For a long time, I've considered myself an ally to marginalized groups without actually doing much to earn that title. I respect their opinions and want oppressed groups in our country to achieve equality and justice. But when it comes to the senseless killing of black men by police — most recently the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile — I've been so afraid of saying the wrong thing, something that offends or comes across as ignorant or racist or like I'm trying to take up space that black voices could occupy, that I've often stayed silent in the wake of tragedy.
I've justified my silence in a whole bunch of ways. I've read the requests from people of color to say less and listen more, and that makes sense to me. I've tried to listen more, absorb, and think deeply about the issues that people of color face in America. I read the articles posted by friends of color. I've examined my own privilege as a white person living in America. However, all the listening and learning in the world isn’t the same as actually doing something, and it's a lot about making me feel less awkward in a moment when assuaging my feelings is not important. At this point, after the senseless murders of two more black men in our country, being afraid I won’t get it right isn’t a good enough excuse to continue on as a silent ally.
When someone is in pain, it's selfish to ask them to educate you on their pain. If you want to help, you need to figure out how on your own. My desire for knowledge came from wanting to be a better ally, but my desire for hand-holding came from a place of entitlement.
I'm now realizing that my fear of being criticized for the ignorant comments I might unintentionally make has slowed my learning curve to the point where it's unacceptable. It’s going to be uncomfortable as all hell to say the wrong thing and get schooled for it, but it’s time for me to face the fact that my comfort as a white person is not the priority here. In light of the murders of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and countless other black men, women, and children, I need to step up and be told I’m getting it all wrong so that I don’t stay wrapped up in my cozy cocoon of progressive ignorance.
What I wanted, basically, was to be saved from the discomfort I've feared for so long. And I've realized I can't do that anymore.
As a white mother, I have the privilege of turning a blind eye and continuing on with my life when things like this happen, and no one will call me out for it. I see many friends who have decided that these events are too overwhelming, so they would rather turn their focus to positive things — asking for threads of good news and cat videos to distract them from the discomfort of feeling too close to black pain. But picking and choosing when to care about racism is white privilege. I'm guilty of it even as I write these things.
My knee-jerk reaction to the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and police officers in the Dallas shooting was to cry out for help and guidance from my black friends and acquaintances on social media. I wanted a syllabus on what a good ally, a true comrade, of the movement would do. I wanted to be told by people of color how to get it right so I wouldn’t mess up or put my foot in my mouth. What I wanted, basically, was to be saved from the discomfort I've feared for so long. And I've realized I can't do that anymore.
While in the heat of the moment consulting people of color seemed like the right thing to do, it wasn’t. When someone is in pain, it's selfish to ask them to educate you on their pain. If you want to help, you need to figure out how on your own. My desire for knowledge came from wanting to be a better ally, but my desire for hand-holding came from a place of entitlement — something I only realized because I stumbled across a post that told me, indirectly, how selfish it was to make more demands of people of color during a time of such immense pain. This only reinforced my fear that my first reaction would be one of ignorance. I am going to get things wrong. My privilege is going to show. It is going to be a bitter pill to swallow.
People of color, specifically black people in this instance, have their own prerogatives in fighting for justice and equality, which do not include sitting me down with a warm cup of tea and giving me a manual on how to be a better white person.
It's not the job of black people to coddle me while I take the necessary steps to become a late-blooming ally. The fact that I am sitting here at this point, dumbfounded as to where I should begin is, to put it frankly, not their fucking problem. People of color, specifically black people in this instance, have their own prerogatives in fighting for justice and equality, which do not include sitting me down with a warm cup of tea and giving me a manual on how to be a better white person.
It's our job as white allies to get uncomfortable and figure out how to dismantle systemic racism. We have to hold our elected officials accountable: write to them, call them, make them feel uncomfortable. Let them know you care. Stop assuming it's "not your problem." When the timing is not so vulnerable, ask friends of color what you can do to help, whether that means attending community talks, providing childcare, or attending peaceful protests. Donate to the scholarship fund for Alton Sterling's children. Educate yourself not only on racism, but on your own privilege as well. Fight for police reform so that black men aren't dying during routine traffic stops. Call out casual racism when you see it on social media, or hear it at the family dinner table. Stop being quiet.
Even when we get it wrong, it's our job to shut up and listen so we can get it right the next time.
It's our job to fight for reform and advocate on behalf of our friends and neighbors of color, because white people hold the power, and using your privilege as a white person to demand equality is a damned good way to start. It is our job to do something, say something, even if when it’s uncomfortable, because calling out the status quo always is. Even when we get it wrong, it's our job to shut up and listen so we can get it right the next time. It is our job to look for opportunities to change the tide of social justice. Yes, it is an uncomfortable and difficult challenge, but it pales in comparison to the challenges black people face every damn day.
I will never be useful in advocating for change if I am always silent.
We can seek out the writings of people of color, not just in relation to their pain, but in all areas of contribution. We can raise our voices and demand change with our votes. We can look into our local police accountability procedures to ensure that we are taking the necessary steps to end police brutality. We can talk to our children, early and often, about race and racism, privilege and responsibility. We can demand help from other white people.
We can and must get over our fear of saying the wrong thing, because at some point, our silence makes us complicit, even when we’re listening to the voices of black people and nodding our heads in agreement. I am worried that what I have written here may have moments of tone-deafness. I am still selfishly afraid of the backlash, but it’s time I prioritize progress over my own privileged fear. I will never learn unless I'm willing to make a few mistakes, out loud, in front of anyone, and remember that there are so many worse fates, starting with those Alton Sterling and Philando Castile met this week. I will never be useful in advocating for change if I am always silent.