Are You Really Ready to Be an Ally?
I originally posted this article on Medium.
This past weekend, I faced discrimination.
A group of black male friends and I were denied entry to an event because it was “over capacity”, but had to stand there and watch while groups of white and Asian people walked right in and listen to inconsistent justifications from the venue owner. Justifications like “oh, well those people had RSVPs” 😑, despite some of those people admitting at the entrance that they had not RSVPed for the event. Then, as if he was doing us a favor, the owner agreed to let us in if we were willing to sign a safety waiver, despite the fact that we had not seen anyone else sign anything to get in when they walked up.
I could go on in frustrating detail, but to be honest, it is tiring. It is a story all too familiar for people of color: being treated as though we don’t belong, and then chastised for perceiving and calling out what we know to be true.
To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. — James Baldwin
After leaving the event, I spent the next couple of days dealing with the emotions that followed — the frustration of being treated as though I didn’t belong, and the deflating reality that we still have so much work that needs to be done.
As I journeyed through a range of emotions, I realized the thing that frustrated me most about the experience was not even the discrimination that barred me from the event. It was the people around me who stood silently and said nothing, and the people who spoke up to challenge how I perceived the situation rather than speaking up about the situation itself.
That moment made me wonder…when people use terms like “woke” and “ally”, how many of us are really ready for what comes with them? Being ready is about more than watching the last episode of Blackish or listening to the latest Kendrick Lamar album.
The next time you find yourself describing your work or mindset as one that is “woke”, or you strap that “ally” insignia to your chest to save the day, consider these four points, to make sure you are ready for the work that comes with them.
Allyship is About The “Every Day” Moments
I have been part of several conversations about allyship since the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling — what does it mean, how to be better, when are allies needed. The short answer: allies are needed every day for the seemingly small and insignificant moments.
An act such as marching for a cause or donating to a movement doesn’t reallymatter if you’re willing to ignore moments of inequality or mistreatment that happen in front of you every day because it is too inconvenient or uncomfortable to deviate from your routine to speak up or act.
Being better as an ally is about being consistent and being an ally is about giving a damn for others all the time — not simply when it’s convenient or easy to.
Allyship is Confronting, Not Running From, Ugly Truths
What hurt me the most in the past weekend’s situation and other moments in my life isn’t always the discrimination. It definitely hurts; however, what hurts most is hearing people who speak up solely to challenge my perception of the wrong rather than addressing or challenging the wrong itself. This past weekend, this manifested itself in a woman speaking up to deescalate the situation by telling me what a “good man” the owner was, and how I have to understand that he has a responsibility to keep the venue “safe”. She spoke up to vouch for this man’s character, and his state of mind. As if to further convince me that my perceptions were off base, she made it a point to acknowledge that she had been there to witness the entire conversation, and based on her observations, she could see where the owner was coming from.At a minimum, I felt invalidated by her willful reframing of my narrative and my experience, and over time, moments like this make me question a reality that my entire life has taught me to be true.
Right now, I live in the Bay Area, and I see a community that prides itself on progressive roots and standing up for the rights of other people. However, being progressive also means confronting ugly truths. Are you ready for one?
-Isms (racism, sexism, cisgenderism, ableism to name a few) exist, and they fuel our biases.
Ready for another? Everybody has biases — not just the stranger across the way whose character you can’t vouch for, but family members you have known all your life, partners you have committed your hearts to, and even ourselves.
No one is immune from bias. Being an ally isn’t just about being heard saying something, but about being accountable and honest with ourselves and others around us. If you are not looking inward to understand how your biases or privilege is at play in moments like what I experienced this weekend, then you are failing as an ally. You are speaking up for your sake, not mine.
Allyship Is Accepting What You Don’t Understand
Discrimination is a tactic that reinforces the idea that a group of people do not belong. When that tactic takes the form of a slur, stereotype, or willful expression of hate or animosity toward someone, it is easy, and possibly relieving, to identity and point that out as the dangerous discrimination we must fight and reject.
However, allyship isn’t just for those moments. It’s also for moments where subtle language achieves the same divisive end — “your hair isn’t professional enough”, “your talk needs to be more appropriate”, “your demeanor needs to be less aggressive”. Veiled discrimination is still discrimination, and it shouldn’t get a pass because the person using that language didn’t appear to be intentionally caustic.
Sometimes we are so willing to give veiled discrimination the benefit of the doubt, when we don’t even give claims of inequality or systemic oppression that same treatment. It is so tiring as a person of color to confront the subtler tactics of racism nearly every day while also fighting “well-meaning” allies that require hard evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that discrimination exists in this particular context before they will speak up and act.
Allyship is Using Privilege to Amplify Other’s Voices
Over the years, I have grown more comfortable with speaking up for myself; however, I am always acutely aware of the uphill battle I face with perception. If I am not polished enough in my appeals for fairness, too animated in my body language toward the people involved, or not deferential enough in my demeanor and tone, my voice would fall onto closed hearts and minds. The stereotype of the angry and aggressive black man is real, and in moments like the one I experienced this past weekend, it sucks that I have to do so much work to avoid triggering that comparison. I had to do the work to put everyone else around me at ease and comfortable this past weekend, despite the fact that my group and I were the victims who had a powerful and vulnerable voice to share.
I don’t have the privilege or luxury to assume that if I get angry, people will just “know” I am not a threat and respect my voice. Allies have an opportunity in moments like this to use their privilege effectively — not just for themselves, but to the benefit of others without patronizing them.
It’s 2018, but prejudice, discrimination, and bias are alive and well. Racism is real. Opportunities to do good and be better are all around us as well. The key questions we should be asking ourselves are “how compelled are we to act?” and “are we truly compelled to be an ally, or are we comfortable just acting the part?”
If you call yourself an ally today, and your answer to these questions aren’t “all the time” and “yes”, then you are not committed to the daily work, self-reflection, honesty, and accountability that allyship requires.
There is so much work to do, and we need dependable people who are really ready to be allies.