Tag Archives | Racism

Becoming a White Ally

Not enough white people have seriously thought about what it means to be a white ally. Too many white people think they are allies because they “aren’t racist”. “Not being racist” is a passive act that doesn’t make you an ally. You can say you think all people are equal regardless of their skin color and that we live in a post-racial society because we elected a black man as President. These comments are problematic, and they also don’t make someone a white ally.

First off, if you haven’t read it, check out “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack“. Seriously, I think each white person should read this text. It lays out how privilege is inherent in society in very practical terms and that white people, whether they are out and out racist or not, benefit from the systemic racism that is alive and in many ways driving our society.

It’s important to know that being a white ally is an active part of life. It’s not a one-time event or simply being friends with people of color. It’s a way of life. It’s making an effort to be informed on racial events and the racial history of the places in which those events occur. It’s about actively discussing those issues in the correct context and challenging the popular media coverage. It’s about leveraging your privilege as a white person to advocate for marginalized people. It’s about being willing to be “that person” in your social circles on a regular basis, not just when there’s a hot news story. Racism is systemic and constant. If you think otherwise, you’re not a white ally.

It’s also important to fight feelings of defensiveness and the inclination to make the whole thing about you when discussing racism with people of color. What you, the white person feels, when a person of color tries to talk about racism with you, shouldn’t be the focus of the discussion. Listen and try to understand. Remember what’s in your knapsack that the person of color will never have. Do not make the discussion about you.

Finally, don’t expect people of color to do all the work for you. It’s not ok to go straight to one of your friends or acquaintances who identify with a marginalized group and ask them to tell you all about how to be a white ally. That isn’t their burden. Take the time and effort to read on your own. Ask informed questions. Be willing to be told you are wrong and do not understand. Listen and don’t assume that you know what you’re talking about. Learn from reading and learn more from asking based on your reading.

We can put this all into the Ferguson context. Suppose I am a white person whose initial reaction is of disapproval based on the way that some blacks have chosen to react to the killing of Michael Brown. I’ve watched news coverage and have seen several reports about rioting and looting. I may feel as though the reaction of the black community is inappropriate because of this coverage. A friend might tell me I am making the situation about me and my feelings, I am being distracted by one-sided media, and I am not being a white ally. I might be offended for being told this. I would argue that looting and rioting are wrong and destructive, and I am justified in my disapproval. My friend might say that I am still making it all about me, that I need to diversify my news sources, and that if I do some more reading I may start to understand more about what’s happening.

If I want to be a white ally, I should instead do my homework to try and understand why some people are reacting the way they are and be aware of how many peaceful protests are occurring. It is important for me to understand the racial history of Ferguson and what may lead people to act in rebellion before I start judging. If I did my homework from various and diverse coverage, I might start to understand that what mainstream media is portraying as looting and rioting is actually a justified reaction to police terrorization. I may also find out that the violent reactions are sometimes in reaction to police action and that the number of peaceful incidents are far greater than my normal news source may lead me to believe. In my research, I may also learn more about what I can do as a white ally. Taking the time to do this research might change my initial reaction to what’s happening in Ferguson. I might start to understand more of what is happening and why. I may find a variety of news sources I should start to read to get a well-rounded story. I may start to understand that becoming a white ally means that I actively work to understand the racism inherent in this society, that I do my homework from a variety of sources, and that I engage in conversations that might not make me the most popular. Being a white ally means being properly prepared to and acting on opportunities to use my privilege as a white person to fight the system of oppression.

The system is big, and it favors whites. White people who do nothing enable the system to continue to oppress people of color. We need to each be doing our parts. White allies are crucial to changing the system. Do your homework, be vigilant, and leverage your power to help others see the same.

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Early Encounters: Respect vs. Ethnocentrism

“Look over there, Elizabeth. Do you see those men?”

“Yes, Daddy. Why are they there? Who are they?” asked a pale-skinned, blue eyed girl of 7 years old, as she gazed toward the group of men congregated near the railroad tracks.

