If You Want To Be An Effective Ally, Be Quiet And Know Your Place

The lesson of “Black Panther” for the white ally is this: learn to be the sidekick.
Walt Disney Pictures

“Black Panther” depicts the dignity and value of black lives on the big screen, breaking box office records and driving a celebration of blackness that I have not experienced since the 2008 election of Barack Obama. The film centers on the uncolonized African nation of Wakanda, a technologically advanced, modern, and self-sufficient nation of Pan African Black glory, with residents drenched in vibranium-laced cocoa butter.

The best part of Wakanda? Wakanda doesn’t need allies.

While “Black Panther” is almost entirely disinterested in validating the participation of whiteness in the story of T’Challa and the fate of Wakanda, it offers a model for how white people can resist the urge to simply be allies in the cause of justice and rather be useful without having to be center stage or praised.

Over the last few years of movements for equality, many white people and people with privilege have sought to become allies, people who protect and speak up for those who are oppressed and marginalized. Allyship, while seemingly helpful, often devolves into focusing on white stories, diminishing the struggle of people of color. Frankly, allyship is by nature self-congratulatory and dependent on the praise of the marginalized. Wakanda had no use or praise for a special white savior (in fact, they saved the white people), which adds to what makes “Black Panther” so revolutionary.

“Being an ally is less about the liberation of people of color and more about showering the ally with praise.”

Void of the colonizing impulse and experience of white supremacy, Wakanda is free from the need for a white savior. “Black Panther” reflects this reality through its limited engagement with white people in the film, with only 3 white people having speaking roles: a museum employee who isn’t around very long, a short-lived villain and CIA agent Everett Ross, a diminutive sidekick at best.

At no point is he a necessary character. He heroically jumps in front of a bullet for Nakia, but these black women, who run this entire narrative and save men over and and over again with advanced technology, can cure bullet wounds overnight, begging the question did she really need to be saved? And Ross, because of the bullet he takes, becomes less of a hero and more of a burden.

Upon arriving in Wakanda, Ross finds the technology that he has known his whole life in the U.S. is inferior to Wakanda and that a young black women, who greets him as “colonizer,” has saved his life. He does not defensively cry out “not all white people” in response to her criticism, but rather takes it and moves on. He ends up in Wakanda because he needs help, not because he is a hero. He is mildly helpful and receives no accolades.

In the film, he turns away from cultural traditions that aren’t his to participate in and it is clear that his presence doesn’t imply that his opinion is needed or necessary. When he makes cultural missteps, he shuts his mouth (he is literally silenced by barking), manages his defensiveness and waits for a time to be useful.

Even his final heroism isn’t about accolades. After being given a mission to keep advanced weapons technology from leaving Wakanda, he is thrown into a scenario where his incompetence is only mitigated by a black women in his ear telling him exactly what to do after putting him in a scenario that she knew he could be helpful in. He does the thing he is asked and that entitles him to no thanks or special titles.

The lesson of “Black Panther” for white allies is this: They must learn to be the sidekick, to be at the fringe, to give up power, to have people of color in their ears directing them on how to be useful in fighting for the cause of justice.

At the end of the day, Ross’ redemption is that he keeps engaging over and over again and is useful when he needs to be under the leadership and glory of black women. He is a model of a co-conspirator, one who, however he ended up in the room, turned from the posture of defensiveness, fragility and superiority and instead became a useful agent in the cause.

“It is the epitome of white supremacy culture to need a white hero in order to celebrate the liberation of people of color.”

White allies in film and media are typically framed as sympathetic, cost-bearing heroes, ahead of their time and paragons to emulate (see Al Harrison, “Hidden Figures”). It is the epitome of white supremacy culture to need a white hero in order to celebrate and engage with the liberation and courage of people of color.

Allyship often comes with an invisible and unearned badge that gives a pass (or at least entitlement) to a person’s own problematic racism and moves the conversation from the oppressed to the one who intervened. The work becomes less about the liberation of people of color and more about showering the ally with praise.

The (unfortunate) reality is, we don’t live in Wakanda, there is not a place void of the impacts of colonialism, but the principals for white allies stand: If you are going to be here with us, be useful. If you want to speak, do so when you are needed and in the appropriate place and time. If you want to participate, do so in things that are meant for you. Know your place.

Brandi Miller is a campus minister and justice program director from the Pacific Northwest.

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