I seriously debated posting this writing piece. It’s been sitting in drafts for more than a week. But I think it’s time for me to just let it go. I need to stop being such a coward about things like this. So here it goes…
In the past five years or so, I’ve had many conversations with other white, straight people about being a good ally, and there are a lot of articles written and interviews given by black people, and other people of color, and members of the LGBT+ community that detail what they need and what they’d like in a straight, white ally, and I urge all white and/or straight folks to use those bountiful, readily available resources to educate ourselves. First…it is not a marginalized community member’s job to educate us personally when there are volumes of things to read and hours of material to watch/listen to in order for us to educate ourselves without burdening a person in our life for that. (In other words…don’t do what this guy did to the author of this article and his other black friends…plenty of other white folks have already done it as you can see from that link and it’s not helpful…this work has already been done by black scholars and writers and public figures and also here by this guy’s incredibly diplomatic and thoughtful and patient friend in this article; there are many more like it. We just need to listen and examine ourselves without asking our black friends to do even more emotional labor for us.)
Some search engine terms to try:
school to prison pipeline
Southern Poverty Law Center
Central Park Five
Native American reservations
voting rights/voter suppression USA
The Trevor Project
Black Lives Matter
It Gets Better Project
Read books and watch films made by black and LGBT+ and other diverse creators. Some nonfiction books and topical works of fiction I have personally read and recommend are:
The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore
Black Lives;White Lives by Bob Blauner*
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (among others of hers)
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Beloved by Toni Morrison (among others of hers)
If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot*
(*These works were written by white people, but I think the content is important enough to still read and be thoughtfully considered. A note here…when a white person…certainly including me…addresses racial injustice, always keep in mind that this will involuntarily come from a skewed white-lens perspective, no matter how well intended the work. It is always preferable and better to listen to black voices and the voices of other people of color when it comes to understanding racial injustice.)
I’ve read several more books dealing with race by both white and black creators and I am currently reading A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansbury and plan to read more work by James Baldwin in the near future, as well as Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together In the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum and A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. I’ve read every book Augusten Burroughs has written (he is one of my most favorite authors), and a few more books that have featured LGBT+ characters and relationships, but I know I need to do better at reading more LGBT+ authors. And I’ve read a smattering of books written by Asian, Latino, and Indigenous Americans and authors from unfamiliar countries, cultures, religions, and ethnic groups. But not enough.
Films to watch:
The Uncomfortable Truth
I Am Not Your Negro
And Still I Rise
Crime and Punishment (documentary)
Again, these are only some of the films I’ve personally seen. There are so many more I didn’t list for brevity and even more that I still need to see. As a white, straight person who spent most of my time and life surrounded by mostly other white, straight people, and seeing mostly other white, straight people in media, both fiction and nonfiction, it’s my responsibility to seek out and find and consume the material out there to educate myself about experiences that are not like mine. And I haven’t done enough. Not even close. If I consumed several stories a day every day for the rest of my life, it will not be enough for me to fully understand what it’s like to be black in America, or what it’s like to be another person of color, or a person of a minority faith community, or a member of the LGBT+ community, but that doesn’t mean I should stop consuming them and retaining them and learning from them.
There is so much available to learn that has already been produced by diverse creators and educators; the black people and other minorities we know personally as a white person shouldn’t have to convince us to believe their experiences are real as well as different from our own.
But second, and perhaps this seems contradictory, but I don’t mean it to be, I encourage everyone to ask the people we truly care about in our lives who are members of an historically discriminated against human grouping how we can specifically be a better ally TO THEM…preferably at a time that’s not loaded with obvious pain for them (so not right now…read the room), and not with an agenda that involves our own feelings. We should be as clear as we can that we are asking to perform emotional labor for them. We are not asking them to perform more emotional labor for us.
