This past week, my husband and I have been like two ships passing in the night. I had spent 3 days out of state doing equity and inclusion training in Vermont, and my husband has been busy with end-of-year, late night school events. But, last night, we finally sat down and talked. When we do sit down to talk, our conversations usually include something about the latest television show about zombies or science fiction that he loves (and that I, as he knows, would likely hate); a project that one of us is working on; or a ridiculous conversation that we had or overheard one of the children saying.
And, far too often, including last night, we have been talking about tragedies in our country that have continued to render people of color — most specifically people who are Black — as less than human, less than equal, and less than valued.
But, c’mon people, this is not a new pattern. Not a new behavior. Not a new mentality in our country. It’s just that I’m tired — fatigued — from the same shit happening again and again with no change.
Oftentimes, I am asked to facilitate trainings, workshops and dialogues around the country. Whenever I do the pre-consultation with the organizers, I always ask, “What is it that you want to get out of this? What are your outcomes?”
Nearly every time, the answer is “Tell us what to do to be better” or “We only have an hour so, you know, whatever you want to do is fine.” That’s usually when I answer, “I’m probably not the person for you. What I do is about understanding our personal connections to oppression and how it influences our work/job/lives.”
To fulfill those 1-hour workshops or delivering a “to do” list like that simply means that I am collecting a paycheck. Sure, I can tell you what to do, but it won’t actually make any change in your organization, department, behaviors, and lives. And, as above, me telling you doesn’t equal you understanding.
And, understanding takes time. Like, real time. Like, active, engaged, difficult, ugly, painful, raw, terrifying time. My process involves asking you about what you believe and how you got there. My process involves asking you to think about your identities and how they influence who you are, how you treat people, and how you see people even before you see people. My process involves asking you what parts of your identity serve as barriers to engagement and what parts bring you closer to engagement. And, if it feels $hitty and horrible and ugly and terrifying, then it’s likely worth doing.
One of the most brave things that I have seen came from my friend Emily (read her beautiful blog here). This morning, after many articles circulated social media calling for allies who identify as White to stop listening and start doing, Emily posted publicly on my Facebook wall. She published with intentionality, knowing that she couldn’t possibly be the only person who was struggling with how to move from listening to doing in a way that made sense. And, given the number of likes and comments, Emily is not alone.
Emily, like many of my socially-just minded friends, identifies as an ally, has active conversations with her children, openly challenges race and racism among friends and family, and shares posts about race and justice on social media.
Does this sound like you, too?
If so, then you’re likely one of the ones struggling, too. Struggling with how to go deeper, move further, and engage more actively.
This is for you. It’s not comprehensive. And, I’m actually writing this with a particular group in mind — a group of people who live in racially White homogenous communities; who go to school along side and who play soccer/swim/neighborhood tag in communities that are homogeneously racially White; and who aren’t going to uproot the family and move to a racially diverse community for lots of very valid logistical reasons (note: living in a racially diverse community doesn’t mean that positive racial interactions happen, either. I live in a racially diverse city and still manage to, every single day, hear racist comments and witness racist behaviors).
What do I (because, I don’t speak for all people of color) need you to do?
I need you to make your commitment visible.
I am quite confident that people know where I fall on certain issues. Even given my identity as a practicing and faithful Catholic; even given my identity as a heterosexual woman; even give my identity as a cisgender woman; even given my identity as an Asian American who neither benefits from White privilege nor who experiences violence as people in the Black community experience; even given my identity as an emerging scholar; even given my identity as a practitioner; even given my identity as mother/wife/parent — it’s pretty clear and visible what my views are on just about every social issue.
I have made my commitment visible.
I have made my mistakes visible.
I have made my questions, my struggles, my journey visible.
I have publicly interrogated my own beliefs and values about nearly every issue from race to gender to sexual orientation to gender identity to class to education to activism to injustice to service to parenting … and so on. I have moved beyond listening, which I still do intently, and have made my journey visible.
