Monday there was a really great panel here in Austin about the impacts of HB2. Along with the folks usually represented at such events – Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, and Lilith Fund – I was especially glad to see my colleagues Christian from the YWCA of Greater Austin and Paula Rojas from Mama Sana included. They addressed race and racism in ways that we as a feminist community have not talked about enough this summer.
I understand that Paula in particular experienced pushback from some white folks who weren’t used to hearing about racism or being asked hard questions like the ones she asked – for example, why there’s less public outrage about Latinas being four times less likely to have access to health care and Black babies being three times as likely to die as there is about abortion access in Texas.
My intention here is not to speak for Paula or Christian. I’m white, and it is not my job to speak for women of color. As Christian and Paula quite conclusively showed on Monday, they are more than capable of speaking powerfully and beautifully for themselves.
My intention here is to stand with them. What I can do as an ally is to offer to white folks who had trouble dealing with what was said about race on Monday some of things I’ve learned as I’ve worked and continue to work to be an intersectional feminist.
Many things I say here may sound harsh. I say them with love – the muscular, difficult love described by M. Scott Peck and bell hooks: the commitment to another’s spiritual growth. Being an anti-racist ally is hard work. But if I’m going to go around calling myself a feminist, it’s work I have to do. As Audre Lorde said, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
Here are 10 things I have learned on my ally journey, things I remind myself of all the time. When I say, “you,” keep in mind that it’s a general case you addressed to white folks – and that I’m also talking to myself here. Because I’m not perfect, I’m still learning, and I’m still trying to do better.
1. De-center yourself. This is often really hard for people with privilege. We are so used to that one-up position. We spend our whole lives in it. The world is set up for us, to make us comfortable, to make things easier for us. Well, y’all, if we want to make a different world, one where everyone’s human rights are respected and difference is valued, we are going to have to change that. Stop placing yourself at the center of the world, at the center of any discussion. Most things in the world are, in fact, not about you. So check your ego along with your privilege. Learn to step out of the spotlight and focus on others.
2. Be quiet and listen. If you want to understand racism, you need to listen to the voices of people of color. Read their books, articles, blogs, Tumblrs, Twitter feeds. Listen to their music, their podcasts, their panel discussions. As Mikki Kendall (@karnythia) writes in her fantastic recent XOJane piece, “Not to rebut, or chime in, or do anything else but hear and understand what is being said, blogged, tweeted, etc. Just listen.” Practice listening without responding. Sometimes the best thing we can do for someone who has faced the pain of oppression is witness it with compassion.
3. Assume that people of color are telling the truth. I hate that I have to write this, but I do. I’ve seen it happen over and over again that white people, confronted with the ugly realities of racism, react with denial – even when what’s happening is that a person of color is standing in front of them saying, this is my life, this is what my family, friends, colleagues, and I face every single day of our lives. I have learned in many feminist trainings and discussions that it’s vital to acknowledge that everyone is the expert on their experience. Many of us have no trouble accepting this when it comes to sexual assault survivors or women who’ve been harassed at work, but lots of us white folks have serious trouble with this when it comes to racism. Just because you have never seen something happen or don’t know about it doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
4. Take in what you hear and allow it to change you. What you will hear will be painful. It will be hard to hear that people you know and love commit large and small acts of racism that hurt people of color. It will be hard to hear about how much pain and injustice white people inflict on people of color. It will be hard to hear the truth about the United States’ bloody history that was whitewashed or ignored in your history classes: draft riots, race riots, white women blaming and punishing Black women slaves for ‘tempting’ white male slave owners into raping them, white people blowing up Black homes and churches, white women sexually scapegoating Black men who are beaten or killed because of it, white people treating lynchings like social occasions, the horrible injustice of the US government simultaneously interning Japanese American families and drafting their men, the brutal murders of civil rights workers, people of color spat on for daring to go to predominantly white schools…
And then there are all the racist abuses that continue today, like redlining, the school-to-prison pipeline, discrimination in employment, police violence against people of color, companies that knowingly expose Latin@/Chican@ workers to dangerous chemicals and refuse to improve working conditions…
The litany of horrors never seems to end. It will change the way you think about this country, yourself, and everyone you know. It will change you. And it should. Learning the truth is the only way you begin to glimpse the scope of the problem and thus understand what we need to do to create healing and social change.
