Alicia Garza, one of the founders of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and fellow activists. Photograph: Kristin Little Photography
Lately, I’ve noticed that white people seem to be taking more of the forefront in the Black Lives Matter movement. What started out as well-intentioned, long overdue support for the rapid end to centuries of systemic racism in the US seems to have morphed into a “who’s the most anti-racist” contest among young liberals. When you look at the situation in Portland, OR, what once began as a codified reckoning of Oregon’s racist history has now turned into anti-government performance art. A recent poll indicates that 66% of voters now disapprove of the ongoing protests, which are nearing their fourth month of daily demonstrations. Stats like these unfairly reflect poorly on the BLM movement, furthering negative perceptions towards the Black community, and do nothing to help move the cause towards greater racial equity forward.
Every indignation that a Black or Brown person faces is just cause for the continued protests against the systemic racism that this country was built upon, and I do commend the young people who have the fervor to show up day-in and day-out, but it does not need to come at the hands of white people’s self-righteous anger in the “name of justice”. This competition is also happening amongst digital activists, appropriating Black Twitter’s “cancel culture” to hold anyone and everyone accountable for even the smallest of slights, (often) made by their “target” in the (very distant) past. Here again, white people have wrongly appropriated anger that does not belong to us. While we in the white community should absolutely hold space for the Black community to express their righteous anger, we must refrain from becoming the center of the movement. This movement is not about you. Especially when that leads to dwindling public support for the reforms that are so desperately needed, The Black community needs our help, not our egos, so we must proceed with what the Buddha refers to as, “right action” and “right effort”.
When I’ve conducted “How to be a better Ally” trainings, it’s stressed that allies understand it is not up to that particular community to educate you on the issues that they face. This is difficult because if you don’t ask, you won’t know, and you also should not assume “you know best” what someone else needs….so, how do we go about the business of “right action”? The best thing an ally can do first, and foremost, educate yourself. Find an ally training where there is a panel of people who have volunteered for the belabored task of educating a privileged community (better yet, attend several). Side note: make sure that the people on the panel actually come from said marginalized community, as well. I cannot tell you how many events I have opted out of, simply because they were organized and led by the privileged among us. Also know that what you learned about history in school was told from the white narrative and wholly incomplete, so go read/watch something about that particular community’s history as well. In this case, there are many Black authors who have gone to great lengths to document centuries of what we (white people) have been ignorant of, like:
- “The Warmth of Other Suns”
- “The Hate U Give”
- “The New Jim Crow”
- “Between the World and Me”
- and many more
Second, be willing to ask yourself “is whatever I’m about to ask this person something that I really need to know? Is this thing I think I need to know truly any of my business?” (this is exceptionally important when considering someone in, let’s say, the trans community…do you really need to know the particulars of their transitional process…um, no, no you do not, but it does have all kinds of other applicable scenarios.) You may start the conversation with the person/community you care about by first acknowledging, “I’m probably going to mess this up, but here is how I am thinking I can be better ally, and I want to make sure that I am really being of service if I were to say/do…xyz…” Something like that, anyway. It is important that we allow space for allies to be corrected when they get it wrong, and as allies we can’t get defensive when this happens, because inevitability we will f**k something up. We haven’t lived the same experience, we have lived in a place of privilege for a very long time. But, publicly shaming well-intentioned people is also unproductive….no matter who the person is. If we really want to cancel racism, we can’t cancel people who are just starting to wake up for the first time in a very long time. We have to focus on canceling the leaders, institutions, and businesses that foster the ideas and hierarchy that allow systemic racism to continue to exist.
Third, it’s important that we (white people) do exercise our privilege to get some s**t done, whether we get credit for it or not, This isn’t an opportunity for you to only show up on social media, posting selfies from the latest protest with your most fashionable mask and outfit on. If you want to show you care, then take action in your community, at your jobs, where you choose to shop, and in your schools to make things more equitable for everyONE. It’s important to call-out here as well: if you are white, you should check yourself and your intentions when you think you should organize and/or be the keynote speaker at a BLM protest. Your job as an ally is to show up, show support, and exercise your privilege by making sure that the police behave themselves. While we should strive for non-violence, equality has never been achieved using polite requests, so we have to be realistic here…police do tend to show some restraint when there are more white faces in a crowd, but we should not show up with the intention of either being in the spotlight, or to be congratulated for being there. We (white people) are here to show solidarity, and to keep our Black brothers and sisters as safe as possible, it’s that simple.
Also stop saying you “color blind” or you “don’t see color”. It’s simply illogical and untrue.
Think about it: how do you not see color, unless you are literally diagnosed with a color vision deficiency? And even then, color blind people can still see certain colors, and shades of gray. Simple as this sounds, the last I checked there are different colors in a rainbow, just as there are varied colors of skin pigment. And we should love each and every one of them!..why? Because we get to learn about different cultures, different music, different experiences, different foods, different art, different languages, different history – that’s why. We also get the opportunity to broaden our understanding of the collective humanity.
Saying you don’t see color is often a placative statement, and by saying you don’t see color also means you’re missing out on truly seeing the different, beautiful threads that weave together the tapestry of our community. I say this from the most deeply spiritual, well-intentioned place: it is so refreshing to learn from others, and not live in an echo chamber…it’s the main reason that I love traveling as much as I do (and I can’t wait to do again, post pandemic). I am grateful when I meet local people, learn about their daily lives/struggles, and end up having dinner at someone’s home…someone who doesn’t look, think, or talk like me. Not only does it expand my social network, but my neural network as well. Best of all, I can think of no greater honor than to bear witness to someone else’s story.
Speaking of…Instead of only sharing the violent part of the story, the videos of Black people being gunned down, we must share the wondrous and amazing parts, too. This one is tricky, because documentation is one thing, “murder porn” is another. By only sharing the violent parts, we are desensitizing white people to the Black experience, while traumatizing Black people in the process. Take the videos, absolutely. Make sure you document when things go awry, but then ask yourself how best to disperse the information in a way that will create meaningful change. It usually includes sharing it first with the victim’s family’s attorneys, and people we don’t often trust these days: local and state representatives, the news media, and sometimes law enforcement. But, for GAWD’s sake, blur out faces of protest attendees before you do!
Most importantly, you damn well better show up to vote for those candidates who support change – on school boards, in congress, sheriffs, and most certainly in the White House. You vote in the mid-terms, special elections, AND general elections…stop being so lazy about this right that people have fought and died to gain and protect. It doesn’t matter if you “don’t like them”, this isn’t a popularity contest. You just need to vote for the people who want to build bridges, instead of sow discord. Also give your money to causes that allow the Black narrative and Black communities the same opportunities as white.
Finally, just stop saying you don’t know what to do, as a way to stall on doing anything…it’s offensive and it’s really not moving us forward as a nation….end rant…