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Posts Tagged ‘being an ally’

This post was contributed by J. (Tales from the Hood

I was pleased when Linda put up her latest post. There’s a lot of opinion in the blogosphere lately about what white people need to understand or not understand, helping us get in touch with our “privilege”, etc. A lot of it is really excellent.

Something that I have struggled with personally, and have seen my white male demographic comrades also struggle with, though, is: What, then, are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to act? I don’t feel privileged, but okay—I still am. I get it. Privilege acknowledgedCheck. But now what?

In his excellent piece Douchebag: The white racial slur we’ve all been waiting for, Michael Mark Cohen notes that “White racial slurs are not common in our colorblind age because they don’t work on people who posses white privilege. When they do work, like “redneck” or “cracker,” it’s a matter of class politics…. Rich white men enjoy the invisible power of being just people. Normal, basic Humanity. Everyone else gets some version of discrimination.”

Now, I don’t want to be a “douchebag”— who would? But somehow, calling taxation of the rich “the douchebag tax” rather than “class warefare”, seems, well, academic and not very important in the grand scheme of things. That’ll win me a few smiles of affirmation in the coffee room, but doesn’t give me much guidance for getting through the day in a racially diverse neighborhood or ideas on how to support change to happen.

So for posterity, for those basically decent white guys who “get it” but are unsure how to act when the conversation around them heats up, here are the rules I try to live by:

This is not about you. If you find yourself entering discussions with a lengthy expose of where you grew up, what your socioeconomic status was, whether your upbringing somehow set you on a path for racism or not-racism… yeah, you may want to reconsider your approach. Process your own issues as needed, but don’t bring them into this conversation. Why? Because this conversation is specifically about the rights and needs of other people.

No one is immune. It doesn’t matter where your origins lie, generations back; it doesn’t matter that your great, great grandfather was or wasn’t a plantation owner. It doesn’t matter if all of your friends are of another race/culture/ethnicity. It doesn’t matter if you’re in an interracial or cross-cultural relationship. No one is immune from making mistakes, not even you. Don’t try to pretend otherwise. If you make a mistake — maybe you use an offensive term or fall back on a convenient stereotype — acknowledge it, give a sincere apology, and move on.

No one’s holding your responsible for the sins of others. Don’t get all defensive, like, “I never hit/choked/shot/raped/owned any black people… so back off!” Fine, you probably didn’t, but that’s not the point, and in the vast majority of cases you’re not being personally accused of those things. The important thing is to acknowledge that those awful things did and still do happen, and then take steps to change that. Too often we use our lack of specific personal culpability as a reason to disengage from the issues of race inequality overall.

[Editor’s note from Linda: The larger issue here is “structural racism,” or “systemic racism.” Learn about what that means, don’t take it personally, and use your vote, voice and behavior to help remove/un-do/change it. Read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece to get a really deep understanding of how structural racism has affected black people in the US over the years and continues today.]

No token gestures. Don’t collect friends of other colors. Don’t go all over-the-top with moral indignation on your Facebook page. No blasting Salt ‘n’ Pepper while cruising in your Prius. No ostentatious displays of confessing your privilege. Just be normal: Look people in the eye when you speak to them. If you’re friends with people of other racial and ethnic backgrounds, express support and solidarity if it’s appropriate to do so, but don’t go all earnest emo. Join protests — definitely — solidarity is critical in order to move these issues forward and achieve structural changes. But don’t make it about you and your needs. Understand that your vote on local issues may accomplish much more than your signboard. And, no — don’t ever wear an “I Am Trayvon” T-shirt.

Don’t use somebody else’s asshattery to justify your asshattery. Newsflash: Literally every community on the planet has members who are jerks. Just because there was that one time, back in 1987 when some black guy was a jerk to you, doesn’t give you carte blance to cling to stereotypes or act like a jerk toward others. This is just basic.