5. Do not make your feelings people of color’s problem. I have had some big, overwhelming, awful feelings as I have learned about racism. I’ve felt rage, sorrow, guilt, grief, astonishment, disgust, horror. Those are all tough to deal with and they deserve attention. They deserve my attention, and I’m glad to have trusted friends who will listen and talk through them with me. You know what neither I nor these feelings deserve? The attention of people of color. If someone shares their experience of racism with me, what they deserve from me is my full attention, my compassion, and my gratitude for their trust and the opportunity to learn. But it is not even a little bit their job to help me with my feelings. They’re the ones who have been oppressed and discriminated against, not me! They’ve got enough to deal with.
6. Take care of yourself. The truth about racism is overwhelming, and the feelings can be, too. It’s okay to acknowledge your limits. It’s okay to put in the bookmark or close the tab, say you’re done for the day, and go hug your partner. It’s okay to talk to other allies and ask how they handle their feelings. But do also take a moment to remember that you can put aside thinking about racism for a few hours. People of color can’t.
7. Honor the anger of people of color. People of color are often angry when talking about racism. They sometimes talk shit about white people. This should not be a surprise. They’ve got a lot to be angry about! Unless they’re angry at you, personally, for something you did, don’t take it personally. Don’t get defensive. Just witness it. Sit with it. Resist the urge to say you’re not like that. I tell myself that their baseline suspicion of white people is kind of like my baseline suspicion of men as a multiple sexual assault survivor: it is a completely understandable learned response that helps them stay safe.
8. Accept that you will make mistakes. Take responsibility and commit to learning from them. I think one of the barriers that keeps white people from doing anti-racist work is fear: fear of screwing up, being called out, being embarrassed. Well, y’all, let me save you the suspense: you will screw up. You’re human, you’re not perfect, and sometimes you will just fall flat on your face. Sometimes it will be embarrassing. I have screwed up. I have been embarrassed. But you know what? It’s not the end of the world. Feelings aren’t fatal. Keep in mind that we are trying to do something incredibly hard! We grew up in a racist culture. We have been soaking up racism and white supremacy in overt and subtle ways our whole lives. We are trying to name it, find it, rip it out by the root, and change the way we think, speak, and act. That’s a lifetime journey. It won’t ever end. You’ll get up tomorrow and keep going.
The key thing here: when you mess up as an ally, you’ve probably hurt someone. Take responsibility and apologize. And unless the person you hurt is a friend or colleague that you have a personal relationship with and that person is willing to talk through with you what you did wrong, do NOT ask them to educate you. That’s not their job.
9. Take the responsibility to educate yourself. Do you dislike being asked to be the Official Lady or Queer or Person With Disabilities in your office, college class, book group? Me, too. It’s dehumanizing. It’s asking people to talk calmly and somewhat theoretically about all the ways the world kicks them in the teeth. That’s not okay. So don’t ask people of color in your life to be your go-to on race and racism. There are books, blogs, podcasts, pamphlets, trainings, nonprofit organizations…. a million resources are available to help you. Take advantage of those, not of other people. A few places to start: the NOW Combating Racism Committee’s anti-racist feminist resource list, Frances Kendall’s piece on how to be an ally for people of privilege, this Southern Poverty Law Center roundtable discussion on how white people can be allies.
10. Learn to count higher than two. When we talk about race in the US, we often only talk about Black people and white people. That’s wrong. It erases so much difference, so much complexity, and the experiences of so many people.
Here in Texas, we really need to talk about how Latin@/Chican@ folks who live on the Texas border suffer unbelievable violence as the result of the US government’s racist so-called “war on drugs,” how hundreds of women have been sexually assaulted and killed in Juarez with no justice in sight, how Latin@s are disproportionately impacted by cuts to state family planning funding and restrictions on abortion, and a whole host of other things.
We need to talk about Native American folks and how the legacy of westward expansion, genocide both literal and cultural, and the theft of their ancestral lands is still damaging those folks and their communities today. We need to talk about how Native American women face the highest rates of sexual violence of any ethnic group – and that the vast majority of that violence is committed by white people.
We need to talk about how Asian Americans on the west coast were subjected to racist segregation and violence as well as immigration quotas that broke up their families. We need to talk about how the “model minority” stereotypes erase the racism that Asian Americans still experience today. We need to talk about how the category of “Asian American” is not monolithic; it encompasses people of a wide range of ethnicities and national origins, and each of those groups has unique challenges.
We need to talk about how native Hawai’an people watch their sacred sites desecrated by tourists and often can’t afford to live in their home islands because rich white people seeking pretty scenery have driven up the cost of living.
We need to talk about multiracial folks, such as Afro-Latin@s, Black Native Americans, creole folks, and many more, and their unique experiences.
We need to talk about a whole bunch of different kinds of folks and how racism impacts them.
So that’s my list. Other allies, what is your process and practice like? Please feel free to share in the comments!