But, I have not attended a march. I did not get on one of the many buses from Boston to Selma to walk the bridge. I did not carry a sign at a rally. I have not chanted and demanded justice by protesting in front of a store or a business. I have not participated in a die-in nor a walk-out. But, every ounce of me has wanted to, emotionally, but it’s just not authentic for me. I am thankful for my many brothers and sisters for whom this avenue of activism is authentic. I have watched you from afar, wept openly at your commitment, and prayed for your protection from harm.
I have been visible in other ways.
The way that I have understood is authentic for me is through written word. I showed up in my news feed and in the news feed of others. I made my beliefs and struggles visible when I blogged, tweeted, or updated my status. I engaged in public conversations and private conversations. And, when I am feeling brave and willing to risk being criticized, I have shouted.
I spoke quietly, firmly, and honestly to my children. I made visible the reality of our world so that they can create their own authentic responses.
I cried on a couch with my co-worker.
I sat in silence, in a community circle, and listened to the breathing of others as paid attention to the Light within.
I broke bread with a friend and talked well above a whisper about identity and Blackness and discourse of performing identity while at a public restaurant.
I pinned a rainbow heart on my bag, my lunchbox, and my backpack in addition to having the only outward-facing rainbow flag on an office window at the Catholic college where I worked.
I ask people for their preferred pronoun(s) and smile when they look at me confused, mostly because they have had the privilege of never being asked.
I openly and regularly use language like “partner” or “parent/guardian/support system” or “place you consider home”.
I use people-first language and both role model and correct others when they do not.
For a while, I tied a black string around my wrist whenever there was violence perpetrated against someone who was Black. People asked me what it was. I told them. And then, soon after, I ran out of string.
I am the first one to bring up race in a conversation, making it visible before there is time to diffuse or shift it to something else.
Sometimes, when I believe that it might matter, I challenge a comment someone writes that may be classist or sexist or heteronormative or racist or veiled notions of all of the above. Sometimes, I stay with the conversation and we both grow. Most times, yes, even in my own friend group, I end up being attacked and marginalized and told that I “have offended someone by implying they are racist.” Then I remember how deep, pervasive, and well-oiled the machine of Privilege and racism is, and how that successful operation has made it possible for them to be offended.
On days when I have more energy, when my heart is less broken, and when my soul is less weary, I do more than “share” an article. I comment, I highlight, and I interpret and interrogate it in my own lens. Hitting “share” is too easy. Actually articulating why I’m sharing it is making my journey visible.
And, yes, none of this is possible unless you listen. I do listen. I listen with my whole being. I begin listening with this one statement that I repeat over and over to myself: “For this person, this is true.” I believe in their truth. I believe that their truth is informed by their life. And, if I am given the gift of this testimony, I take it with me and hold on to it tightly.
But, it is time to move beyond listening. It is time to stop calling ourselves allies and, instead, ask ourselves what it means to ally.
I’ll write that again.
I don’t need you to BE an ally. I need you TO ally.
In the world of my children, I have heard them say time and again, “So-and-so is my friend.” My follow up question is usually, “Oh, that’s great. Well, what makes that person a friend? What does that person do to show you she/he is your friend? What has that person done to demonstrate what it means to be a friend?”
It’s the same thing here, Allies.
I need you to understand what it means to ally. I need you to understand it for yourself. I need you to figure out how you can make yourself visible. I need you to figure out how to make your thoughts, beliefs, opinions, struggles and journey visible for others to see in a way that is authentic for you. I need you to be brave. I need you to move into spaces that are uncomfortable so that you aren’t just listening but you are participating.
If I asked any one of your friends what YOUR opinion, stance, belief, or value was about any of the social issues you say you privately care deeply about, would they know what it is? Would they know where you stand? Would they know what you believe?
What will they say you have done?
In true definition, we do not individually claim Ally. Rather, a community claims you as an ally. The community with whom you are working towards solidarity says you are an ally.
If you call yourself an ally to the Black community, would the Black community — people who are Black — say you are? Would they say you show up? Would they say you make visible your commitment to them and to issues impacting the Black community?
Would they say anything about you at all?
If not, then what will you do?
It’s time to do some real soul searching. It’s time to ally.
Peace, love and using my strength in the service of my vision*,
*”When I use my strength in the service of my vision, it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” — Audre Lorde