Another tragic racially motivated hate crime has taken place, this time at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina. In the wake of too many brutal shootings of unarmed black men captured on video and thus exposed to the world, the event in Charleston elicited a range of reactions: outrage, grief, solidarity, disgust, resolve. But a common sentiment of weariness has emerged in many of the articles and commentaries that I’ve read.
Singer Solange Knowles poignantly expressed her fatigue this way:
To some degree, the recent spate of highly publicized race-based tragedies has elicited weariness in anyone invested in social equity. Waking up to these headlines is emotionally draining. But there’s a stark difference between the exhaustion experienced by people of color and whites that deserves attention if we are to find motivation to move forward together in these moments.
Tawnya Denise Anderson, a Presbyterian minister and author of this fantastic post, puts it this way:
I wish I could help non-Black folks understand what it’s like to be inundated with stories and experiences like this. It scars the psyche. You go from anger and indignation to depression and dejection and back and forth and back again until you’re inevitably numb. When news of Kalief Browder’s suicide broke, many of my White friends expressed their anger about it and the system that facilitated it. I told them they could be angry all they wanted. As for me, I’m exhausted.
This expression of collective weariness reminded me of a candid conversation with a colleague about our reactions to the Michael Brown shooting. She expressed her experience confronting and then battling racism this way, “I’m sick and tired. And then I get sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Her nested message was clear and echoes Anderson’s: navigating physical dangers, explicit bigotry, implicit biases, micro aggressions, and institutional racism is exhausting. The constant vigilance alone takes an emotional and physical toll. To then muster the energy to fight racism from the same well can deplete one to the core.
As our conversation progressed, the affordances of my whiteness became painfully clear. I move through my city, my career, and my life unencumbered by the constant barrage of racial threats and their deleterious effects because I am white. I have access to power because I am white. I have an unearned sphere of influence because I am white. If I choose to, I have the option of living a racially frictionless life because I am white.
The juxtaposition of my colleague’s daily travails and my freedom from them provoked me to ask myself: How can I be an ally in moments like these?
To answer that question, I reached out to a small group of friends and colleagues in the education space. Here are their responses:
Start by being an ally at all times, not just during times like these. Examine your whiteness on a frequent basis and realize that it plays a role in racism even if you don’t knowingly commit individual racist acts. This isn’t about white guilt; it’s about responsibility. As an ally you can help by not only acknowledging white hegemony as the pernicious problem that has daily terrifying implications for people of color, but also by by pushing yourself and other whites to live allyship in a way that confronts the status quo on a daily basis.
Kyndall Parker-Joseph – Chief of Staff, Bellwether Education Partners
There is value in allies listening in a manner that is stripped of defensiveness. As a Black woman, there is nothing more demoralizing than sharing my experiences with racism, only to receive responses like, “but not all White people are racist,” or “racism is only relevant if we keep talking about it,” or the outright disrespectful and poorly used “what about Black on Black crime?” People of color in the U.S. have historically felt unheard and/or misunderstood. Listening is a sign of respect and a golden opportunity for allies to better educate themselves on the vast range of experiences of people of color.
I see a real need for white allies to prioritize building cultural competence in the white community. I’d even argue that that’s the lion’s share of the work to be done. I see a lot of white allies focusing heavily on supporting communities of colors, which is fine in a sense, but sometimes does more to give them a feeling of self-efficacy/assuages white guilt rather than more effectively using their power, for example, at the Thanksgiving table with their racist uncle.
Paul Perry – Executive Director, The Reset Foundation
We need “active” allies who are in the trenches, using their voice, their positions of power, and their privilege to tackle these issues head on. Whether it’s at the dinner table, in the classroom, the board room, the court room, or on the senate floor. Say something. Do something. Change something. Act.
Alexandra Bernadotte – Founder & CEO, Beyond12
[Added on 6/29/15]
In addition to the wise words above, I received a number of insightful and candid responses from my trusted friends and colleagues that deepened my understanding and tested my humility. Even with tremendous amounts of support, I often feel like I’m wading clumsily through these issues all the while knowing that the situation is urgent and every interaction is a defining moment. These feelings are a recipe for paralysis, but that’s not an option. Doing nothing — not taking risks — is what Martin Luther King referred to as “appalling silence of the good people” in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Inaction makes one complicit to racism, while action makes one an accomplice to equity.
Reverend Anderson ends her post with the simple words to white allies, “Your shift is upon you. Kindly report to work.” I intend to do just that.
I welcome your perspective on allyship. Leave them in the comments below.