“They’re day laborers. And, I want you to pay close attention to me right now. They are out here, every day, hoping for someone to hire them to work hard, doing manual labor. They’re out here because they love their families and want to provide for them, and they work harder than a lot of people in fancy suits and business clothes.” Then, after a pensive pause, he continued with the tone he only took when giving serious instructions: “Don’t you dare ever look down on them. Some people do because they weren’t born here or have different colored skin. But, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that they work hard because they love their families. So, don’t you ever look down on them, do you hear me?”

“Yes, Daddy.”

Those were the beseeching words of my father who spoke so sincerely, that his almost stern tone conveyed the importance of the matter.

I didn’t know it then, but that moment was my first real experience with the concept of racism, more properly labeled as “ethnocentrism,” and the start of an awareness of different ethnic groups. The respectful words and perspective of ethnic equality which my father impressed upon me that hot, Southern California afternoon, have been emblazoned into my memory ever since.
Now I rejoin you, nearly two decades later, and many experiences later. Since then, my zip codes have had me in California, Alaska, and Texas. I can now differentiate my triad of experiences through the lenses of diversity, and cultural/ethnic perspectives and expectations. For brevity’s sake, we can focus solely through the lens of diversity, using it as a springboard into the powerful impact you can create, should you be blessed enough to live within a diverse population.

Growing up in Southern California (SoCal, per the natives’ colloquialisms) boasted a wealth of ethnic diversity, of which I was blithely oblivious for many years, much like the blessing of my father’s wise words. Not only could one easily find over a dozen different ethnicities in a small radius, there was a very good chance of finding it in your very own neighborhood. Surely, this could promote racism, to have so many differing groups crammed into the same space. Then again, it could promote acceptance, collaboration, and understanding by virtue of people’s general need for social interaction, and the close knit quarters of crowded SoCal cities.

So, what makes the difference? You do. I do. Our parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, and other relations do. Growing up, ethnic diversity was as common to me as the sun rising and setting, and I was simply happy to have friends. However, what made respect inextricably tied to ethnic diversity was the socialization I received from the aforementioned individuals, along with neighbors and other passersby. It was a daily blessing for my parents to welcome my friends of any culture into our home, and vice versa. It was a jarring blessing to find out (in my teens) that certain extended relatives weren’t present at my earlier birthday parties because they sneered and didn’t want to be around, “the little brown kids,” who were my brother’s and my friends. I had positive and negative experiences connected to diversity, and these experiences offered me a choice: what experiences would I create for others? If you have never before been formally offered that same choice, I offer it to you now. Your daily actions and interactions spring forth from who you believe you are, and who you believe others are. Your daily actions and interactions create experiences for others.

It is an arduous, uphill battle to change another person’s opinion of who s/he is, and who others are to him/her. Likely, you cannot force change through argument. But, you can instead persuade on a daily basis, as you create experiences for that individual. Consider the next seven days to be your personal opportunity to pay close attention to the experiences which you create for others. In the midst of your busy week, be mindful of whether you choose to create a positive, negative, or plainly apathetic experience. Though it often takes work and intentionality, you can choose to create an experience that unarguably leaves the other person feeling respected and valued. And know that as you create positive experiences, there just might be a set of young, impressionable eyes nearby, through which a child imbibes his or her first lesson in human rights and equality from you.

If you are lucky enough to be surrounded by diversity, (and I assert that most of us are), then I must implore you, as my father implored me, “What matters is not skin color or region of birth, but character and work ethic. So, respect people accordingly, creating positive experiences for them, because I don’t want you to ever look down on them, do you hear me?”*

*My father’s words here were paraphrased, to better reflect the full intent of his words, which took me years to understand.

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Breaking The Cycle

Dear Citizens,

With the recent fatal shooting of Michael Brown, the unarmed 18 year old from Ferguson, Missouri, and the brutal beating of Marlene Pinnock on the side of a Los Angeles freeway, one begins to wonder if police brutality is not unusual, as we previously thought, but has instead become the new social norm.  But, what if the relationship between police officers and people who happen to have a skin color other than white, has always been strained, and American citizens are just beginning to be made aware of this fact on a large scale? Social media has certainly made us all more aware that discrimination against minority groups continues to occur.  However, if we look into our own lives, I am sure we can all recall a moment where we were made aware of discrimination.

