Realisations in Harlem: Privilege is Uncomfortable

This really summed up the feeling. [Image of a sculpture of a person craning neck upwards in the middle of a skyscraper-lined street.]
A few weeks ago I was treated to the trip of a lifetime: New York City. It was unbelievable and magical and more than I had expected – somewhere I would love to go back to again and again. I wondered how one place could have captured so many people’s imaginations and filled us with such a sense of awe and nostalgia. I loved how everything seemed more colourful than at home and the incredible diversity of people, buildings, faiths, sounds and sights. From Park Avenue to Central Park and Brooklyn Bridge to Times Square it was a place of boundless excitement.

As part of the short trip I was keen to go to Harlem. I wanted to go to Harlem because I wanted to experience it. To see Marcus Garvey Park and Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard; to take a picture with the Malcolm X street sign to capture and evoke my love of the man who so inspired me in my teenage years and my political awakening. I wanted to enjoy Harlem, to continue my tourist trip and take it in.

But the best thing about Harlem was that it wasn’t there to be just ‘taken in’. Harlem wasn’t ‘just’ black, it was politically and vivaciously black. Its ‘blackness’ wasn’t just numerical and demographic but was thrust at you as you walked along. It wasn’t only black in the sense that the closer we got to Harlem the fewer non-black people filled the subway carriages. Instead, stalls selling Black Lives Matter t-shirts, artwork inspired by civil rights activists, men wearing ‘I ain’t afraid of no po-po’ t-shirts and a real sense of political blackness was palpable. It was clear blackness was not just the racial identifier of these people, it didn’t just mean melanin, it meant existing in a state of brutalisation, dehumanisation and under threat – existing there but not being mere victims to it, being full and complex and human.

When I visited Harlem it was mere days after the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille. As someone who counts themselves as an ally I decided that buying a ‘Black Lives Matter’ t-shirt in Harlem would be both timely and a  personal symbol of my solidarity and my allegiance to The Cause. And yet, walking through Harlem in all my non-blackness it became clear to me what a cop-out such t-shirt buying would be. What a lazy gesture to walk into Harlem, enter a transaction to make me feel better about myself and then walk out of Harlem and leave it all behind. It was a luxury and a privilege. I could leave behind the $1 shops and subway myself back to Midtown Manhattan with all its skyscrapers and that Disney Magic I’d been feeling before. I could buy a statement of solidarity with the people like those who lived in Harlem, but I would be doing it not for them, but myself. I would be centring myself.

Not Enough. [image of non-black person wearing ‘Black Lives Matter’ shirt and crying.
One man helped me make the decision not to buy a BLM t-shirt in particular. As I passed by he called out to me. He said hello, recognised me as a Muslim and said that his father was a Muslim too. I assumed he was one of the many street-traders trying to sell me something and so in the bustle of passers-by I simply smiled or mumbled something back. His response is what stuck with me. He said something along the lines of, ‘What? You’re going to come to Harlem and not talk to a black man? You people think you can really do that?’

And in an instant it became clear to me just how stark and grotesque my privilege was. Often, in identifying as a ‘person of colour’ there is a certain blindness that can come with the umbrella solidarity. Often we talk about the allyship of white people, but not about our own allyship. Here, in the middle of Harlem my own certainty was disrupted. I was made to feel uncomfortable and it is this discomfort which is the essence of recognising privilege. When we recognise privilege it is my belief we can do one of two things. 1) Ignore, repress and defend. We can react to the discomfort of recognition by wishing it wasn’t so, by explaining that we never wanted the privilege, we never asked to have it easier. We could say, ‘no, you don’t understand, I am an Ally, you’re mistaking me for those OTHER people’. We could centre ourselves in this narrative, centre our feelings and centre our discomfort, OR 2) Do Better. When we feel the discomfort and recognise our relative privilege (be it of gender, sexuality, race, ability, etc.) we can ask more from ourselves. We can do better and we have to do better.

We have to do better because people are dying. People are being killed and it is not enough to wear a t-shirt and walk into their lives, take a couple of pictures and leave. Non-black people have to do better. Non-American people have to do better. Non-black Muslim people have to do better. We cannot pretend Black Lives Matter only in America, they have to matter everywhere because black people are dying everywhere. As Siana Bangura has written, “In the U.K., a black person is less likely to be shot dead on the streets than their counterpart in America. But we are more likely to be detained with brute force and left to die at the hands of neglectful officers.” Recently a black Muslim friend of mine began a conversation about the role of Muslim allyship in the BLM movement too. He was all too right in pointing out that there is a deafening silence with regards to both vocalising solidarity with BLM, acting on that solidarity and recognising the very existence of black Muslims (the majority of Muslims in the USA.) Doing Better means dealing with, rather than simply acknowledging, these things.

I was glad that man in Harlem said what he did because solidarity is about recognising privilege and acting on it, not simply buying a t-shirt. Harlem was irrefutably and undeniably important to visit. It taught me a lot about the picture-perfect NYC, it gave me a tiny glimpse of the different worlds existing in America and it made me uncomfortable. It was whilst in Harlem that I considered how deeply engrained within me the idea of fearing the black American male was. Whilst in Harlem that I considered how close death could be for people simply because they are black. And whilst in Harlem that I realised how much of a lie it would be to ignore the extent of my non-black privilege.

[image of tweet reading: A-always center the impacted, L-listen & learn from those who live in the oppression, L-leverage your privilege, Y-yield the floor.]
As a non-black person who wants to be an ally I have to look to the black community and black activists already doing the work and use my privilege to amplify and help them however they need. But even if I didn’t know a single black activist, even if I had no black friends and no black acquaintances I would not be absolved of active allyship. Allyship is looking at yourself and your beliefs and educating yourself.  It is about your interactions with non-black people too.

Doing Better is about not letting racist comments slide, not letting divisive statements go ignored, not letting casual stereotypes or prejudices float unquestioned. We have to suck up the discomfort that may bring us because such comments and assertions contribute to structures that allow black lives to remain so vulnerable. We have to Do Better in every space we occupy, especially those spaces where there are few or no other black people. We have to ask why there are no black people there. We have to take risks – risk embarrassing your co-worker, risk being sworn at on the bus, risk your reputation for causing No Fuss, risk upsetting Aunty Betty – because they are risks we, as non-black people, can afford to take. They are risks that help us actually participate in dismantling racist structures ourselves.

Allyship can’t be passive. It can’t be a state of being, It has to be active: a DOING.

Agree? Disagree? Comment below with any of your experiences of using privilege or seeing it best put to use.

4 thoughts on “Realisations in Harlem: Privilege is Uncomfortable

  1. On some occasions, I’ve felt uncomfortable with the privilege of having a British passport. Once someone said “at least you have a home to go to, can travel wherever and have been able to complete your education. You can’t support us through slogans and avoid us”…I got a bit vexed, but he’s now a good friend and we’re working on some projects together in Turkey.

    It’s all too easy to be #FreeSyria tagging… great article.


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