What It Really Means to Be an Ally in the Movement Toward Equality
Here's how to do more than simply show up to the fight against racism.
The Friday following George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis, I did a solitary protest on the statehouse lawn in Montpelier, Vermont. It was my last night in Vermont, a state I had called home for over a year. I did not tell any of my well-intentioned white liberal friends about this protest because it was personal. In the midst of packing up my life and belongings, I was in pain. Not long after I began my sit-in, I had some joiners who offered to hold up the extra signs I brought in anticipation of such interactions. Since then, countless allies have taken to the streets and the collective outrage of the public executions of Black bodies has reverberated globally. Here is what I wish I could have said to the allies that showed up for me that day and perhaps to all those supporting this necessary, well overdue movement. Check out these 16 powerful George Floyd murals around the world.
Stepping back whilst showing up
Yes, showing up is incredibly important. However, taking a moment to self reflect as to why you are showing up before you do can be a crucial way to understand how to show up effectively. Say you see a young Black woman standing there by herself holding up a sign that you sympathize with. On impulse, you may feel called to offer something. Ask yourself, “why?” Then think about how can you do it in a way that is not hurtful to this person. There is a subtle moment, just before you act, where you can ask the person, “Is this OK? May I join you?” In this way, you are exhibiting thoughtfulness before you act.
Avoiding “prescriptive” talk/advice
This follows the stepping back approach. We may be familiar with the “White Savior” complex, which says that somehow, “I am a white person who is here to help, possibly save you, from this moment.” If the first thing you do is begin offering alternative methods in which the Black Lives Matter movement could have been avoided, it is not helpful to Black people. Going to the statehouse to protest was not a political statement for me, it was a heart-centered one. I had visceral shocks throughout my body that would not let up. I had to do something. When you say things to me like, “Oh, you know what we really need to do is make sure that Trump does not take office again,” it opens up the wound. It separates our already separated grief. The risk of creating such a distance, in the beginning, is how we perpetuate grave misunderstandings in the future. For your next night in, watch one of these 12 documentaries about race everyone needs to see.
This one is simple. We have heard it before. Listen. Listen to listen. Not to speak or rebut or to one up. Just listen. Listen to what we say and what we don’t say. While it is paramount that allies are not silent, it is equally paramount to allow Black people their silence. That silence speaks volumes. It is fatigue. It is trauma. It is an insurmountable burden of wanting to keep other Black people alive. It is hope. Next, find out why you should stop saying, “I don’t see color.”
I have seen so much of this from allies and friend-family groups. It makes me hopeful. It is also pertinent to the movement. Please educate yourself and make it a priority to do so. This goes beyond reading books. It is about rewiring the way we think and interact. Towards the end of my solitary protest, an old white man came up to me. In response to my “Silence is Violence” sign, he asked very earnestly: “Who should I talk to so that I am not silent?” I was taken aback by the sincerity in his tone. I replied softly, “Everyone. Anyone. Start with your family, your friends, and your loved ones.” Silence is not just literal; it is active. Reading a book or attending a seminar does nothing if you do not find a way to fit it into your life. If this is important, tell people. Bring it to your dining room table. Your water cooler. It does not have to be debated or divisive. Educate yourself to retain, to build, to grow, and inevitably, to change the system. You can start with these 14 small ways you can fight racism every day.
Elevating Black voices does not mean eliciting answers
As a diversity and equity consultant, I have conducted workshops where the notion of asking BIPOC for advice on how white people can do better has always come up. Please avoid this. This is a long, systemic, complex, and all-encompassing situation. If you ask me what can be done right now, I would plainly say, “stop using excessive force and killing us.” This circles back to pausing before action. If you can see this as suffering, an ache that we all share, it calls for versatile solutions. It’s time to grab a seat at the table, and really lean in on the humanity of it all. That kind of responsibility is what changes regimes. In order to achieve sustainable change, we must all be willing to play the long game. The long game is long and hard but the change is well worth it.
I recently heard the phrase, “hope is a discipline.” When I think of the galvanization and activism that is taking place, it really brings it home. For me and others who have committed to this work for a long time, hope is an active thing. That is to say, while there are ample ways to get involved, understanding the humanity of Black Lives Matter is the heart of the matter. I so wish that my white allies, as considerate and well-intentioned as they were, would have known how I felt that humid Friday on the statehouse lawn. It would have made me feel seen. Seen as a human; not just a vulnerable member of society. Let us not lose sight of why we are showing up. It’s for each other. It is for life. Whether or not this is life happens to be for Black people should not take away from the reality that is, at the end of the day, about preserving and protecting human life.
Next, find out what anti-racism means and what it means to be anti-racist.
For more on this important issue, see our guide to the Fight Against Racism.
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