There I was sitting on the C train on my way back home from work. I had just found an empty seat and I decided to sink into it, close my eyes, and take in my day. Except, as I was about to close my eyes, I was greeted with the image you see here.
A young gentleman who looked to be about my age donned a hat with a simple handwritten message that read "I hope I don't get killed for being black today". I looked at him, the hat, then back at him again and I couldn't help but nod in quiet agreement.
The brief escape I had planned for myself turned into a despair, then anger, then an attitude resembling "I have got to do something about this!"
This unfortunately is the reality for many black and brown people today. As you can imagine, my mind instantly went in different directions and I began to replay a couple of events in my head.
How could it be that just a few days prior to the shooting in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a man had set off a bomb in Chelsea and was captured without much bodily harm? Why was HE spared and Terrence Crutcher not? Because he was big and black?
What about what has taken over the news in the last month? Colin Kaepernick's silent protest. Is he right or is he wrong? All these sentiments seemed to be the narrative that consistently won the day. Those and the following:
"He must be starving for attention."
"He can't be sincere."
"Wait, doesn't he have white parents?"
"Respect the troops!"
ON AND ON AND ON AND ON
After listening to all this, all I kept saying to myself is this,
"some are arguing about how Colin should protest instead of trying to solve the problem in the first place"
I also started to think about how people of different races can get involved. I've heard a variation of the following constantly from my white friends "I'm white, I think what's going on is sad but I truly don't know what I can do"
In an attempt to redirect our attention to the right channels and answer this question, I want to offer the following.
Understand how history plays into what is going on today
The number one thing I always say in response to this question is educate yourself on the issues at play here. Read up on what white privilege and systemic racism is and how it plays a role in society today. There's a difference with knowing the definition of what racism is and knowing the effects it has on education, media, the economy and human psychology. There are a bunch of books that eloquently describe all these things. Crystal Paul of Bustle has a great list of 18 books Every White Ally Should Read. My personal favorite is The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.
Reading all these books will also give you an understanding of how racial inequity creates an unfortunate cycle of poverty which in turn leads to many of the problems we experience today. One cannot fix a problem if one does not understand it. While it is impossible for a white person to feel exactly what it's like to be a person of color, it is certainly possible for white people to use their newly acquired knowledge after reading these books with the accesses they possess to stimulate change. That is action.
Get comfortable being uncomfortable
OK. So now that you have educated yourself, the next step is be ready to call out all these inequities. As you call out these inequities in the media and government, you will most likely see that many of your friends will be less willing to hang out with you because they are uncomfortable with your stance. However, one thing to realize throughout all this is this. Silence is violence. Refusing to speak up can set in motion another generation of privileged individuals not actually believing that there's a "race" problem. That's dangerous so...
- If you're in media, push for stories to be more diverse. Push past the single story narrative that exists as Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie eloquently discusses in her TED Talk.
- If you're in law enforcement, push for accountability and sensitivity training. Encourage superiors and subordinates to spend extensive time in the communities they serve.
- If you're in ANY business, push for diversity to be the foundation of your company. An example of how a company is doing just that is August. Check out their methods here.
- If you're a Christian or of any faith based denomination, encourage integration and find out about other types of churches. Sunday is easily one of the most segregated days of the year but in my opinion, that's a missed opportunity to work together.
Silence, when knowing the reality of the world we live in today is the essentially standing up for oppression. Start with your family, friends and colleagues. Basically, your circle of influence and you never know how many people you might reach. That's action.
Build a community of fellow like-minded individuals
One of the best ways to grow is to put yourself in the company of fellow progressive people who can help and are actively looking to grow. While doing some research on white allyship, I came across the following organizations doing great work
Get involved with some of these or all. That's action.
Be Involved in your Community
A lot of my work as a media activist and a media executive involves me constantly being in between cultures and one common phrase I hear is "most black people I see on the news are criminals." Now there are layers to answering this question with everything from media misrepresenting black people while consuming black culture to news outlets highlighting criminal histories of black people that are killed unlawfully as if to say the killings were justified.
You can only know what you see and if you see something a lot on tv or in the news, it seeps into your subconscious which feeds your bias which feeds your fear and thus the way you see the world ultimately removing your empathy.
So what can you do? Be intentional about understanding different people. Make it your mission. One way to do this is to volunteer. Volunteer for a mentorship program in your city. Chances are in your city, there are a plethora of organizations looking for people to mentor the youth they supervise. A lot of these youth come from inner cities. A lot of people in inner cities unfortunately have been victims of institutional and systemic racism and so by volunteering you'll get a first hand account of the day to day realities of many black and brown youth in America today. You'll also get a much different perspective than you normally would from traditional media.
Speaking of media, diversify your media. Look for diverse sounds as faces on tv, in the movies, online and on the radio. This will give a great understanding of culture, political and the socio economic issues that exist in black and brown communities today.
In conclusion, there's a lot you can do as a white ally. We are in the midst of a new civil rights movement and I believe that white people can most certainly be involved if they want to. The problem with saying "I'm color blind" is that it's the wrong response to today's realities. One has to see color in order to appreciate it. The world is a wonderful array of people with different shades so why be blind to it.
The problem with saying "I have black friends" is that it assumes you're not part of the problem but as addressed earlier, there's so much work that needs to be done and there is so much you can do as allies. So yes it's great to have black friends but what's better is to save black lives.
The problem with saying "All Lives Matter" is that it perpetuates a narrative that persists today which says that since black athletes can make a lot of money and Barack Obama can be president, there isn't a race problem at all. It diminishes the oppressed. Think about it this way, If you fractured your thumb and started paying more attention to it than your other fingers, does that all of a sudden mean that your other fingers don't matter? Nope. So say black lives matter with pride and fight until true equality is achieved.
There's so much work to be done but I believe we can all get it done if we work together, acknowledge our privileges and use them to fix the system. It will be HARD work, it will take TIME, it will make you UNCOMFORTABLE but let's not let our DIFFERENCES divide us, let's use our DIFFERENCES to make a DIFFERENCE.