By Arsh Dhillon
The Independent Vice President reflects upon what it means to be an ally against racism.
My anger from suffering the consequences of racism has been building for an upcoming nineteen years. Yet, I do not suffer from the steep consequences that Black Americans face. By the awarded “virtue” of my lighter skin, I was able to manipulate myself to gain access to aspects of white privilege like higher education and connections with the institutions and people of power. My lighter skin allowed me to leave my community, to step on the backs of Black Americans, and gain access to the world of elite, white Americans. My lighter skin and internalization of racism and self-hatred allowed white Americans to accept me. My continued access to privilege contributes to the suffering of my Black peers, friends, acquaintances, and the entirety of the Black community. My recognition of that has led me to practice ally-ship against racism, an identity and action that is not fixed but must be fought for every day. As an ally, I must wield my privilege as a tool to dismantle racist institutions and challenge others like me and whites to do the same. It is my responsibility to not interrupt the voices and agency of Black Americans. Every day I take a full breath, I am obligated to be an ally because the systems in place are choking and drowning out Black Americans, both silently and loudly.
Throughout these five years at elite, higher education institutions, though, I’ve noticed there have been too many moments I still struggle to breathe. During these moments, I cannot contain my anger. I have blown up, yelled, punched “Koala Kare’s” in women’s bathrooms, left rooms filled with senselessly loud people, screamed and ranted at my friends and mentors while they sat and tried to listen to the emotion pouring out of my self-constructed dam. Initially, I believed that it was just because there was far too much going on in the world at once, that there were too many racist and sexist incidents occurring for me to fight against. I asked why everything I was doing was only producing reaction instead of change. Then, I noticed those around me. I noticed that my white peers did not have these moments. I noticed they wanted to comfort me, but they had no idea the anger I felt from the work it took of simultaneously being an ally against racism while facing racism. I noticed that I was trying to be an ally by and for myself. I was allowing my white peers to stand behind me, my arms outstretched, covering them. I was enabling their silence and ignorance with my “nice,” “educated,” dishonest language. The most disappointing part was realizing their willingness to keep their mouths closed, to confusedly stare at me when someone asked a question about race, to say how badly they wished they could understand and help and support, to ignorantly empathize with the oppressor, to open their mouths solely to discuss “white people” as if they didn’t identify with their own.
Then, I was reminded of what parents do when they are teaching their newborns how to stop crying and let go of glass-like fragility: they let them cry. They do not pick them up or coddle them. They let them understand that their great reaction to such small discomfort is heard. They let them learn how to stop crying by themselves, that their crying is ultimately necessary for them to change and unlearn a damaging behavior that affects themselves and their parents. Only then will parents no longer have to carry the guilt of the newborns’ tears. Only then will parents and the newborns sleep peacefully.
My white peers, I (and my fellow Americans of color, I implore you to do the same) will no longer shield you, console you, or coddle you. Stop asking me in manipulative ways. Stop telling me how bad and outraged you feel, how much you are grieving. Stop asking for forgiveness when you still reap the benefits from our suffering. Your pain and outrage do not require me to be your ally because you do not face “discomfort” from the consequences of racism. You face discomfort from learning about the consequences of racism. The consequences that make Black Americans and other Americans of Color suffocate, blow up, starve, scream, and die. We can no longer carry your guilt and tears and outrage at the harm you cause. They are far too heavy, and we’re already running out of air.
I hope you don’t want us to carry or coddle you. I hope it embarrasses you to constantly ask how you can “help” when you have phones, books, and countless resources idly sitting in your hands. Your cries drown out and interrupt our pleads and voices. Your requests for us to carry the burden of evidence for the problem you blindly enforce is continuing the abuse. Your begs for our positive reinforcement, validation, and gratitude neglect your responsibility and allow you to believe you’re our heroes and saviors.
The bottom line is the faster you embrace your discomfort and vulnerability and let go of your pride, the faster you will start to unlearn racist behaviors. Only then will you see oppression as loudly and clearly as we do. Only then will you look at your other white peers, the ones who are still crying, and tell them, “Enough.” Only then will you change and act to tear down racism in this country.
Understand that the moment you take ownership for perpetuating racism, the moment you speak as “we” and “I” instead of as objective viewers, the moment you begin to end your abuse, the system will ring its alarms and push against you. When you take the wrong and right steps, it will manipulate you to hide behind your privilege, to hide behind the Black Americans and other Americans of Color that have been forced to shield you. In that moment, ask yourselves: Will you allow the system to control you, to falsely aggrandize your image? Will you look into the eyes of Black Americans and other Americans of Color, the ones whom you claim to respect and with whom you work and study and share meals, and say my fears and senses of pride and ego are greater than my love for you? Will you look into their eyes and say I choose to be a crier?
We hope you choose to fight, to recognize your awarded privilege, your tool that abuses Americans of Color, is also your tool to dismantle racism. We hope you choose to believe the truth: Racism is a living, active, deadly system that never has a neutral effect even on those you love, those sitting right in front of you. Racism permeates every sphere, institution, industry, community, interaction, and mind.
Begin the process: hold yourselves responsible and accountable for racism. Proactively fight for abolition, not reform. Empathize with the Black Americans bravely leading the front lines of protests and taking stands in all industries, facing their oppressors, abusers, head on. Listen to and hear their actions and voices. Follow their leadership as examples of resilience and courage. Use your influence to challenge your white peers to do the same. Begin to correct your racial biases, for they are noise-canceling and blinding to the truth. Understand that Americans of Color are not attacking you when we express anger and sadness and trauma. No, our expressions are honest words that do you a favor. Honesty helps you practice ally-ship, an empowering action that ultimately works to end suffering and violence. Honesty asks for trust and empathy, for you to act with bravery and responsibility.
It is our duty to form a just society. We can end this cycle of pain, violence, tears, ignorance, and senseless murder. No system must remain fixed. We can implement new educational, legal, and social institutions that do not fail us. The time is long overdue. Americans of Color are tired of running, of struggling to breathe, of lacking peace and sleep, of starving, of carrying all your weight on our backs, of suffering from fatal abuse and trauma that has lasted for far too many generations. We are tired of racism, of Black Americans facing the steepest consequences, of cowards publicly murdering and choking Black Americans on the street and in their homes, of reform and performative “activism” which serve as guises for white supremacy. I hope you are too, for if we don’t know peace, you will never know it either. So, I challenge you to dry your tears and pick yourselves up. I challenge you to be allies.
We must act with urgency. It’s time we all face the greatest abusers, the most cowardly: the ones who run these racist, brainwashing, desensitizing institutions, the ones who don’t cry or suffer but laugh at and cheer for the violence and pain we inflict upon each other.
Arsh Dhillon ‘23 (email@example.com) implores those in the Harvard community and beyond to stand up to be an ally.
Illustration by Natalie Sicher ’21.