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COMMENTARY | Everyone can do something to support racial justice. Here’s how to start.
Racial justice activists have long worked to create communities where all are welcome and can thrive. For decades they have worked to obliterate the mindset that people’s race, gender and class determines their value. While there have been moments of triumph and hope, there have also been moments of grave disappointment. There have also been moments of questioning, where we question what we can do to make our communities and our society a better place.
Following the police killing of George Floyd that line of questioning moved beyond the communities of color that have traditionally led racial justice campaigns to white Americans asking how they should be supporting Black and brown communities in their struggle to end systemic racism. This support—often referred to as being an ally—has been an important topic in our recent national conversations about racial justice. Yet as much as the term ally has been bandied about, misconceptions abound about how exactly an ally should support marginalized groups. Allow me to set the record straight and discuss the four key actions that allies should commit to do.
- An ally commits to see. It’s easy to be engulfed in one’s own life. No one is problem-free, and without intention we can become so self-absorbed that we lose sight of the people around us and what they might be experiencing. While it’s easy to focus on that which is readily apparent, or limit our gaze to personal circumstance, an ally understands that their gaze must extend beyond themselves. They work to see what is said and what isn’t. They are intentional about empathizing with the experience of others. Most importantly, they understand that seeing isn’t the same as acting and allyship requires both.
- Next, an ally commits to speak. How many times have you witnessed injustice or inequity and refused to speak? Have you ever witnessed something that was clearly wrong, but you remained quiet because it was not your ‘fight,’ you weren’t sure how you’d be received, or you were immobilized by fear? An ally pushes through these barriers and puts themselves in the position of the person harmed. They advocate even when doing so could compromise them personally or professionally. In my book, First and Only: A Black Woman’s Guide to Thriving at Work and in Life, I talk about how allies have spoken up for me and used their privilege to improve conditions for me in various work environments. While this is notable, an ally is concerned with the individual as well as the group to which the individual belongs. This means that rather than helping in isolated and disparate circumstances, support for the group is ongoing.
- An ally commits to listen. Regardless of one’s experience and training, a person can never be an expert on someone else’s experience. This means that listening is imperative. Allies are willing to be wrong. They are willing to accept that their experience isn’t the universal experience. They are willing to acknowledge that just because it didn’t happen to them, doesn’t mean the “it” isn’t happening. For these reasons and more, allies commit themselves to listening. They listen when they believe they are right, and they listen when they receive feedback that indicates they have gotten something wrong. They don’t presume to know all the things all the time. They commit themselves to being life-long students. Allies understand that listening isn’t a one and done occurrence. It’s a life-long commitment.
- Finally, an ally commits to learn. An ally knows that good intentions are just that, good intentions. Intentions don’t inoculate against harm. Further, there’s a difference between intent and impact. Having noble intentions doesn’t shield one from making mistakes. As such, an ally commits to learn as much as possible, understanding that being an ally requires a commitment to lifelong learning. An ally understands that they never get to the point where ‘they have arrived.’ By virtue of having a different experience, of being in a different social location, an ally’s work is perpetual. One of the most frustrating things is someone who presumes to be an expert on my feelings without walking in my shoes. For instance, as a single mother, it’s always exhausting when married colleagues say things like, “I feel like a single mom because my husband is on travel.” My inward response is always, ‘your husband will return from their travels,’ ‘in an ideal world, you have someone to share the emotional burden of raising children or maintaining a household budget, etc.’ Allies try to understand this nuance and work hard to see and name their own privilege.
As you think about the world around you, you may agree that there are more problems than any one of us can solve on our own. While there’s only so much we can do as individuals, we can all commit to being better allies. Because it requires such commitment, and most people want things that are quick and easy, there is incredible demand for good allies. Most importantly, being a good ally has much more to do with having good intentions. It’s all about being willing to see, speak, listen and learn.
Jennifer R. Farmer is the author of “First and Only: A Black Woman’s Guide to Thriving at Work and in Life.”