The summer of 2020 saw the Black Lives Matter revolution rightfully become the biggest civil rights movement in history. This was by no means a touch of chance. The pandemic didn’t just force us into our homes, but the sudden lack of daily distractions forced us into our minds. Despite the devastation, the majority of society was afforded the most expensive and sought out commodity: time. We finally had time to think about the structural and institutional powers that govern every facet of our lives, and most of us decided that something had to change.
As Black people, we know racism the way we know our own names. White people are protected from this race-based stress and have historically enjoyed the wealth of privilege that whiteness provides. Whereas we have been doing the work since race was invented by the terrors of colonialism. However, suddenly an unprecedented shift seemed to ripple through the white consciousness. A newfound and deep-rooted discomfort spurred those into action who had previously been content laying dormant. White people were finally beginning to reconcile with their complicity on a scale that was incomparable to before. Better yet, we saw more and more wanting to commit to substantial and long-lasting change. The most immediate way to express this awakened solidarity was via the protests that took place all over the UK. For the first time in a long time, allies showed up in droves to pledge their support to the public re-emergence of this long-standing social justice movement.
Some continued their anti-racism work long after the protests finished, but one person in particular was not really listening to Black voices when they decided to go even further. Independent Black Businesses (previously @independentblackbussinesses on Instagram), was an account that spotlighted Black-owned businesses in the UK. Amassing over 7000 followers and posting daily content that supported Black folk, at first glance their work seemed positive. Their use of dark-skinned emojis was confirmation to their Black audience that they were one of us, and because of that, we supported them for it. Because we always look after our own.
However, one of their posts did not follow the usual format, instead revealing a shocking and conveniently concealed fact that would not have offered the page the favour and popularity that it had enjoyed up until this point. Helen, the owner of Independent Black Businesses, is a white woman.
The first emotion that erupted within me was confusion. I didn’t want to believe that whiteness had yet again stolen a sacred space and comfortably nested itself while reaping the fruits of our labour. The second was disbelief. After all the resources that had been poured out of Black folk to educate an audience who was finally ready to listen, how could this have possibly happened? The third and most important was anger. There was no true accountability or apology and it became increasingly clear that Helen had taken this action to avoid potentially more damaging backlash if she was exposed.
“It has been brought to my attention recently that there has been some confusion over the face behind @independentblackbusinesses so I wanted to be open and clarify that I am white. I created the page out of anger & passion to create change and to celebrate and raise awareness for Black-owned businesses”.
There are so many things wrong with this but I’ll begin with the first and most important: Black-owned business platforms in the UK already existed long before Helen received her holy epiphany that racism is a *thing*. Instead of supporting and amplifying these accounts that had already been doing the work, she decided that she would create her own and consequently take up space that was never meant for her. What we are witnessing here is just one of the dangers of the white saviour complex: the unwillingness to admit that you cannot address a problem without accepting that you were the cause of it in the first place. If you are not creating the stage to pass the mic over to Black people but instead to indulge in the illusion that you’re actually helping, then you are not an ally. You are hindering the sacred progress that has been built long before you and will continue long after you get bored and move onto the next issue. We do not enjoy the luxury of choice as to whether we want to continue the fight or not because our very lives depend on it.
This reprehensible co-option of Blackness is not new. Blackness remains the blueprint yet is only desirable if worn and performed by non-Black bodies.
Rachel Dolezal is a white woman who identifies as ‘transracial’, and assumed a false African-American identity for many years. It is important to understand the impact that her lies and white privilege had on the very people that she tried so hard to emulate. Her completely fabricated identity earned her access to the few positions in society that we have had to claw out space for with the very hands that were denied in the first place. Rachel’s fraud was so insidious and calculated that she was elected president of the Spokane chapter of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP is the longest-standing civil rights organisation in the US and was founded in 1909 to resist the state-sanctioned torture that Black people were, and to this day still are, enduring. She was also a professor in the African-American studies department at Eastern Washington University and her classes included ‘African-American culture’ and ‘the Black woman’s struggle’. Rachel stole these positions all under the guise that she herself was a Black woman.
