On Allyship and Action

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Millions March Oakland on 12/12/14

Millions March Oakland on 12/12/14

(About 5.5 minutes to read, plus some great posts)

On Saturday, an historic (ugh I always hated that grammar thing) event happened across the country as thousands joined marches for the Millions March .  Seeing that kind of mass action was both upsetting and inspiring.  I attended the march in Oakland, first with the organized march and then later with a protest of a different nature- with helicopters fixating their search lights overhead as they issued an “unlawful assembly” order from above.  But this post isn’t about that.

Part of the protest had a message directed specifically at white people:  Don’t take a bullhorn- let us lead the chants.  Make sure people of color are leading the march.  Lead the press to people of color.  Don’t change the narrative to All Lives Matter.  Don’t talk to us about how you can’t breathe.  Don’t put your hands up- you don’t know what it’s like to live in that kind of regular fear.  Instead, follow our lead and support us.  We need you.

As we were marching, the group I was around fell silent.  I was surrounded by mostly white people, who were not chanting or shouting.  We all were just marching, holding our signs.  I felt a little panicked— I came here to DO something, to add my voice to the movement.  I wanted to be respectful of the organizers’ wishes and not lead the group in chant.  But it felt to me like we were all waiting for someone of color to come over to us and start a chant we could all follow.

After watching a very thought-provoking live feed of an event organized by the Catalyst Project, I was part of a small on-line breakout group, where we discussed our feelings of paralysis.  We wanted to be “good” allies, but were afraid we would do something wrong.  We wanted to take action, but wanted to not overpower others.  I mentioned my feelings during the protest, and one woman who was part of the discussion had a very different take of that uncomfortable moment.  “I think that the fact that there was a block of white people who were not chanting was extremely powerful because it allowed just the Black voices to be heard which never happens…plus the image of Black people at the lead of a march and just the echo of those voices, while a train of white people followed in solidarity is extremely powerful on its own.  I think it is strategic and was necessary.”

I love that interpretation.  Whether that was our intention or not, acting respectfully was exactly what was needed.  This isn’t about us, and by staying silent, we made it so.  I was worrying so much about what I wasn’t doing that I didn’t pay attention to what I was.

The common thread about being an ally is this: Step up your listening and your following.  Show up.  Follow the lead of people of color, but don’t expect them to hold your hand. Speak out when people you know are unaware of their privilege and the way they benefit from it.

So, there are two parts to this post.  Part one is sharing the best articles I’ve read about what is needed right now from White allies. 

But I don’t want to stop there.  One thing I’ve noticed (and am very guilty of, myself) is that in waiting for people of color to take the lead, we miss opportunities for action, specifically within our own communities.  I’m going to also share some articles about how to talk to others about race, as well as my thoughts from an organizing perspective.

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PART ONE: On Being an Ally

(Yeah, a lot of them are addressed directly to White folks.  It’s as if we need to pay attention to this, or something.)

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PART TWO: Speaking Up

Glass-half-full-103c9a2ca035545b04d40f3f71667e7fI am not good at confrontation.  It’s something I’m working on- not being argumentative for argument’s sake, but challenging things I find problematic.  I tend to go from 0 to 100 really quickly, trying not to engage, and then getting very heated (which usually leads to crying, running away, and eating a huge vat of ice cream while watching Supernatural because now I need a distraction).  I certainly have things to learn, which is why I’m sharing the articles below about how other’s approach those conversations.

I will say this though- in organizing, we work toward “agitation” (this, I’m comfortable with).  We listen to peoples’ stories and we use those stories to ask questions, to get at why people act the way they do.  People act because something in their lives gave them that perspective.  It may not be right or politically correct or the way you think things should be- you don’t have to agree with them, by any means.  But it helps you to better address others when you understand where they come from.

Organizing is about building relationships and community.  We use stories to build trust.  Through trust, we can discuss, grow, and challenge one another as we build relationships.  When you have a relationship, it gives you a unique opportunity to talk someone through a challenging subject (Which is where some of the articles above are leading us- White people can talk to other white people about race, and it can be very effective.) 

In one place I worked, almost all the leadership was by women of color.  Yet, partially because of how their generation grew up, as soon as a well-spoken man walked into the room, everyone would jump to give them titles- often without the responsibility that comes with those titles.  A man at his second meeting was asked by the group to run for President of the Chapter.  He was not the right fit- and would often push his own agenda, not understanding what that meant for the strength of the organization.  But through our relationship and mutual understanding, I was able to call him out, learn why he acted the way he did (He was one of the first Black men allowed in his union, and was often in opposition.  He learned that if he didn’t push his own agenda, no one would look out for him.) and then work from that place to understand how his actions were perpetuating exactly what he was afraid would happen, only he was the person in power this time.  Once he realized this, his attitude and how he approached issues was much more focused on how to amplify others’ voices than making sure he was heard.

It was through trust and relationships that I was able to work with him on this- the shift would not have happened on his own, and because the women in the room were used to this power dynamic, they were not going to speak out about it.  Everything would have remained the same.  

So that’s my grand suggestion on approaching those who disagree with you.  Focus on relationships and stories- when we do this, we’re much more effective.

And some people who are much more effective at addressing this issue in particular have some great things to say about how to confront others.  Here they are:

Finally, I just wanted to add this one post, because I haven’t seen it make the rounds yet.  In general, concrete actions I’ve heard that we can take have been 1) Support organizations led by people of color, 2) Donate to these organizations, and 3) Let people of color take the lead on what’s needed.  This is just to add a few more options if you are unable to make it out on the streets.  “8 Ways to Support Protests Against the Criminal Punishment System, if You Can’t Get Out on the Street” by Victoria Law on Common Dreams 

Now get out there and fight.

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