As the struggle for racial equality took center stage this summer, I was repeatedly asked, “What can I do?” Many are hoping to be allies in the fight for justice, but are not sure how to take action. So they seek out people of color (POC) like me in public arenas to ask for direction.
Stop right there, because this is already the wrong way to be an effective ally. That question puts the burden to assist you on an already drained POC. The first thing to know is that I and many other Black individuals are tired.
For you, this may be a recent awakening. For us, this is life. We are exhausted from a reality that we have been living long before the protests began. We are tired of arguing for our self-worth and recognition with people on message boards who refuse to be awakened to the truth of our human dignity because of how their lives would then need to adjust. We are tired of scrolling through endless new articles of the details of heartbreaking stories that are replayed on media outlets as top news.We are tired of updates from a judicial process that more often leads to disappointment than to justice.
So the first thing you can do is to just be aware of the weight we are already carrying before you ask us to lift more. As we continue to try to cope with our daily reality, we will fail to help you get a grip on yours.
Beyond that, I struggle to find an easy way to explain how to be an ally, because racism is not an easy problem to fix. It is deeply ingrained in our cultural systems, and reforming those systems takes both internal and external change for those in the majority.
The road to taking Black life does not start at the end of a gun or under a knee — it starts in the dismissive ways the community is treated when tensions are seemingly low. It starts more minutely:
- Have you ever been in a room with someone who made a racist comment and you said nothing?
- Have you benefited from a system that assumed you could better pay for a house than a person of color, or better execute the job even though you have less experience?
- Have you seen a Black man approaching and assumed you were in more danger than the white man who passed by seconds before?
- Have you actively worked to get diverse voices in your team or office or social media feed?
- Do you even notice when there is only one person of color in the room (assuming that that is normal — or worse, an achievement)?
While I am empowered by the number of people who have taken action to stand in protest, I now wait for people equally willing to continue the walk with us in our day-to-day reality.
My greatest fear is already becoming a reality in the months following George Floyd’s death — that as protests decrease and media coverage dwindles, racial injustice will equally fade from the minds of those outside of the Black community. Then action will stop, too. People, particularly of the majority, will feel like their work has been done, and we can go back to life as normal.
“Normal” is a facade for Black America. Normal, daily activities — jogging, bird watching, playing with toys in the yard, sleeping in your own home, a routine traffic stop, for example — have led to death for Black people who are simply living their lives. This is not the reality for most of white America.
Many people I know are like “the white moderate” described by Martin Luther King, Jr. They hear our stories with sympathy and respond: Wait. The time to address the issues at hand is always later, when the time will be right. False allies do not say “no.” They say “wait” because they do not have to wait while living in discomfort or fear. For them, there will always be a better time in the future — a time when people will want to rustle feathers; a time when change won’t be inconvenient; or a better time to roll out the new, more inclusive plan for their school, church, or community.
I struggle with this lack of urgency from some of my friends. They tell me that they understand, but their actions say otherwise. They say, “There is too much on my plate for now, but I’ll get to it later.” And as they go on with their day, I am left silently holding an equally full plate — a full plate of responsibilities as I starve for true equality.
Are we not equally busy? Can equality be left until tomorrow? Can justice be a line item at the bottom of your list? And what does it mean that the item on the bottom of your list halts any real progress on mine?
Their hesitation shows their discomfort with shaking the status quo. Perhaps they fear being placed in the reality that is my daily life. Perhaps they fear being “othered” as I and others have been. Or perhaps they are waiting for the right time to care. Unfortunately, there will always be another task to do, another meeting to attend, another stakeholder to speak to, another event to plan. Perhaps they believe this issue will work itself out eventually, or that I should just be grateful for what I have.
They forget that they have an ability others do not: they can opt out because the struggle for racial justice does not touch their lives unless they allow it to. They forget that my existence is one I cannot opt out of — it’s a daily reality. In these moments, “wait” is another cut to the heart.
Everyone has done enough listening, enough sympathizing, enough philosophizing — now we need action. I need you to act:
- You can educate yourself so that the Black individuals around you will not carry the burden of your ignorance any longer.
- You can stand up to friends, family, and coworkers who perpetuate falsehoods or hatred that continue to clog an already broken system.
- You can stand strong, either in a crowd or in the quiet, unseen spaces of your life.
- You can act with your wallet: donate to organizations and patronize Black-owned businesses. It may simply mean putting your money where your values are — pouring into the programs or causes that will actually affect social change.
- You can utilize your privilege as a platform to give a voice to those who have spent their lives fighting to be heard.
When you take actions like these, know that this is just what anyone of integrity should do. Know that there will not be a reward for finally stepping into the ally circle, or sharing the #blacklivesmatter posts, or reading the article you would once have scrolled past. Whatever action you take is not the end. The only reward for allyship is more work. My sister said it best: “You do not get a cookie for allyship. The only reward is that we have true equality so that others can simply breathe.”
So if you are truly ready to become an ally, welcome to the fight. Please know that I want you here, but it will be a battle. In battle you may lose friends, family, or loved ones because they don’t understand. You may find that those you thought you knew are opposing you instead of standing by your side. You may find disappointment and exhaustion are new daily realities. You may be forced to live in discomfort as long as you stand beside us.
Still, we trudge on — because at the end of each battle, at least we live to fight another day. There are many people of color who cannot say the same.