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Who Gets to Be an Ally?

On finding space in the Black Lives Matter movement as a mixed-race woman

The author at home in Albany Park   Photo: Provided

I love social media. After years of experimenting, I’ve learned how best to use it. Facebook is for arguments, pontification, and comparing how much hotter you are than your high school frenemies. Instagram is a world of beauty and perfection — in other words, a complete lie, but fun, like my first boyfriend. Twitter is for news and haters. TikTok is my current fave — a video platform for jokes, lip syncing, and occasionally, embarrassing moms like me.

Since the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and so many other Black civilians, I’ve noticed a change in those platforms. The faces of victims of police brutality populate my feeds, as do photos of protesters, their fists raised in solidarity as they square off against cops. Clips from worldwide marches on Insta stories bring me to tears, because such moments of unity are so rare.

Let me start by saying that I am not Black. I am Korean and Puerto Rican, though everyone thinks I’m Native American, Filipino, Mexican, Hawaiian — whatever flavor of brown they prefer. I’m like a ramen seasoning packet: Chicken or beef, what’s the diff?

Once, as a teenager, while I sat on the steps outside my high school, a passing white woman shouted at me, “You half Black?”

I told her no.

She said that I shouldn’t be ashamed of my Blackness. When I corrected her again, she said that if I couldn’t find a way to be proud of my African American roots, I’d be destined for grief. My face went red, praying for a bird to swoop down and shit on her head, but she kept on going, harassing me with her white allyship.

It was one of a million moments in my life when people would argue with me about my race. Two weeks ago, I made a silly TikTok video and posted it to Facebook. In it, I play two characters: myself, and a white woman who prefaces some as-yet-unuttered statement with “I’m not racist, but…" 

It was an attempt to come at bigotry from a humorous angle. But it also made me consider my own privilege as an ambiguous brown lady.

I wrote in the caption:

I am Korean and Puerto Rican and I think I def don’t look white, but culturally would say I am. I grew up in America under the belief that white America was where it’s at because [of] money, education, jobs, health insurance, and ability to live fearlessly and be Instagram influencers. There have been many times when folks have mistaken me for a white person or have considered me one of them, or in the grossest context - considered me “not like other BIPOC [Black and Indigenous people of color].” 

Even as a light skinned brown person, I can see the advantage of being just a few shades lighter. For the all lives matter folks, you need to stop your shit and get on the right side of this. If you’re confused and need direction, I will help you, but only after you donate at least $25 to the Chicago Community Bond Fund and send me a receipt first.

As always happens on Facebook, someone dropped into the comments to school me. A friend wrote that it was not only not my responsibility to educate white folks on privilege, but not my place as a non-Black person of color.

“Elizabeth should not have to be the one to tell you all to donate or offer up labor to educate you,” she wrote. “There is even free information and education that does not come in the form of a TikTok video that you all NEED to read, watch, and listen to that Elizabeth CANNOT speak on because she IS NOT black. POC does not equal BLACK. … This is not a time for us to be saying anything on the matter if it’s not amplifying black voices that have been talking about this for decades.”

She was right, but it still stung.

Being told to take a seat wasn’t what hurt. It was the feeling of sitting on my high school steps again, being told who I can or can’t be. If we expect white folks to act as allies, and for Black folks to be the sole voices educating them, where does that leave people like me, with something to both teach and learn?

This conversation surrounding race is not new to me. It’s old, and it keeps coming back. While I’ll never understand what it’s like to be Black, I have experienced racism and xenophobia, and the pain, confusion, and fear they bring. 

As a mixed-race person, I’m constantly walking a tightrope between disparate ethnic cultures. I’ve been accused of not being Puerto Rican enough, brown enough, or American enough. I’ve been harassed on the streets, followed through stores, fetishized, tokenized, dismissed, threatened, and outright mocked. And while I’m sure my friend didn’t mean it this way, what I heard from her comment was that I am still not enough — to speak honestly about my lived experiences, to support a community I love, or to advocate against hate.

That feeling — of not belonging in a particular space — always rattles me. This isn’t the first time I’ve felt it, and it won’t be the last. 

But it also won’t stop me. This may be an unpopular opinion, but I don’t believe it’s “not my job" to help those trying to find their way toward dismantling racism. I’m aware of the undue burden placed on people of color to be educators in moments like these. But for me, it’s a small weight to bear in a fight I’ve been in my entire life.

I’m a storyteller and writer. Sharing stories is what I do. So for now, I’ll keep sharing them, churning out goofy videos for the small audience I have. I’ll keep supporting BIPOC artists and organizations. And I’ll keep being the loudest Korican in the room calling out bullshit when I see it.

I’m a woman of color; my activism didn’t start three weeks ago, and it won’t be over in the next few months. In the meantime, I’ll just stay focused — and spend less time on Facebook.

@juannarumbel

Calling all ##rollerskaters to step up. ##chicago ##blacklivesmatter ##blackmusic ##allskate ##rollerskatingtutorial ##tiktokmom ##over40 ##protest

♬ original sound - makennalynnec

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