down – (adj.) not identifying directly with a particular struggle because of a perceived difference in identity yet still possessing an interest in a community or in the issues which this community must address.
What does it mean to be down? Downness can be understood as a rendition on allyship, although I don’t really think allyship is a very helpful term, considering that everyone has an opinion of what an ally should and should not do. For one, there is a pervasive notion that allies should not speak unless spoken to, which is inherently false, for many of the people who have been the strongest advocates for the liberation of other peoples had to speak up, for the people who required emancipation either were too marginalized to do it themselves or too fooled by the hegemonic structures that be to care. Downness is a consciousness of one’s own space and the space which is afforded to and denied to others. Let’s use an example: a Korean-American teacher who chooses to instruct a unit on Black History in her predominately black, working-class ninth-grade American history class is potentially helping a group of students better understand their historical relationship to their community and to their country. Her allyship appears in the form of her willingness to educate her students on materials which are relevant to their own understanding of themselves.
This teacher is down in this example, for the teacher has not become lost to the effects of cultural blindness. She operates with the understanding that although her subject matter is at a distance from her – although that distance, ultimately, is up for further discussion – the material is still relevant to the way that a group of people of a different identity perceive their reality, and consequentially, how she perceives her own. She is in no way obligated to teach this information, but her choice to do so, understanding the importance and implications of her decisions, ultimately signals her devotion to the cause, existence and progress of her students.
It seems to be easier for persons of color to be down with other struggles. In the United States, the Black freedom struggle seems to be emblematic for the masses of colored people who similarly seek their liberation from the clutches of white racism. The integration of Black studies curricula into the academy at the end of the 1960s saw the birth of Latino/Chicano studies, Native American studies, Middle Eastern/Arab studies and Asian studies programs, and eventually, Queer/Sexuality studies programs. So often in the creation of POC coalitions, at least at Swarthmore, students of color turn to Black students, who supposedly have a history of organization, of community, of shared and open struggle.
I often see in white-black interactions a counterfeit of true downness in the form of white guilt. They are not and cannot be, for many reasons, synonymous. For one, white guilt stems from a feeling of helplessness at the historical institution of racism, colonialism and oppression. It is a white woman looking back and saying “It’s terrible that my people did this to your people,” while maintaining a healthy and burdensome distance between the words “my,” symbolizing the speaker, “people,” symbolizing the abstract, faceless past and “your people,” which more often than not, in the minds of White Americans, are enslaved Africans. It has very little to do with the now, for the person who is overcome with white guilt is very rarely aware of the contemporary ramifications of contemporary racism. They believe in the myths of slavery’s “deep-seeded psychological scars” and the psychogenetic marks which their ancestors lashed onto our backs, marks which passed like terminal diseases from mother to child. White guilt is a form of evasion, and people who experience this guilt are not and likely never will be down.
Better yet, white guilt stems from the idolatry of white figures, and, more closely, white-prescribed social values. White Americans are raised to bear a vicious ignorance, an elected unwillingness which characterizes them as among the most naive and conflicted of the world’s peoples. They see in each and every one of themselves the grandeur of the American way of life, and when they realize that their world is not as it seems, that their dreams are not within reach for so many, they turn inwards. They continue to portray themselves as the protagonists in this long novel we call human existence, with their God holding the pen. They see the oppression of others as disrupting their dream-life in their dream-world. Their guilt is but a distraction, but an illusion of sympathy, rooted only in their own inability to stomach their culture’s vile medicine.
The reverse of this is becoming more and more pressing as Black nations demand their reparations from their colonial ex-masters. The British turn to these countries with sour expressions. They experience the opposite of guilt, which is self-vindication, for they distance themselves from their ancestors in a way which ignores the way that the British continue to this day to exploit these nations of their resources. They very much hold the reins of production in nations across the world, which allows the British to enjoy such a high quality of life at the expense of the wretched. It is a form of blindness, this self-vindication, for it assumes that the past and the present have no connection, have no ties which bind them together. Both white guilt and white self-vindication are the result of the surreal world which White society has built for itself, disjointed, disconnected to both time and space.
To ask a person of color or a minority to describe to you the nature of their oppression is to ask them to live their oppression not only through their lived experiences, but through language as well. The fact of your whiteness, your cisness, your straightness makes this worse, for even if they are aware of it, they know, somehow, that they must battle with their truth and the truth you believe to be the way. This is the terrible existence of life under a microscope, an issue allies should seek to assuage and ultimately eradicate.
If you want to be down, you must educate yourself. You must deconstruct your person, your identity, while also understanding the pieces which, in contrast to yours, make up the mosaic identities of the wretched. Then, once you see their struggle as tangible, as legitimate, as human, you must dedicate yourself to the actualization of their liberation in as best and as productive a way as you can. The marginalization of one people is the moral destruction of all and a blow to the downtrodden is felt as well by those who stand on top of them. To be down, you must be invested in their freedom, for their liberation will bring yours as well.