I wrote a piece a little while ago that laid out the first part of a road map about how best to proceed as a white person who wants to help people of color in their ongoing struggle for racial justice. This is the next part of that road map, and it deals with how to be an ally.
In my talks with the white folks around me, the question I get most often is: what does being an ally even mean? It’s a term that gets thrown around a lot, especially now that we’re talking more and more about race and societal inequity, but it’s also a term that rarely gets pinned down with an actual definition. Allyship is much more than just memorizing MLK’s I Have a Dream speech or spouting lots of lip service about believing in equality for all. It’s intentional action and it never ends as long as the goal is to dismantle systems of oppression.
Easy peasy, right?
In case you’re still confused, I put together a handy dandy list and, as always, there will be examples and comparisons…
Being an ally is less of a noun and more of a verb
In other words, it’s a series of actions and not a state of being that, once achieved, earns you a kind of irremovable brand of street cred. It’s not a get out of being called racially insensitive badge. I guarantee that you will still get called out by those around you. And, really, that’s to be expected, because this is a deeply racist society. Learning how to stop contributing to systemic racism takes constant work. And just like we learned in middle school that you can’t self ID as cool, you can’t call yourself an ally either. Like coolness, allyship is something that gets said about you, not a badge you get to pin on yourself.
Follow the lead of POCs
Just like women lead the feminist movement while men play a supporting role, POCs should lead the fight for racial justice with white folks there to support us, but not usurp the movement. We need y’all, but our voices should be the loudest and our experiences should dictate the direction of the fight. The struggle for gender equality needs to have male allies…but in the back, not out on center stage. Women’s voices and experiences need to take that leading role. This is no different. A movement not led by those who have the most at stake is bloodless and doomed to fail.
Listen more than you talk
This is key and, honestly, great advice to follow in most aspects of daily life. What I’ve noticed about the times I’ve shared my experiences of moving through the world as a black woman is that white folks are very quick to recenter the conversation onto themselves. They really want me to know that they are not racist, that they have black friends, that they would never consciously oppress anyone! This is defensiveness rearing its ugly head, even though what I said probably had nothing to do with my white interlocutor. I could be talking about a situation that occurred years earlier that had nothing to do with them. If a POC is willing to open herself enough to share a vulnerable experience with you, make sure you’re listening to understand what’s being said, not necessarily to respond or rebut. Taking time to internalize what you’ve been told is okay. And if you’ve been called out for something racially insensitive that you’ve said or done, it’s even more critical that you internalize and fully process that information before responding.
Believe POCs when they share their experiences
I’ve had folks argue with me, shout me down, tone police me, and ask for hard proof of experiences that I’ve shared with them. I’m not sure how I’d come up with video of that time someone called me the N word in 1993, or why it’s even necessary for me to prove it in the first place. When this kind of thing happens, I know I’m dealing with a person that I absolutely cannot trust. It’s disappointing because we’re both supposed to be fighting for the same things–you’d be surprised how many white folks I’ve met in so-called progressive circles who routinely do this to POCs–but I don’t continue to waste my emotional energy. It costs you nothing to believe a POC when she speaks or to stop using racially inappropriate language. I moderate a page for a progressive, community based organization and I have had arguments with white folks over their liberal (see what I did there?) use of the N word. It just wasn’t enough to be told that it was insulting to the POCs on the page, many of whom had requested it be removed. I had another situation on that same page with a man who told me that he was deaf, and members of his community took offense at being called hearing impaired because it held a negative connotation. Now, I was raised to believe that was the polite way of describing someone who was deaf. But it cost me absolutely nothing to believe him and then change my behavior accordingly.
When you’re called out, put your defensiveness aside
This is critical. No one likes being called to task, and our natural response is to double down or attack the person calling us out. What I’m asking you to do is take the time to honestly reflect on what you’ve been told instead of letting defensiveness take over. When that defensiveness rises–and it will–wait to respond until it subsides again. Fully process that knee jerk emotional reaction of hurt, guilt, or anger on your own without demanding that a POC do the emotional labor of soothing you. Understand that this is not commentary on your character, but rather on your actions and/or words. Allowing defensiveness, hurt, anger, or guilt to infect your response will derail what could be an excellent opportunity for self-reflection and growth.
Impact trumps intent
Here’s how confrontations usually go down:
Me: wow, what you just said was really racially insensitive and hurtful.
White person: what?! I’m the least racist person in the world! Insulting you wasn’t what I intended at all! You just took it the wrong way.
I’ve been given ‘compliments’ before that are extremely racist. You speak so well (for a black girl). Also, there have been too many offhand comments to count or recall. What did you get your degree in again? African Studies? (actually, it was philosophy…and not African Philosophy, FYI) Sometimes I let these comments slide. Sometimes I don’t. But every time I’ve called someone to task, the usual defense is that the person didn’t intend to insult me, though that was the actual impact of their grossly insensitive statement, so I just need to move on and let it go. But, actually, what matters here is the impact of what you’ve said or done, not your intent. If the (unfortunately common) assumption that any black woman who went to college must have gone on a basketball scholarship and majored in African Studies causes you to be called out, the excuse that you didn’t intend to insult that woman is weak and not an appropriate defense. What matters is that your words were offensive and you need to stop saying them.
There are no rewards for behaving like you should
Because we’re talking about race much more than we used to, I unfortunately get to hear all about a white person’s racist uncle or cousin or some racist bullshit they heard at the store. Y’all, POCs hear this shit literally ALL. THE. TIME. If you hear some racist crap and you take a stand to put a stop to it (as any decent human being should), there is no reason to report back to a POC to let her know what you did. Tell a white friend if you really need to share. But the constant need for back patting and award-issuing is exhausting to black and brown folks. I’ve heard the N word more in the last three months from so-called ‘allies’ than I have in my entire life because they have felt the need to recount every single racist thing they experience during their day. We don’t need to hear it from you. There are no prizes or medals. Sometimes you are just doing a good thing for the sake of doing a good thing. Definitely don’t let racist shit stand unchallenged in your daily life, but POCs don’t need to hear about the racist cashier at the drug store when we’re just there asking you how your weekend went.
POCs aren’t here to educate you
When a POC calls you out for conduct that perpetuates racism and privilege, that doesn’t then mean she owes you a lesson complete with resources and ways to do better. We are tired, y’all. I mean bone tired. For black and brown folks, racism isn’t something they just realized was a problem in this country in the last few months. We have been living with this our entire lives. Sometimes it’s all we can do to point out when you’ve made a misstep into racist territory, and we just don’t have the emotional wherewithal to do the heavy lifting where educating you is concerned. There are literally thousands of resources available online. You can discuss with white friends. You can read books. Have you seen 13th on Netflix? Most POCs have lived through experiences that make it extremely difficult to find the inclination or the patience to constantly educate the white folks around them. It would be a never ending task. I enjoy an engaging discussion more than the average person, but conversations about racism tend to be frustrating and emotionally taxing, and I’m not always up for it.
If the last year and a half has taught us anything, it’s that we’re not nearly as far along in the United States as we’d hoped. But that knowledge is a good thing, because until we see the problem for what it is, there’s no hope of solving it. We need to keep having these difficult discussions, digging deep into uncomfortable territory, and then digging deeper still. At the other side of that discomfort is where the answers lie. I’m sure of it.