as we are speaking the truth of our experience/knowledge, but it is an untruth because white people cannot speak to specific instances of racial prejudice without necessarily having the objective truth clouded by our own racial privilege.

Alternatively, we should read articles by people of color and share those articles. Invite friends of color who are writers or avid readers to share work and, instead of writing, share that work and create platforms for writing by people of color. I do know that discourse is power and you fight discourse with discourse. I believe that myself, and other white people, creating that discourse would be problematic. Perhaps instead we should consciously endeavor to support the discourse about the experiences of people of color in 2014 written by actual people of color. Maybe that would be the best way white people can support the protestors in Ferguson and other movements for racial equality, without being entirely silent, or, alternatively, arrogantly deciding that we can really be an authority on the topic of race without tripping into the blind spots of our own privilege.