More recently, Jessica Krug was yet another white woman exposed for pretending to be Black for the entirety of her career, which was only able to take off due to the false pretences brewed from her fictitious identity. The subjects she taught ironically included imperialism, colonialism and African American history. She published a book called ‘Fugitive Modernities: Kisama and the Politics of Freedom’ in 2018 which explores the resistance and history of Black people who had been enslaved. She received financial help for this book and it was even shortlisted for the 2020 Frederick Douglass Book Prize and the 2019 Harriett Tubman book prize. Just like Rachel, Jessica benefited from lying about being Black. They both committed inconceivable theft by stealing positions, financial support and career-advancing prizes that had been created to address the lack of access that we as Black people have historically been subjected to.
They made a mockery of the sacredness of Blackness and repeatedly put on and took off their costumes, as if we are just caricatures who cease to exist outside the imagination and fascination of the white gaze. Privilege does not and cannot go both ways, otherwise, the very concept would be rendered void. I will never be able to dress up as a white person and enjoy all the comforts and power that come with whiteness. The only way that I can experience an equal playing field is by fighting for my rights, whereas Rachel, Jessica and Helen will always have the option to just go back to what they had before. In 2002, Rachel sued Howard University for discrimination – she claimed they had denied her a teaching position because she was white. Yet years later here she was playing the race card that afforded her access and social advancement in her career as a ‘Black woman’.
All of these women thought that they were helping the Black community by adopting identities that would get them into the club, but ultimately the damage and destruction that they left in their wake was immeasurable. For example, Rachel was struck off as a witness for a court case for her adopted Black sister’s sexual assault as she was no longer seen as trustworthy. She stopped a Black woman from getting the justice that she was owed among many other disruptions and injustices that were a result of her lies. Their causality was nothing more than hypocrisy, privilege and selfishness disguised as an intention to support the Black community.
Helen and co. did not come clean because they genuinely realised their wrongdoings and wanted to rectify them. For example, the language used in Helen’s post is that of someone who knows they’ve been caught. Her first avenue towards damage control was to victimise herself, a tool that whiteness has successfully wielded when accused of the violence it has wreaked. She knew exactly what she was doing when she used dark-skinned emojis. She carefully and cautiously conjured the sickening illusion that she herself understood what it is like to be marked at birth by something as insignificant as the melanin that blooms under your skin. Many rightfully hurt and betrayed Black people flooded the comments with stories of how they had placed trust into this account.
One person even painfully explained how they had vulnerably confided in Helen about personal racial issues and instead of disclosing that she was white, she proceeded to empathise with this person.
The sly and deceitful ways in which she inserted her whiteness into a sacred space that was meant to be ours is not only a violation but also a reproduction of the very white supremacy that we are trying to fight. She also made a Patreon page & PayPal and was not just profiting off of us financially, but using our struggles to absolve herself of any real and impactful justice work.
Whatever positive impact that Helen may have created is irrefutably negated by the fact that she intentionally pretended to be Black. Her use of dark-skinned emojis was a deliberate attempt to produce the image of a Black-owned account. If she had been honest from the beginning, Black people would’ve kindly educated her on how there were better and more appropriate ways to go about creating the change that truly liberates us. The function of freedom is to free others, and if she had actually read the Black feminist and revolutionary literature that she so eagerly promoted on her account, she would not have attempted it from the historically damaging and disrespectful white saviour angle. But Helen had her white saviour goggles firmly on her head and was looking at us through a lens of pity instead of empowerment.
Helen has since deleted the page, and she will probably be fine. The most she will see this as is an adventure into Blackness; a spectacle for her but a lived experience for us. She offered no apology or true accountability and instead decided to disappear, a liar caught in her game yet with no repercussions to reap. Whereas Black people will have to continue to pick up the pieces of our stories that white people leave behind after altering them and then getting bored. The best way to be an ally is to use your privilege to create space and then shut up, otherwise, you are not an ally at all, just a thrill seeker who uses the pain and trauma of the marginalised to get your daily philanthropic kick.