Rise of the Sidekicks

As a straight white male, there are a few aspects of American life I will never experience.

I will never know what it’s like to be gay in America. I will never truly know what it is like to come out of the closet with your parents and closest friends. Even though I’ve observed friends of mine go through that process, I’ll never feel that same feeling of trepidation, the worry of rejection and loss mingled with the hope of acceptance.

I will never know what it’s like to be a woman in today’s culture. I know (statistically speaking) one in six American women have been the victim of rape or attempted rape – and the frequency of sexual assault is much higher, yet I’ll never be one of those statistics. I will never feel the shame or stress of being openly harassed in public. I’ll never fear the intentions behind the way dudes look at me in passing.

I will never know what it’s like to be a person of color in a white world. I have never watched TV without finding characters who shared my lack of melanin. No one has ever crossed the street to avoid coming into contact with me and I’ve never heard a driver lock their car doors when I walked by. I’ve never been stopped by the police because I resembled a suspect in a crime. And I’ve never worried that my interactions with a cop could be fatal for me.

image courtesy of USA Today

My friends who are not white, straight, or male have lived these through these troubles. Intellectually, I understand what they’re going through, however I only share their trials vicariously. There is no first hand experiences for me. I know what happens but I don’t know at the same time. I hear their stories, I grieve with them in times of hardship, yet I cannot fully comprehend what it like to be them without actually being them.

Racism is the America’s original sin. Our nation was built by slave labor and sharecroppers. At every moment of progress, there’s been someone wealthy and powerful pulling strings ensuring there will always be loopholes to legally exploit and disparage African Americans. Bigotry infects our culture - from explicit and obvious forms of hatred to subtle biases of which most are unaware.

Battling racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and other forms of prejudice is an underdog’s fight. For generations, discriminatory language has been socially acceptable. Exposure is essential to overcoming the bonds of hatred. Unfortunately, those mired in their own bigotry are unlikely to befriend someone they hate based on bias.

A homophobic person isn’t giving an empathetic ear to a gay person describing anxiety over revealing their sexuality. A misogynist will dismiss a woman’s admission of feeling unsafe in the workplace. A white nationalist will laugh off a black person’s account of racial profiling. Bias deafens us to stories contrary to our world view.

If those with narrow world views won’t listen to a story from someone in the LGBT community, or a woman, or a person of color, who’s story will they accept? They’ll listen to a straight white dude.

At this point in history, honest stories are crucial. Black narratives have the power to influence a generation, change the tide of legislation, and instigate waves of legal reform. Recent events have awakened a righteous anger across white America, they’re finally recognizing something is unjust and needs to change. This isn’t a new feeling to my black friends. They have felt this injustice their entire lives. They’ve been urging change for years yet no one listened until now.

With eyes slowly opening to see the institutional problems in our criminal justice system, many are still uncomfortable with or dismissive of black voices. They see something wrong but are not ready to listen to those impacted by injustice. This is where I come in: your racist uncle might not listen to Killer Mike address the challenges of being black in America, but he’d listen to me. He’d listen to you sharing real stories of real lives affected by real pain.

However, this is where white allies need to be careful. It would be easy to take over the story and make it about us. “Look at us white folk fixing everything.” Doing so would turn us into a move trope come true: the white savior.

Movie tropes are storytelling devices common enough to become predictable. When used, movies follow a similar course of events. Like dudes walking away from explosions. Sure it looks cool but does the main character have to walk away triumphantly while something blows up in a giant fireball behind them? Or do damsels in distress always have to say “my hero” when rescued from peril. While we’re at it, why do damsels always have to be in distress?

Tropes are used because they’re familiar. They’re comfortable. They make writing easier. The white savior story found from animated classics to war dramas to sci-fi blockbusters. FernGully. Dances with Wolves. The Last Samurai. Avatar. In each of those stories, a white person begins as an oppressor for a native population. Then once they’ve immersed themselves in the minority culture, they turn against the invading forces of their fellow white men and save the locals from desolation.

This fate awaits white folk if we’re not careful. We could easily insert our white privilege into black stories to save them from our white oppression. Look at us, hail the conquering hero. It's a temptation we must resist.

We (white people) need to remember African Americans are the heroes of their story. From slavery, to sharecropping and segregation, through redlining and the drug war, into our current state of militarized police and racial profiling, our system has been set up to hinder the pursuit of the American dream for minorities. They suffered every plot twist and escalating tension in the story of these United States. This is their long dark night of the soul. They are the protagonist rising to face the villains of racism and bigotry. If we are to become their ally, we must not replace their role as hero.

Heroes need sidekicks. Batman had Robin. Captain America had Bucky Barnes. If life is a comic book, white people need to be the sidekick, there to support and elevate black heroes and not demote them to a footnote.

Share the stories from black people to those who won’t listen to black people, but don’t repeat them as if they’re your own. Crave justice but don’t take over someone else’s cause just to make yourself feel better. Use your privilege to elevate those who lack privilege. Support those fighting against impossible odds. And do all you can to make the fight easier for the hero.

You know, like a sidekick.

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