Friday, July 8, 2016

please don't ask me to teach you how to be an ally

I'm a writer – one whose writing often focuses on helping people to understand what it's like to be part of a marginalized community in this country. I'm a peer mediator at heart. I tend to take the position that through dialogue and critical thinking, we can actually start to chip away at some of the oppressive structures that are holding so many Americans back. Listening to each other and trying to understand differences in experience is among the most basic first steps toward social change.

That said, I can't do all of your research for you. Please don't ask me to teach you how to be an ally.

Listen, I know when people ask for my opinion on things, it's generally coming from a good place. And sometimes I even appreciate when a friend asks me to help them respond to something they know is wrong but don't have the words to properly address. Sometimes you hit a wall and you're just like, “PLEASE! Someone who knows more about this than I do, bail me out!” I'm not necessarily opposed to coming in clutch to help you out of a bind.

But when you post breathless statuses about how you just don't know how to help and then go on to tag me in comments begging for some guidance, it frustrates and exhausts me. I can't be expected to perform the labor of being an ally for you. If you want to help me, don't make me do that. What it tells me is that you want everyone – me, especially – to know that you wish things were different, but you don't want to put in the actual work it takes to make the change. I know. That's not the intention. But when it happens all day every day, it's hard not to want to slam my head against my keyboard and scream to any god who will listen, DO THEY NOT KNOW GOOGLE EXISTS?? There are books and blogs to be read, Facebook groups to be joined, public intellectuals and activists to be followed, protests and marches to be attended, government representatives to be called. I shouldn't have to provide you with the links and phone numbers, an annotated bibliography, and a passionate plea for you and your friends to understand my plight. It reads to me like you're more interested in getting the brownie points for publicly stating your solidarity than you are in really being an advocate. It's standing next to a life preserver while a person drowns, but throwing up your hands and lamenting that you wish there were something you could do.

I appreciate that you value my opinions. Follow me on Twitter and you'll see them all day, every day. To expect thoughtful engagement from me in response to all of your racist relatives and political questions is unfair, though. Believe it or not, people actually pay me to give my perspective. It's work. I don't have the time, energy, or emotional endurance to do it every time a white friend doesn't understand something. Chances are, many of your other outspoken POC or LGBTQ+ friends probably feel the same way. Some of them are not shy in saying so, and you may feel defensive when they call you out for requiring that they calmly and rationally explain to you their own oppression. It is not their job to make sure your feelings aren't hurt when you tear open their very fresh wounds.

I'm not telling you to feel bad or guilty if you've done this to me or your other friends. That's a waste of time and energy. Nobody knows how to be a good ally before someone tells them how to be a good ally. So I'm telling you right now: Don't task marginalized people with doing the emotional and intellectual labor of explaining their marginalization to you. If they offer that labor to you, there's no reason to feel bad about accepting it. But asking for it is like saying you'll help somebody move and then sitting on the couch telling them how hard it looks while they do all the heavy lifting. Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

black lives, white discomfort

This post is a slightly expanded-upon version of a facebook status update I wrote in response this clip from Black-ish in which Anthony Anderson discusses with his wife how they should talk to their children about police violence against black Americans. As I stated on my original facebook post, I don't want to hear your opinion if you are not willing to read the whole post. I know you'll give it to me anyway, but I'll likely ignore it.

Before you respond to this video by lecturing me on how #bluelivesmatter or #alllivesmatter or whatever else, take a second to imagine this reality. Imagine actually living it. Yes, all people's lives DO matter, and no one is disputing that, but there are groups of people in this country who have to fight to be treated that way.

On many occasions, I've tried to strategize what I would do instead of calling the police if I were in certain situations like a home invasion or a mugging. I think about how I'd try to get far away before calling if it was absolutely necessary, so I don't get mistaken for the bad guy, or just shot because I moved too fast and the officer was scared of me. One day, I found a frightened, white toddler wandering lost around my apartment complex, and I couldn't bring myself to hold her hand because I was afraid someone would call the police on me. Even when the CHP pulled up to help me after I got into a car accident, my heart was racing and I was trying to remember if they had guns or not. I've imagined what photo they'd use to make me look like I deserved to be killed, and what incident from my past would surface to show that the world was better off without me.

Me. The PhD student who's been called an Oreo her whole life. I'm terrified of police.

When Obama was elected, I was naively hopeful, too. Since then, I've watched friends who once actually seemed like allies embrace racist and jingoistic rhetoric as politics and ideology started once again demanding white people and people of color sit at different lunch counters. To assert that black people should not be executed in the street for minor offenses is framed as "anti-police," and for black people to celebrate their history and culture has been framed as "anti-white," because our country has bought into the lie that for people of color to be treated as equals means that white people will be treated as lesser. Just take a minute to think about what it is that scares you about white people becoming a minority, or about acknowledging that racial prejudice plays a role in ALL of our consciousness, no matter what color we are, or that disproportionate incarceration and housing discrimination and employment discrimination and gerrymandering and on and on actually do affect the lives of people of color more than they affect white people. Yes, these things affect white people, but differently, and not as much. Not. As. Much. Why is acknowledging that so fraught? Is it perhaps because we know already that the system is rigged, and to call it out means risking having it rigged the other way? Shouldn't it worry us that we can see that things are unequal, but the reaction is to preserve the status quo so that the balance of power doesn't tip the other way?

We've been lied to. We've been had. We've been manipulated to believe that black and white power cannot coexist, but instead require a winner and a loser. We think it's perfectly normal and acceptable to live in a country that carries on like the Hunger Games, where the only way to avoid upsetting the power structure is to pit the people against one another and make them enemies. This country is not white vs. black, or police vs. black, or immigrant vs. citizen, or any other binary opposition we accept as part of the game of America. But it sure is convenient to frame it that way so that we pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. When we say "black lives matter" and you respond "blue lives matter," you're not telling us something we don't know. You're saying police lives matter MORE -- like you think we're two opposing sports team cheering our own and booing our competition. The thing is, while there will always be a subset of people who celebrate violence against those who they feel have wronged them, the vast majority of people trying to get the point across that black lives matter do not want to see harm come to police, white people, or anyone else. We're not trying to win. We want to play for the same team.

I know your kneejerk reaction right now is to not even finish reading what I wrote because all you want to do is fight me and tell me that my reality is not, in fact, real. Don't do it. Think about it. Sit on it for a little bit. Consider how it feels to me every time you post a crime committed by a black person and say, "A HA! SEE!! Why is no one talking about these thugs?" Everyone is talking about the thugs. That's why we need the conversation about how most of us AREN'T thugs. We need it because every day we see our facebook friends and the media and politicians trying to prove to us that we're the bad guys, and telling us that if we'd just be good, obedient little boys and girls, we would be AOK. We won't be. We're not going to be okay until our power and our equality are not seen as threats. We're not going to be okay until non-criminal black people are seen as the rule, not the exception; until our white friends stop cheering when police act as judge, jury, and executioner on city streets; until our white friends hurt when we hurt instead of trying to blame us for hurting. Yes, we will keep teaching our children to acknowledge that the world is unsafe for them, even if that makes white people uncomfortable. White discomfort does not trump black lives.