Improving as allies
Conor Bracken is a poet, translator, and professor. His work has been featured in 'The New Yorker,' 'Ploughshares,' 'Sixth Finchand Waxwing,' among other places, and he teaches English at the University of Findlay.

Editor's Note: This is a monthly educational series about racism. Contributors include Donna Hight, Beth Castle, Margaret Lin, Deanna West-Torrence, Renda Cline, Tiffany Mitchell, Crystal Davis Weese, Brigitte Coles and Amy Hiner.

Maybe you’re like me: white, relieved a new presidency is incoming, but aware that, as a nation, we have so far to go. If you’re like me, you know that being Black in the United States tends to mean higher unemployment, lower family wealth, higher maternal mortality rate, lower access to jobs and education, increased risk of being stopped if not attacked by police, to name just a few. And you also know that right-leaning voters don‘t tend to see this as a big issue. Maybe this makes you angry, too, and sad, and anxious to do something about it.

But what? The election is over, and COVID is still keeping us cautious, so what can we do? I have three suggestions that may help those of us with privilege and power and time to become better, more effective allies:

  1. Read up.

    Being well-informed not only helps correct history that has been distorted by the smeared lens of national curricula and nostalgia, but also helps Black activists and other people of color (POC). Because having to constantly argue that you deserve to vote, or feel pain like everyone else or that your ancestors didn’t deserve to be exploited, all while maintaining a cool demeanor because otherwise you might be dismissed as hysterical or angry is exhausting. But if we—white allies—can step in and educate our own brethren, we can give our Black allies a break.

    Where to start? A great place would be the 1619 Project. There are also essays by landmark Black thinkers, like James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Malcolm X, W.E.B. Du Bois or Ta-Nehisi Coates. And some writers, reporters and scholars have also assembled helpful reading lists.

  2. Defend POC, whether or not they are present.

    If you’re like me, you have that grandparent or uncle or good friend who tells off-color jokes or shares odd articles that fan racist flames. If you’re like me, you have let these go unchallenged, giving a tepid giggle before changing the subject.

    It’s time, though, to challenge them. When I say ‘defend POC’ I don’t necessarily mean ‘be combative’ or ‘hurl gravy across the holiday dinner table.’ There’s a range of scenarios and a range of ways to respond in each scenario, but what it comes down to is sharing the knowledge you have (perhaps from your recent reading), standing up for POC and affirming their humanity and inherent dignity and showing whoever you’re talking to that misinformed and racist views are intolerable, no matter how chummy you may be. A helpful guide to talking with people about this can be found here. 

  1. Get involved.

    Groups abound, from the local (like VOCAL here in Mansfield) to the statewide, to the national. These can be groups specifically dedicated to advocating for and defending Black lives, as well as groups that touch on issues that affect Black lives. (Because Black folks are affected as much if not more by issues of reproductive health, environmental degradation, housing access, police reform and more.)

    The benefits of this kind of involvement are manifold, the most obvious being that you can take action, but others include becoming a part of a community that shares your values and passion, and learning how grassroots action works. Because if you’re like me, you’re still new to this. Many of those in these groups are not, and their wisdom and example are invaluable. So donate, money and time and effort, so you can see how it’s done, and ensure that it keeps getting done.

These suggestions are meant to be starting points, from which you can radiate outward, to more readings, more (polite, but firm) confrontations, more actions, with more people. And they are ones you can start now. The journey to being a good ally is long and will involve learning, which will involve being humbled—if you’re like me, you’re not going to get it right on the first try. Be willing to hear what you’ve done wrong, and make change. After all, we can’t get away with changing the world without changing ourselves.



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