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EXTRACT: What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition by Emma Dabiri

By May 29, 2021June 9th, 2021No Comments

Our first extract this week is What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition, the second book by acclaimed author Emma Dabiri.  


Prejudice is everywhere, but most prejudice hasn’t translated into the apparatus of race that, 400-plus years after its debut, continues to determine the relationship between the racial categories ‘black’ and ‘white’. When I was growing up, I remember trying to articulate some of the anti-black racism I was coming up against and frequently being shut down, often by adults who, if they didn’t aggressively deny it, might equate the racism with their experiences of having red hair (or something equally trite). What I wasn’t equipped to explain to grown men when I was ten years old was that, while I’m sure it was painful, red heads have never been codified into law as a subhuman category, or had a centuries-long propaganda campaign waged against them in order to exploit them   and rob them of their resources, to facilitate the enrichment of an oppressor group who keep them in bondage; ya see – same same, but different.

This whataboutery is something that apparently shows up with historical regularity. Returning to the Rap on Race (I’m actually obsessed with how hip and 70s that title is) between James Baldwin and Margaret Mead, it is important to point out how painful it is in places. For example, Baldwin is talking about slavery when Mead interjects, “wait a minute, my ancestors were hunted through the caves of Scotland and tortured. Should I go back now and have a confrontation with the Catholic Scots… My ancestors were hunted through caves before they got here. But I don’t think it is particularly relevant.”

That’s correct, Karen (cheap shot, I’m sorry, it’s hard; I couldn’t resist the alliteration). You’ve answered your own question – it’s not relevant – because the legacy of that historic injustice is not killing you now. It is not impoverishing your life or diminishing your opportunities, we are not grappling with its aftermath.

This history hasn’t condemned you, nor has it cast you in the role of a perennial inferior. That is not the inheritance of that history. Whenever she draws these false equivalencies, Baldwin proves of course a more than capable foil: Lots of groups have prejudicial attitudes the damage is done when these are shored up by power – I don’t really object to whatever the governor of Alabama may think he thinks about me. I really don’t care what he thinks about anything. But I do object to him being the governor of Alabama.

That’s where it tends to be crucial and therein lies the rub. Power is what matters here. It is the wielding of power that transforms prejudiced attitudes into legislated differences between life and  death. It is the relationship between ‘privilege’ and ‘power’ that dictates whether the privilege is something that translates into a structural advantage worth trying to remove, or whether fixating on it is a time wasting exercise incapable of bringing about any substantive change.

I want to add as well that suffering is of course subjective, and that no one has the monopoly on pain. You may not experience racism, but that doesn’t mean that you are happy, or that your life is easy. It is not about dismissing another person’s experience in order to make the claim that yours is more valid. What interests me is thinking about the ways in which a vast array of oppressions or forms of disadvantage might have a common origin, in order to identify ways of coalition-building that can focus on the source of the problem, while remaining mindful of the different textures of our varied but interconnected struggles.


Main image courtesy of Stuart Simpson

What White People
Can Do Next:
From Allyship
to Coalition
by Emma Dabiri
published by
Penguin Books Ltd
Available here.