“Just loving each other isn’t enough,” Dorian Waller, commissioner of the state African American Affairs Commission, told me.
“Saying that we have to love each other isn’t actually addressing the roots of hate, of power, of control and access. … It doesn’t fix our race problems.”
Last week, I asked Waller, Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, City Councilmember Keith Blocker and Tacoma-Pierce County Black Collective Co-chairman Lyle Quasim how white people — like me — could be better allies in the fight against racism. I wanted to go beyond the small, ultimately inconsequential signs of solidarity — like Facebook posts or hashtags on Twitter — and get down to real, tangible steps that can be taken.
Turns out they get this question a lot.
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“Man, it gets tiresome,” a mildly exasperated Blocker said. “There’s plenty you can do. Read a book. Get a different perspective. … Some white people are comfortable talking about race to black people, but they don’t dare talk to their (friends and family). I don’t need to continue to affirm you as a good white person because you’re talking to me about racism. Raise the conversation at work, or with your families.”
There’s plenty you can do. Read a book. Get a different perspective. … Some white people are comfortable talking about race to black people, but they don’t dare talk to their (friends and family). I don’t need to continue to affirm you as a good white person because you’re talking to me about racism. Raise the conversation at work, or with your families.
Tacoma City Councilman Keith Blocker
“I’m curious to know what white leaders think,” Blocker continued, challenging that black people are the only ones who can lead these conversations. “What do they think about race relations and how white people could do a better job in terms of being an ally? Or do they even feel they need to be an ally?”
Here’s the thing about white people having conversations of race and equity in America, specifically as these two concepts relate to African Americans: They’re challenging. They take courage. They can get messy. Sometimes we get it wrong.
And they’re absolutely necessary.
The inspiration for this column was simple, and was perhaps best put into words by Quasim, who once told me: “There is a big rock to move, and the people who have to put their shoulder into that rock are white people. ... Because we’ve done what we can do. We’ve offered up our humanity.”
It’s a straightforward message and one I’ve tried to take to heart since Quasim laid it on me in the wake of last year’s shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Still, trying to live up to these words hasn’t always been easy. And, sometimes I haven’t.
Sometimes I’ve stayed silent.
Why? The reasons are many and likely familiar to at least a few readers. As a white guy, I’ve often felt inauthentic speaking to black struggles for equality. Or I’ve avoided conversations with friends or family members — online and in real life — for fear of confrontation. At times, I’ve deferred to black voices for fear of saying something the wrong way or inadvertently showing my own ignorance.
All of this, it’s crucial to note, is a benefit of my privilege. As a white person, I can choose when I engage with issues of racial inequity and when I let it slide. Black Americans, on the other hand, can never escape it.
There is a big rock to move, and the people who have to put their shoulder into that rock are white people. … Because we’ve done what we can do. We’ve offered up our humanity.
Tacoma-Pierce County Black Collective Co-chair Lyle Quasim
I gleaned several things from the conversations I had last week.
Most obvious was that avoiding the cop-out of “letting it slide” is one of the biggest things I can do to be a better ally. When confronted with issues of racial inequality, it’s imperative to call attention to them and to have the tough conversations.
Especially at work. As Strickland pointed out, “It’s the one that takes guts.”
“There’s a way to call it out graciously. … I think sometimes it’s human nature. We are creatures of habit. We get used to saying certain things. If people don’t call it out, we think it’s OK. … Being an ally is not about trying to make someone feel terrible. It’s about trying to help them see how their words and actions hurt other people.”
Secondly, we need to avoid what Strickland calls “false equivalencies.”
“When you say that you’re pro-black, people equate that with being anti-white,” she said. “That’s not what’s happening. It’s important to make that point.”
Finally, when you do speak up and get involved, be open to the reality that you might not always get it right at first. That’s OK. Like my inclination to ask local black leaders about what white people can do to be better allies, your intentions may come off in ways you never foresaw.
The important thing is making the effort, and when you do mess up, being open and receptive to the feedback you receive while resisting the temptation to go on the defensive.
“Get out, make the effort, and don’t worry about saying the wrong thing,” Quasim said. “Go engage people of color, and make yourself knowledgeable and speak to what you understand to be the problem. And if you make a mistake, don’t defend the territory.”
On Blocker’s advice, I also reached out to Noah Prince, a white guy with a long history of social justice activism. Prince lived in Tacoma before recently moving to Renton, and works for the Portland-based White Men as Full Diversity Partners, a consulting agency that does what its name implies.
Use your privilege in small ways every day to promote equity; Listen and acknowledge the experiences of people of color. Continue the conversations with other white people. Understand that you are an individual with your own unique soul and story, and you’re a member of group — white people — that have had access to resources and opportunities at the expense of others.
Diversity consultant Noah Prince
“A lot of white guys have trouble seeing themselves as white; they’ve been raised to see themselves as individuals who’ve pulled themselves up by their bootstraps,” Prince told me. “And, at the same time, white men have a lot of access and a historical legacy that other people don’t have access to. My work is about helping guys see both sides of the coin. … It’s a lot about listening. It’s a lot about being able to hear other perspectives and not take it personally.”
What does Prince recommend for being a better ally?
“Use your privilege in small ways every day to promote equity. Listen and acknowledge the experiences of people of color. Continue the conversations with other white people,” he explained. “Understand that you are an individual with your own unique soul and story, and you’re a member of a group — white people — that have had access to resources and opportunities at the expense of others.”
Said more simply: “It’s not your fault, and you’re responsible to create equity in the world.”