People of conscience who have a voice should heed people of color in the fight for justice

By Aaryn Belfer

Belfer is an activist and adoptive parent who writes the Backwards in High Heels column for Argonaut sister paper San Diego CityBeat.

Like so many good white people over the past few weeks, Jonathan Verk and his wife Staci had reached their tipping point. News of the separation of children and parents seeking asylum at our southern border compelled the Verks to take action and inspire others to take action. And this matters.

Make no mistake: What is happening on our watch is an American atrocity. Full stop. This is not a left or right issue, a Democrat or Republican issue. It is a moral issue, one that a loud contingent who comprises the very worst of America refuses to understand. These folks have no compassion for anyone unlike them, or any interest in acknowledging the desperate plight of their fellow human beings. By and large, the immigrants caught up in this catastrophe are refugees who have fled something so awful that fleeing hundreds of miles and crossing deserts on foot and facing possible separation from their babies is less awful.

Yet, for so many others, this barbaric moment is resonating on a cellular level. Our tolerance for existential pain has been breached. We have finally had enough. White people — and yes, this is about race, which is why I’ll say “white people” a third time and might say it a whole bunch more — have passed the point of head-in-the-sand obliviousness. It seems our handy-dandy skill set of generational amnesia and willful ignorance, honed over centuries of blissful autonomy and freedom, is breaking down. Goodbye to all that.

And so it is that the Verks did what white people (four! Say it with me!) need to be doing in this critical moment and have a responsibility to do every day: They used their political and social and financial capital to organize.

In five days they put on a rally of 1,500 people, collected hundreds of comfort items — stuffed animals, books, toys, soft blankets — for separated and detained children, and on Saturday chartered a bus that transported a caravan of 75 predominantly white people from the West L.A. Federal Building to San Diego. It was there at an adult detention facility that they joined in protest with young people of color from a local activist group called Generation Justice, seven of whom were arrested later that night for peaceful actions. Later, despite requests from longtime local immigration activist Mark Lane, who works inside with detainees, the caravaners proceeded with their plan to deliver their collected goods to a separate children’s detention facility nearby.

So, here’s the thing. Taking action is good and white people absolutely need to be in the fight for justice on all levels. Change will not come without us. But it is imperative that those who join the work know how to become co-conspirators. And this requires getting out of our own way.

White folks have a habit of making things about us. In fact, it is a typically white thing to step into spaces and take over. We are used to leading, to having a platform, to fixing things, to being respected and lauded and praised, because white supremacy has vaulted us to the top rung of value in society.

Dropping in to deliver goods without coordinating with a local community is highly problematic, no matter how well-intentioned, and contains a whiff of activist tourism. There is no higher example of white privilege and benevolence than the caravaners being asked by a person on the ground not to do something (visit the children’s detention center) and doing it anyway.

Further, wipipo (that’s “white people” in Twitter-speak) should not seek or get gold stars for being “allies.” This isn’t about us. It’s great and important to use connections and get media coverage. But good allyship means directing that spotlight toward those who have been in the fight for years, who generally tend to be people of color. Those of us with access to power and platforms must use them to elevate marginalized voices.

To be very clear, none of this is to say the caravaners did a bad thing or are in anyway bad people. That is nonsense. It is to say that we all must be more mindful and more purposeful to educate ourselves as to what it means to be an ally and how best to make use of our whiteness.

And in a moment of growth, the caravaners did this. When the local experienced activist explained with calm and compassion why protests at the children’s detention center are discouraged (it frightens the kids and they get put on lockdown and lose privileges when protests happen), the caravaners listened and then changed their approach. They still went to the location. But instead of everyone getting off the buses and protesting outside, two people walked to the front door, rang the doorbell, and delivered the items they’d collected that morning at the rally.

All in all, the actions initiated by the Verks were a success and will hopefully serve as an inspiration for more people to take action. Caravaning and protesting are not for everyone, but there are a million ways to plug in, to be part of the majority who reject what is happening in our name. But to be most effective, we must decenter our whiteness, defer to experts on the ground in the communities we hope to assist, ask how we
can best be of help, and take our cues from those who have fought this fight the longest.