When Black Panther premiered on the big screen, black nerds from around the globe rejoiced. We had been waiting to see Wakanda since the beginning of the MCU. We finally got to see a black hero who was unapologetically proud of his culture. Black Panther delivered a tale where blackness was both centered and celebrated. However, even though the film focused on its majority black cast, the writers managed to insert a token white ally, Everett Ross, into the plot. Ross is one of the few white men in this afrocentric movie yet he is given a fair amount of screen time. As Killmonger talks about the systematic oppression of black people around the world, Ross makes himself useful to T’challa and his team, and creates a counterexample to Killmonger’s arguments. The movie, which is supposed to be about black heroes, still manages to make a white man essential to the plot and seen as one of the good guys. This is an example of a problem often found in many black movies, particularly ones with a focus on race, the insertion of the token white ally.
The white ally is a white character in a black story who openly supports his/her black friend, as they deal with racism. As other white people mistreat the black protagonist, this character does just the opposite. Instead, they are the shining examples of how white people should regard black people. Although having a good white character in a black movie is not automatically a bad thing, this white friend often does more harm than good. The white ally is usually created to appease white audiences as racism is being depicted. The white ally makes white audiences feel good about themselves, by being the example that shows that not all white people are racist.
The problem is that blackcentric stories emphasizing the “not all white people” fact, actually takes away from the illustration of racism. By giving attention to the “good” white characters, these stories minimize the gravity of racism and how it affects black people. It gives an impression that this bigotry is not too serious, since there are all these decent white characters. This representation also allows for white audiences to not acknowledge various portrayals of racism in their entirety. Instead of focusing on these portrayals and reflecting on the problematic characters they are given an out. The white ally gives white audiences a character that allows them to not pay attention to the racism in the story and to be in denial about their own internalised racism as well.
A more recent example of the white ally can be found in the latest Spike Lee film, BlacKkKlansman. The movie follows Ron Stallworth, a black police officer who infiltrates the KKK. Set in the early 1970’s, the movie heavily reflects the racial bias against black people during this era. To coddle white viewers, the movie inserts a plethora of white friends into it. Most of the police officers in the movie are white cops who help the hero. They support him in his crusade against the Klan and white supremacy and find themselves essential to taking them down. For every racist klan member, there is a white hero cop that serves as a counter to them. Thus, white audiences have characters who make them feel better about themselves, while missing the entire point of the film. One key element of the film is the comparison to the true story — BlacKkKlansman is based on a real life experience. However, in reality most of the things that happened in the film did not occur. This movie makes its white characters more likeable than they would have been in real life. For instance, Flip Zimmerman, in the movie, is a likeable white jewish cop who fights with Ron against to the KKK. While in reality, a partner did exist who helped Ron get into the KKK, there is no indication that he was jewish. He also did not do most of the good deeds for Ron and other black people that he did in the film.
Another example of the white ally can be found Hidden figures, a film that follows three black women mathematicians who helped put the first people on the moon. The white friend in this context is their boss, Al Harrison. When Harris finds out that one of the women, Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P.Henson), had to run in the rain to go to the coloured bathroom, he is furious. He tears apart the coloured women’s bathroom sign and declares that everyone at NASA will use the same restrooms. This all sounds great, but there is one problem with it: it never happened. Harrison never stood up for these three women in real life in such a dramatic manner. In reality, Johnson refused to go into the coloured bathrooms and no one stopped her. By forcing a white friend into this movie, “Hidden Figures” erased the real life bravery of Johnson and diminished her actions so that white people have someone to look up to in the film.
It’s important to state that white people in black stories do not automatically have to be evil. However, a good white character to coddle white feelings does not need to be included in them. One of the things that made the movie Get Out so powerful was the lack of a white ally. In Get Out, all of the white characters contributed to racism in some way, whether it’s the main villains or the side characters with their not-so-subtle fetishes and stereotypical views. The film does not give an exceptional white person for a white viewer to root for. Instead, it gives an honest look at how racism works and how many people, non-black people of colour and white people, contribute to the system. One moment in the film where this particularly happens is towards the end where Chris is about to lose his body. Jeff, the man who has bought him, declares that he is not a racist, even though he is participating in this racist system. It reflects how white people often benefit from racism yet do not want to be called racists. The metaphor is very subtle yet it gets the point across.
The white ally is not only an unnecessary trope, but damaging as well. By giving white audiences a character that not only absolves their participation in racist systems, it diminishes the gravity of racism and derails any potential conversation that could and should be had. Furthermore, the time spent on creating these white ally characters could be given to flesh out the story better or to develop another character more. If these black stories are for black people, time should not be wasted coddling white audiences, especially given the history of black people being given harmful roles or portrayals in white-centred stories.
From the use of blackface in Minstrel skits to both mock and stereotype African-Americans, to films like Birth of a Nation which showed black people as savages, inspired numerous lynching parties and other acts of violence against black people.
If a white character does not look particularly great then that’s just too bad; we do not owe them anything in black-centred stories.
Editor: Precious Agbabiaka
Keshav Kant, aka Mx. KantEven, is a med student tuned Executive Director of Off Colour!
You’ve probably seen her on Twitter and TikTok, both @MxKantEven, or caught her work on Off Colour's many channels.
From consulting on films & shows, manuscript review, conducting interviews, or hosting podcasts & panels, if there is some way to bring sensitivity and authenticity to diversity, inclusion and equity conversations, Keshav will be there.