Understand that people get emotional. Some people go ballistic just at Starbucks. Or Walmart. Can you even imagine what it must be like to be on the receiving end of literally generations of racial discrimination? It should surprise no one that tempers flare, voices get loud, and pronouncements become extreme.  Dude, just let people express themselves. Not everyone is a professional orator. Don’t try to deflate or invalidate it. Don’t feel as if you have to nit-pick or respond to everything. Which leads to…

Know when to shut up.

Don’t play the victim. You know how everyone thinks we can’t dance or “don’t have rhythm”? Yeah, just let it go.

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So, here’s a good post called “Dear White Protesters” from Tam who writes on Tumblr as Young, Gifted and Black. It’s aimed at white folks protesting the grand jury decisions on the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases and in general at white people who want to be allies in the struggle against structural violence and discrimination against black people and racist policing.

Tam specifically talks about the protests that happened in Berkeley on December 6th, writing:

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I was so happy to read Tam’s post, because I was in Berkeley last week, too, and the protesters were assembled in front of the police station down the street from where I was staying. I went over there around 6.30 because I wanted to join in, and I was missing the protests in New York because of travel. At that point in the evening, the situation was peaceful. The cops were lined up in front of the police station in riot gear, and people were calmly standing around or sitting on the ground singing, “Which side are you on? Which side are you on?” Later, I hear, the protests got crazy and there were rubber bullets, tear gas, windows smashed with skateboards, and tasers.

As I arrived to the police station, however, it was people milling around, getting ready for a ‘die in.’ They started lying down in the street. And I was not sure what to do. I wanted to support the movement and guessed that I should also lie down. But the protest seemed a bit ‘off.’ I hardly saw a black person there. The sign saying “Fuck the Police” covering the body of a hipster white girl lying in the street felt about as real as when middle class white people rap along with the 1988 N.W.A. song by the same name. (OK, confession. I do that. But not in public, and not to make a statement.)

Anyway, the whole thing made me feel confused about what I and others were doing there, so I left, feeling that maybe I was just getting old. I felt like I was not doing enough, but I also felt unable to participate in something that seemed somehow false. As I walked over to the BART station to catch a train, I couldn’t help but notice the group of older black homeless men at the park a half a block away from the police station. I couldn’t help but think of the black man with a shopping cart that I witnessed police harassing earlier that week on a suburban side street in Berkeley. None of them were engaged with this student protest. And I couldn’t help but feel awkward for the protesters who in their zeal to protest, somehow seemed oblivious to their surroundings and their privilege.

It’s possible that later on the protest became different and more diverse, and in that case I will retract these words and feel better, I guess. But I was glad to read Tam’s post. I was having a hard time unpacking my own reactions to the Berkeley protest, and Tam’s analysis illuminated what was wrong. It’s important to have allies in all struggles, but allies need to learn to take a back seat, understand their role, and follow the lead of those whose struggle it is.

Tam gives advice on how:

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As Franchesca Ramsey also says: “An ally’s job is to support.” Watch her video (below) on how to do that, and read Tam’s full post for some good insight.

Ramsey’s 5 Tips for Being a Good Ally include:

1. Understand your privilege.
2. Listen, do your homework.
3. Speak up, not over.
4. Apologize when you make mistakes and learn from them.
5. Saying you’re an ally is not enough.

Lastly, a few months ago I read this post about Imani Henry and Equality for Flatbush, who organizes people (of all colors) in the community where I live around issues of gentrification, racial tension, and discrimination against black and brown people by law enforcement. Henry says many of the same things (read that whole article too – it’s really insightful).

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There are a lots of places for white people to listen and learn how to be better allies, and opportunities to put that learning into practice. Understanding our own privilege is a critical task, and it’s hard. These are all lifelong learning pathways, and as Ramsey says, we’ll make mistakes. It’s part of the process of changing and shifting the balance of power to a more just one. It won’t happen overnight, but we shouldn’t give up just because we feel awkward and uncertain.

So go to protests, get involved, know and exercise your rights to dissent and assemble, show solidarity. This movement needs everyone to get on board. Like Fannie Lou Hamer said: ‘Nobody’s free until everybody’s free’. But as white people, we need to think through our participation, join as allies, and avoid making it about us.

 

 

 

 

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