I remember when a coworker once told me about his experience with the police. Steve was thin, soft spoken, and Black. He told me that whenever he was pulled over while driving, regardless of the reason, he would roll his window down, remove the keys from the ignition, and raise his hands in the air, just so there would be no confusion when the officer approached his car window. Confusion? What sort of confusion could there be surrounding a traffic stop? Apparently, there was room for a lot. Steve’s experience, and that of many other minorities, raises many questions about our culture. How and why does this sort of discrimination still exist? Have we become caught up in a cycle that continuously perpetuates the oppression of minority groups through police violence and brutality? Bobbie Harro discusses these cycles of oppression in her text, “The Cycle of Socialization.” Harro writes that we are socialized from birth to subscribe to a specific set of social and cultural rules.  If we happen to be a member of a group that benefits from these social rules, “we may not notice that [the rules] aren’t fair. If we are members of the groups that are penalized by the rules, we may have a constant feeling of discomfort” (Harro).  My coworker Steve knows what it feels like to be a member of a group that is penalized by the “rules;” he feels the effects of racism in even the most mundane situations.

Unfortunately, a cycle in which police officers  use excessive force, or take unnecessary violent action in a situation, has been created in our society, and it became “normal” when we were no longer surprised to hear stories of police brutality on the news. Our reaction has instead become one of grim disappointment.  Harro writes that in situations like this, “it is easiest to do nothing, and simply allow the perpetuation of the status quo” (Harro). However, we cannot simply do nothing.  By continuing to participate in the cycle, with our silence confirming our participation, we “reinforce stereotypes, collude in our own demise, and perpetuate the system of oppression” (Harro).  No one person should live in a society that oppresses him or her. Michael Brown, Marlene Pinnock and my coworker were, and are, unfortunately, participants in a cycle in which they are the oppressed. Whether justified or not, should an unarmed, 18 year old boy have to die during an altercation with an officer? Was there something else the officer could have done to deescalate the situation before he decided to shoot to kill? Something needs to change, but what?

The first step in breaking this cycle, or any cycle, is to break the silence. We must begin to speak out against the things that we feel are corrupt.  As Harro states, “Our silence is consent” (Harro). We cannot simply sit back any longer. We cannot remain passive participants in a culture that demands activity. We must at least speak up and voice our concerns, even in the small, or seemingly innocent situations.  For example, next time someone makes a racist, or a derogatory joke about any social group, speak up. Tell them that what they are saying is inappropriate because these jokes say, “It’s okay to dislike or make fun of this group of people. Their feelings do not matter. Essentially, they do not matter.” When we perpetuate the idea that a particular group of people does not matter, we end up with situations like that in Ferguson. While you may not be able to convince the joke teller to change, you may be able to break the cycle for someone else. Maya Angelou once said, “ the plague of racism is insidious, entering into our minds as smoothly and quietly and invisibly as floating airborne microbes enter into our bodies to find lifelong purchase in our bloodstream.” Maya Angelou is right, and racism in the form of a “joke” is just one of many seemingly innocuous ways we continue to allow racism to be a part of our  cultural and personal “bloodstream.”

I have two friends, a couple, who took their son to the zoo. Laughingly, my friend recounted a situation that happened with her son and husband.  Some Mexican landscapers were working near an exhibit they were observing. Her husband said, “Look, and there you can see the Mexican in his natural habitat.”  I was horrified, and said so. She said, “No, it’s okay, we are Mexican, we can say those things.” No, you cannot. The rest of the day, every time their son saw a Mexican, he would mimic what his father had said. Through a joke, their son was being conditioned to believe that Mexicans are landscapers, and not only that, but that they are also like animals in a zoo.  This one joke had dehumanized a human being in the eyes of a child. You can see how the cycle of racism is perpetuated with the telling of a joke. Now, a young child, on some level, believes that an entire race of people is less than human. Had someone in the vicinity said something then, letting them know that the joke was inappropriate, what would have happened? Would the cycle have been broken? Maybe. Maybe a young boy would learn a lesson from a brave stranger who decided to speak up.  We should all strive to be that brave, because then maybe situations like the one in Ferguson will cease to occur.

Harro, Bobbie. The Cycle of Socialization. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print

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