On Being an Ally: Change Is Necessary and Painful
June 2, 2020 — Guest Commentary by Genie Harrison and Amanda Monroe for Ms. Magazine
(Read the story below, or at MsMagazine.com)
For more than 25 years, both as an abuse survivor and as the founder of the Genie Harrison Law Firm, I’ve been a zealous advocate for victims of all kinds of abuse—physical, psychological, sexual—for all kinds of reasons: because they were women; because they were gender-nonconforming; because they were black.
I have always believed that “the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice”—but these days feel disheartening because systemic racism has been emboldened and empowered by a racist president.
We stand at a crossroads as a country. The societal chaos we are experiencing is disconcerting, but it is also an opportunity for growth. To achieve impactful change, however, growth must be fed by perspective, and we need to recognize when we lack this perspective.
Though I experienced trauma and discrimination as a white woman, I’ve never known what it’s like to fear for my own life or the lives of my loved ones because of the color of our skin. I’ve never found myself threatened with a call to the police, as was Harvard-educated bird-watcher Christian Cooper, just because I asked a woman to leash her dog while I was black. I’ve never worried that my son could be harassed, or possibly killed, by the police because of his black skin.
Just as the #MeToo movement needed male allies, black Americans need non-black allies; and, those who seek to be allies must be willing to listen and learn.
With that in mind, I asked my friend and client, African-American Los Angeles-based writer Amanda Monroe, to share with us what we, as non-black women, can do to support our sisters of color.
Amanda’s insights follow.
We’ve entered that time of year when the media is filled with disproportionate stories of police violence and white aggression directed against unarmed black civilians. It’s a cycle that exhausts the already weary collective psyche of black America and threatens the nation’s tenuous relationship with race.
This past week, 46-year-old George Floyd lost his life under the knee of law enforcement. Accused of using a counterfeit bill, he was detained by four white police officers, one of whom believed that stopping his airflow for more than ten minutes was a justified response. Floyd wailed in pain, crying, “I can’t breathe,” as onlookers begged for the police to relent. The police killed him.
Of course, this was only weeks after a video emerged of three shot-gun-toting white men chasing down a jogging 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery in a pick-up truck because they suspected he was maybe, probably, a burglar. They recorded the chase before shooting him three times. He bled out on the sidewalk, never knowing exactly why he was pursued and assaulted. It took almost three months for the men to be charged, and all five judges in the county recused themselves.
Many white allies find themselves wondering how they can show up for the black community in the wake of inexcusable, racially motivated crimes. The short answer: Try anything, except nothing.
Engage and listen.
Racism, and the historical enabling of racism by the state, corrodes the integrity of our nation and threatens our humanity. White privilege is built around a system that seeks to make whiteness comfortable at others’ expense.
You want to fight racism? Reconcile yourself to the fact that it will be unpleasant. Read the words of Morrison or Baldwin. Listen to podcasts and works that center around dismantling supremacy.
More than ever, black friends are looking for you to let them know that you are present; this is one instance where silence would be deafening. A simple “I’m thinking of you and am here to listen” goes a long way.
Whatever you do, do not center yourself.
What if I don’t have any black friends to check on?
You’ve got a problem. Studies show that three-quarters of white people don’t have any non-white friends. If you can’t name one black person that you’re close enough with to be concerned about, you may be more willfully ignorant than you care to admit.
I’m not suggesting that you randomly befriend black people just to prove that you’re not racist. We don’t like that. And refrain from using your black friends for an “I have a black friend” defense against any suggestion of racism.
Recognize implicit bias.
Amy Cooper, a white woman who considers herself liberal, recently called the cops on Christian Cooper (a black man of no relation) after he insisted that she lawfully leash her dog. Before announcing to the dispatcher in panicked tones that an African-American man was “threatening” her, she tried to intimidate the birder by telling him she would call the NYPD and note his race; a tactic that implies she was willing to risk his life for her convenience. She then bemoaned how her life was “being destroyed” after getting the boot from her job as VP of an investment firm and surrendering her cocker spaniel.
White women weaponizing their privilege to cause harm to black Americans, then victimizing themselves after the fallout, is a story older than Emmett Till.
No political party, regional upbringing, religious affiliation or level of education will change this. It’s time we stop pretending it will. Racial aggressions don’t have to be as outright as calling the police. As an executive, who knows how many times Amy Cooper passed on a potential job candidate or lamented how an employee just “wasn’t a right fit.” How many times have you heard this language? How many times have you combatted it?
Implicit bias is wrapped in unexplored internal bigotry and can be elicited by dog whistle terminology. As white women, the best thing you can do to be an ally is recognize the power you have—then commit to how you choose to wield it.