I recently wrote an essay about my feelings as a woman, a black woman and person of faith in the current American political climate. Essentially, I came to the conclusion that I live in a constant state of being pissed. In my little community of friends and family, the essay gained a bit of steam and was viewed almost 200 times. Interestingly, the strangest part about having that many people view your thoughts is the nagging feeling that you may be misunderstood anyways. I’ve especially caught myself thinking about my white friends who read the post. I find myself wondering if they got it? I mean, did they really get it?
Most notably, I’ve noticed that quite often, the non-marginalized (in this case, white people) have a tendency to exhibit a certain condescending pity towards marginalized people (in this case, my black ass). I usually begin to feel pitied when I hear “I’m sorry”, “that must be so upsetting” and worse of all, “awwwww.” Now, I’m sure that this is oftentimes true empathy. The emotional burden of racism is taxing (especially taxing on black women) so just hearing about certain experiences can also become emotionally taxing on others. However, empathy without action is pity and pity, quite frankly, effects no change. White people, have the privilege of stopping at the point of “empathy”, they can briefly feel the burden and then allow themselves to carry on with their day. Black people, unfortunately, do not have this same pleasure. We are taxed with both bearing the emotional labor and doing the moral and sturctural groundwork. This kind of pity from well meaning white folks is demeaning and demoralizing to black and brown folks fighting against systems of oppression. Language as mentioned in the examples above illustrates an effort to distance oneself from the issues that plague that community. Don’t distance yourself from the issues in the community, fight with us. However, this is not to discourage white people from empathizing with black folks, it is rather a call to allow your empathy to act as a catalyst for action. Here are some ways that you can be a better ally that empathizes and acts.
Ask instead of Assume
Instead of assuming that you know how your black and brown comrades feel in the midst of systemic racism, ask them how they are feeling. Instead of assigning emotions to your Black and brown colleagues, be open to hearing from them about exactly how they feel then ask where you can provide further support.
Call Out Racism EVERYWHERE, even from your problematic ass granny:
Call out racism everywhere and every time you hear it even if there are no people of color around. I understand that it may feel easier to let “minor” aggressions go but challenging racism on the smallest level is the only way to work towards changing larger systems. Change is never comfortable but it is necessary.
Invest in Change
One of the biggest and lasting effects of systemic racial oppression is the economic deficits between the black and white community. Historically, white families earn more annually than their black counterparts. So guess what, you should invest those extra earnings into the work being done in your city. Invest in your local participatory defense hub, Black Lives Matter chapter, local bail fund, go to a black owned coffee shop, buy a book from a black author, shit pay a sista’s student loan for a month, Sallie Mae be calling me! Sharing money is a radical way to effect change.
Be Ready to Put Your Body on the line
This is one of the most dangerous yet most important ways to be a better ally. Think of the cookout in Oakland last month. Last month, a white woman (we’ll call her Karen) called the police on a black family cooking out in a park in Oakland because they were using a charcoal grill in a non-charcoal grill area. How would this narrative been told if it wasn’t for the cinematography of another indignant white woman? How deadly would this story have ended if one of the black BBQers confronted Karen in the same way that the white woman behind the camera did as the police showed up? White allies, use your privilege to Black people’s advantage by using your body to disrupt racism. Break out your camera phone, confront the bigot, call out the police, do whatever you have to do to physically disrupt racism. If you’re afraid for your physical safety, at least begin recording on your camera phone.
Listen… you don’t always have to relate
Lastly, be okay with just listening to people of color and not feeling the need to tell a comparable story. Yes, we understand, a black person may have called you Becky on your way to pick up your pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks last week. And yes, it was probably hurtful. However, it is not comparable to the experience of black and brown folks that are subjected to racism daily. There are not systems (prison industrial complex, redlining, pay gaps, etc) set in place to support individualized prejudice against white people. I understand that relating is a common conversational tool but when it comes to racism, just listen, don’t try to prove that you get it by relating. That has the opposite effect. Just sit back, listen and refer to suggestions 1-4.