An intimidating and ambitious pursuit, yes? It is hard to know where to start when the problem is something so deeply embedded in our society and history. But don’t let the importance of the work scare you off from attempting it.
A simple starting tip: if you want to be an ally, don’t chase the title. That’s kind of like announcing you are humble … if you say it too loudly, your claim is suspect. Concentrate on what you are doing and learning, not on what you are called.
Here are ten more steps you can follow to become a stronger racial justice ally.
Take a few tests.
Interestingly, potential allies can benefit by first examining themselves. Where are your own personal biases and blind spots? Here are two widely known checklists to help build that awareness in yourself:
What is your window?
If you have spent your life surrounded by white people, becoming a racial justice ally may seem like an academic ideal. It’s challenging to make it real without resorting to tropes from television and media. If you want to be authentic in your work, you need to find a way to transform your perspective from something detached to a real flesh-and-blood relationship, a bona fide, equitable partnership.
You are going to have to put yourself out there. You cannot expect people of color to come to you. It is on you to find ways to learn and connect. And one of the best ways to do that is to look for an entry point (or window) that is tied to who you are already. Ask yourself: What things do you have in common? What part of a certain culture or story resonates with you on a personal level? Go to restaurants, to concerts, to art events created by black and brown people. Worship in churches or support ministries primarily led by people of color. Support their work. Get to know them. Whenever possible, do this in person, but there are plenty of options online as well.
As you explore, watch out for appropriation versus mere appreciation. Don’t let your enthusiasm about part of the culture overshadow real relationships with people of that community. Don’t commercialize or objectify a culture as a commodity.
What is your wall?
White privilege. White supremacy. White nationalism. You may feel defensive about these terms depending where and when they are applied. Lean into those sore spots. Put away your rhetorical responses. Stop formulating your arguments. There may be truth to your thoughts but there is also truth in what you are resisting. The only way you can comprehend one is to set aside the other for a while.
If you go overboard on anything, let it be learning about white privilege. You cannot push back on something that is not entirely clear to you. White people are so steeped in the system that it can be hard, however well-intentioned we are, to see it. Changing your outlook may be diificult. Be careful not to take conversations about white privilege personally. Recognize that you are part of a system you did not create but from which you benefit. Here are some powerful pieces to begin to knock down that institutional wall:
Challenge yourself to listen.
White people are used to taking charge of situations. Don’t do that as an ally. When you do, you center yourself and your voice.
Instead, look for ways you can support the black and brown people around you. Find opportunities to hear people’s stories. Guard against the inclination to respond with times you have been challenged as well. Think instead of a variation on Silk and Goldman’s ring theory for grief (comfort in, dump out). If someone’s racial identity is at the center of the story and yours is not, they are the ones who get to drive the conversation. You should hold space as you are the one hearing about what is going on, not directly experiencing it.
While it is possible to be a leader as an ally, and sometimes is helpful and necessary, it is not something you should pursue until you have experience and credibility—given from black and brown colleagues—in the community. Specifically, it should not happen until you are able to speak up without centering your voice. Quite often, ally leaders are servant leaders who use their platform and privilege to elevate and work in concert with the black and brown leaders around them. How can we, as white pastors and lay leaders, do this in our church communities?
Don’t expect black and brown people to educate you.
Imagine you are in the only white person in the world. There is much prejudice against you and work you have to do every day just to survive. Then there are well-meaning people who want to help but ask you the same basic questions over and over every day, using up your precious time and energy, and expecting you to stop whatever you are doing to accommodate their questions. Do you see the centering happening here? Seek out good resources and do some of the initial work yourself. You wouldn’t expect an advanced English professor to push aside her grocery cart to teach you basic grammar on demand and you shouldn’t expect that of someone of color as well.
- Read books by people of color, such as Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Oates. Look at young adult books and fiction as entry points as well, such as Shannon Gibney’s See No Color. Also consider books like Frank H. Wu’s Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, which explores race and racial identity through a broader lens that includes Asian-Americans. Know there are many stories: of immigrants, descendants from slaves, Native Americans, transnational adoptees, and those of mixed race that are part of this diaspora.