Let me make this clear…WE SHOULD NOT ask them to alleviate our personal guilt and reassure us that we’re a good person (i.e. not a racist, not a homophobe, whatever…if we feel sadness or remorse or anxiety, it’s not THEIR job to lessen that for us…we shouldn’t ask them to help us feel better…we need to be willing to accept doing that emotional labor even if and when it makes us uncomfortable…we just have to be OK with that). We should only ask them how we can be a better friend and ally TO THEM. If they tell us that means to continue on in our relationship with them, unchanged? Great. But we shouldn’t think that gives us license to stop growing and educating ourselves. I promise as a white person, all of us white people have not heard enough black voices. We do not know enough black history. I promise. Still read. Still watch. Still learn. Still make changes based on what we learn, unrelated to what our friends and neighbors and relatives have given us personal feedback about.
But obviously (I would hope), if they say that means we need to change some habitual or new behavior that makes them feel uncomfortable? LISTEN TO THAT, and make adjustments accordingly. We need to do some work for the people we claim to care about in our lives.
And maybe most importantly, we need to accept that when we engage the people we know about sensitive topics like this, even when we come at things in ways we assume are respectful and open and with the best of intention, sometimes people are afraid to tell us the truth, and they still may not be forthcoming about things that bother them (in fact they will probably continue to hold back) for fear of negatively altering the relationship that *they clearly value,* or they wouldn’t stay in it with us. Sometimes they are so (understandably) tired of explaining things, or bringing things up with people who claim to be invested that results in defensiveness and no progress made after the discussion that requires a lot of emotional labor on their part. They might not trust us when we ask them for honesty about race or gender identity or sexuality; they might not be willing to share painful experiences with us…particularly if in the past, we have victim blamed or sided with people who caused them pain or WERE a person who caused them pain. It will take time and effort ON OUR PART to rebuild lost trust. And it may never happen. And we have to be OK with that. Because other people don’t owe us their friendship or forgiveness or involvement in their lives. Especially someone who belongs to a marginalized community who has (understandable) reasons to mistrust us (and to a degree at least, all white people/straight people). We have to understand that they’ve been burned before by people they believed cared about them, and if they are afraid to share with us, they’re afraid to be burned by us. There is an understandable reason for that. They may have been burned by us before, personally, and they are not required to forgive us for that, no matter how sincerely sorry we may be now. We shouldn’t forget we did it. These conversations might change our relationships with them in ways that are less than ideal for us. And we have to be OK with that. Because those consequences are ours.
I know this is uncomfortable subject matter. But I want to maybe say some hard things to white people who read my blog. It’s going to be hard because we, as a subset of human beings, tend to come with a lifetime of constantly reinforced socialization where we feel entitled to our voice counting at least as much as, but usually more than everyone else’s, and for our opinions about everything to be relevant, and to be included in the positive rewards of everything, and for our contributions to everything to be appreciated in some immediate, tangible way. And we’ve also been socialized to minimize or even ignore a nonwhite person’s (particularly a black person’s…particularly black WOMEN’S) pain, or even their voice saying anything; and we’ve been socialized to minimize our own involvement in anything bad or unsavory or uncomfortable. It’s what stops us from educating ourselves; this lack of willingness to listen and to accept criticism and responsibility…we are skewed to value our own voice over another’s, even on issues and experiences that don’t belong to us. And black people and other people of color can’t seem to get us, as a group of human beings, to adequately listen, even when they are shouting. So as a fellow white person, who white people are shamefully more likely to listen to than people of color, I am begging you to shut up and listen to black people and other people of color (but PARTICULARLY black people right now). We are going to hear some painful things. We are going to hear things that make us feel defensive and sad and maybe even angry. We’re going to hear things we don’t like to hear. But we still need to listen…WITHOUT interrupting and without making it about us (don’t make excuses for ourselves or other white people…don’t rush to claim ourselves as the exception to established patterns just because we don’t like what we’re hearing without really studying our own thoughts and feelings and roles in things). And examine our behavior and our bias and our thought processes and where our real values lie. Hearing about painful experiences we’d like to deny exist is hard. Hearing that we’ve hurt someone or are benefiting from someone being hurt is hard. Self reflection is hard. Atonement is hard. Change is hard. But we, as a collective, as white people, have created these issues; in many cases intentionally designed them. They are ours to fix, and in order to fix them, we have to listen and learn and change. We have to accept the realities of other people and our responsibility in them. If we want more understanding and more real lasting peace that isn’t full of hollow denial and blind obedience…if we want things to really get better…we have to be OK with that.