As a black woman, I can tell you that there aren’t enough words to describe how it feels to see the merciless videos that were shared of Alton Sterling, Philando Castille, and the officers who were shot in Dallas, Texas. I felt exposed and unsafe knowing that they were men who are no longer alive because of the color of their skin.
In a recent blog post, I implored my non-black friends to be allies during this time and to grieve with us who are mourning the lives lost because of racism, destructive othering, and marginalization. That week, my inboxes brimmed with the heartfelt words and questions of non-black friends. They asked me to help them further understand their white privilege and the power of their individual voices. I call these friends my allies.
In the vein of honesty, it might be good to clear up any notions of what a good ally isn’t. I’m thinking of that one person who only fist dabs black people and tries to relate to them by talking about Eminem (assuming that we all listen to Eminem). This is not what we mean by being an ally. While assimilation and fist dabs are okay places to try, honest conversations, presence and research are better ways to strengthen culture and heal the connections between the marginalized and the privileged.
An ally can be described as someone who advocates for the freedoms and equalities of marginalized people. A marginalized person is someone who has been denied equal cultural significance due to traits seen as undesirable by the majority of a group. There are two types of allies, the ally who is curious, humble and deeply compassionate and the outspoken ally who is well-read and well-researched. Hopefully, these words will encourage you to be a powerful combination of the two.
Start with You
Learn your subconscious biases and vet out the ones that are destructive. Here is an example. If you’ve only ever seen black men in aggressive and violent situations (think Grand Theft Auto and type-casted black men in movies), your initial reaction to seeing a black man in a hoodie might be negative. Be honest. You may not have thought out a fully formed sentence to describe him, but what do you feel? Is it fear? Was it the hoodie that caused you to fear? Or was it the color of his skin? What of all the things you know and have been told about people who have skin like his? Challenge yourself with more scenarios like this on the daily. What are your automatic thoughts? If they’re negative, challenge them. If they’re beautiful, embrace them fully. Know that this isn’t about shame. This is about freedom, beauty, justice and honesty. Let Verna Myers challenge you with more freedom-releasing honesty in her TED Talk entitled, “How to Overcome Biases? Walk Boldly Toward Them."
Listen and Stay Present
In order to engage in conversation that is healthy and honest, it is helpful to understand white privilege and racial power structures. Let’s break it down. When discussing race, understand that “racism” does not singularly refer to the racial prejudices between black people and white people, but also to the systems of power and privilege that were built for the benefit of and by white people through the degradation of people of color. These systems have been built to give preference to white people, regardless of socio-economic status, heritage, or language. (Another term that can be used for this exchange is systemic oppression. Macklemore raps about it here.) Listen to your friends when they tell you that their experience is different than yours. Because of the system of power and privilege, we don’t all get to breathe our breaths and enjoy freedom in the same ways because of our skin color.
Ask Questions and Research
This may be hard. To talk about white privilege means to accept that white privilege exists, and to accept that white privilege exists means to come to terms with the fact that white and non-black people benefit from racist systems daily. It means taking a hard look at the misconceptions and emotionally charged opinions that have inevitably developed out of privilege. This is not to say that all white people are mean to black people. We all have subconscious biases that have been embedded into our memories. As I said before, challenge those biases, like Allen Stone. And don’t be afraid to ask your friends if they can be safe places for your questions—especially the ridiculous ones. Believe me, we want to help you to dismantle your destructive subconscious biases, especially if it means the freedom of people.
Use Your Voice to Free People
Because of white privilege, it has been easy for white people to overlook the struggles of the marginalized. It can be overwhelming, at times, to feel as if we have to expose injustice in ways that are obscene and aggressive. Know that there are brave, gentle, and beautiful ways to do this. Imagine if we were all silent about any kind of pain. Would there be any healing? Would there be freedom, justice, or peace? No. So use your voice in conversations with your neighbor, in the ways that you raise your sons and daughters, in your songs, in your poetry, in client relationships, in your leadership, and even networking events. Your voice is more powerful than you realize.