- Check out some films, short videos, and podcasts, such as Melanie Funchess’s Tedx Talk or NPR’s Code Switch. Race Forward provides an eight-part video series on systemic racism.
- Follow blogs and social media of some established groups. I recommend Teaching Tolerance, Colorlines, and SURJ.
Pay attention to your language.
It can be hard to learn appropriate and inclusive language, especially when terms are frequently changing and expanding. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive to do it anyway. You may hear “but we’ve always said it that way” as a defense for sticking to the familiar. Guess what? That may mean there are people who have always felt excluded and less worthy. In a church that preaches God’s love for all, doesn’t it make sense to put a little effort into changing that?
An important part of this is also learning how to say unfamiliar names appropriately and making a point to remember them. Even if you mess up at first, people will see that you value them. Don’t make a joke about stumbling over pronunciation to cover up your embarrassment.
Also, internalize this phrase: it is the impact that matters, not your intent. For people who experience numerous microaggressions each day, your casual comment does not stand alone. If you accidentally poke a cut or kick a bruise, you apologize because you caused discomfort. You know you didn’t cause the original injury but accept responsibility for adding to the pain. In fact, if you know that injury exists, you make a point to avoid making things worse. It should be no different with the words you use.
Let go of control.
As you get involved in racial justice work, you may feel an initial rush of energy … indignation, anger, desire to push hard for immediate change. Check yourself. Your black and brown brothers and sisters have been at this, literally, their whole lives. They don’t need to add your frustrations at the slow speed of change to the list of things they must negotiate. Use those feelings to help you empathize, use that energy to get involved with racial justice work and education, but don’t make your emotional reaction the middle of anything. While you are joining partway through, this is still a marathon. Pace yourself. Accept that there is nothing you alone can do to solve this. There is, however, plenty you can do to help make it better.
Ask what you can do … and do it.
Donate time and money, attend rallies and marches, accept small or behind-the-scenes jobs that free up leaders to do more of what they do. Be reliable. Follow national and global movements but see what you can do to make a difference locally—in person—whenever possible.
Do these three things as often as you can.
Work on your own hesitation to speak up when a racial slur is made. Yes, that may be awkward and not seem polite. You may fumble the first few times you try. For some of you, it may be harder to do in public and for others, within the family. Practice anyway. It can be as simple as saying I’m not OK with that. If you see someone of color experiencing harassment, let them know they are not alone. To help you be prepared, consider perusing either the Southern Poverty Law Center’s excellent guide Responding to Everyday Bigotry or Teaching Tolerance’s Six Steps to Speak Up.
Even when there is not a controversy, affirm people of color. Patronize their businesses. Smile at them on the street. Choose the checkout line with the Muslim woman or sit near the black family in the restaurant. Don’t make a big deal about it … don’t expect some kind of relationship to grow out of your gesture. Simply be a friendly face.
And lastly, pray. Pray especially for those who are dealing with injustice and intolerance. Pray for those doling it out. Pray for yourself, that you might discern what God is calling you to do in this wilderness. Pray for God’s love and wisdom to help us heal from the ways we hurt one another.
Schedule regular personal check-ins.
No matter how much you learn or where you are in the process, regularly check in with yourself. That introspection that kicked off your allyship efforts should be a staple in your habits. Keep learning through reading and through service and interaction. Watch the news … not just an echo chamber of those who think like you but also what else is out there shaping the perspectives around you. Periodically, hold up your actions again this checklist for allies.
Develop an awareness: how do I feel when I hear about [insert latest news or incident experienced]? Is that the same way my black and brown friends and neighbors might feel? Are my emotional reactions helpful to moving things forward in a productive way? Have I overstepped in any of my actions? How might God want this to turn out?
You may feel overwhelmed reading this list. You may think the bar is too high to achieve.
And yes … learning to de-center yourself, set appropriate boundaries, and step out in love and courage as an ally is hard, hard work. But what important work isn’t? Those training for a race expect injuries, missteps, and pain as part of the process. They do it anyway, because the race matters.
This kind of race matters so much more.