Part 1 of this series (Ohmygosh! Is it going to be a series?) was intended to cultivate the ground, as it were. To turn the brain-earth so that the air and the light could warm and brighten it. To let the mind breathe and prepare for the next set of ideas. Part 1b clarified some questions about how I see the issue of European-American self-identity. And the reason I'm linking to these here is that, despite the fact that you could easily scroll down and find them, I would strongly suggest that you read them before you read the rest of this, if you haven't already done so. What I write now will build on my earlier statements in ways that won't make as much sense without having read them first.
Also, before I proceed, I'd like to make a couple of points about the word "ally," which derives from the Latin for alligare meaning "to bind to." First of all, Ally Work has a quote on their masthead I've seen attributed elsewhere to a First Nation woman: "If you have come to help me, please go home. But if you have come because your liberation is somehow bound with mine, then we may work together." So, for me, being an ally is not about saving somebody else. It's about saving myself (I closed with this point in Part 1, but it was not always caught). I see my liberation as indelibly bound with that of every other human on the face of this planet. All the oppressed and even, God/dess help us, the oppressors (who, let's face it, are in the stranglehold of their own insanity, even if they do ride around on chartered jets). Nobody's free (as we used to say back in the sixties) until we're all free. This is not a platitude to me. This is a reality. And I want to be free. Not that I think I'm necessarily gonna get there in my lifetime. And I realize it's not a sprint, it's a marathon. But I'm going for it. With others. By myself. Whatever. Like the Steve McQueen character in "Papillon."
The second point I'd like to make about the word "ally" is that it isn't a one-way street. There is no such thing as a one-sided coin and there are some states-of-being that require more than an individual. You can't be "married" (in the truest sense of the word) by yourself, for example. You can't be a one-person "team." And allies are individuals or groups or nations bound together through mutual interests--such as survival. The two (or more) parties don't have to be equally powered to be allies. But there has to be mutual respect predicated on the basis of mutual need on some level. Crocodiles don't eat the birds that live on what they pick out of the crocodile's teeth. There's a reason for that. Maybe they're smarter than most humans.
In any case, European-Americans who imagine that they are or present themselves as "allies," seeing themselves as "helpers" need to go back to Part 1 and Part 1b to review. People of color don't need "help." They need "allies." Just as all other humans--including Europeans and European-Americans--do. People of color know things I don't know. They have experienced things I have not experienced and developed a culture that is very particularly their own. They have benefitted from a long and rich history that has not similarly imbued me with their perspectives. They have ties to each other that could teach me how to better form alliances. They have the spiritual depth and wisdom of people who have suffered and thrive anyway. I need them. So I approach with great respect for what they bring to the table. I ask to be taught and I honor that teaching. I stand corrected when appropriate and do not see myself as reduced by the correction. I need allies and I need to be an ally. Not just for people of color, but for all the manifestations of life on Earth. And crashing a people of color think tank wearing a "Free Africa!" t-shirt will not increase the likelihood of that happening. With me so far?
Under the right circumstances, people of color have always welcomed allies who look like me, when those allies operate in the manner in which I have been discussing. I just purchased a poster of W.E.B. DuBois for my new office bearing a quote from his work as a sociologist (genuflect): "There can be no perfect democracy curtailed by color, race, or poverty. But with all, we accomplish all, even peace." His statement was not an academic one. In fact, he tried to recognize the contributions of John Brown by placing a tablet on the grounds of historically Black Storer College in Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in 1932. Brown, a European-American executed in 1859 for leading a band of 21 men, including several of his own sons to occupy the arsenal in Harper's Ferry in the attempt to kick off a "war of emancipation," was deemed "too militant" by the Storer College officials.
Just before the NAACP Convention this year, however, Julian Bond and NAACP President Bruce Gordon followed their predecessor's example and dedicated in Harper's Ferry a new tablet, having the same design and layout of the original and including the same language: "With him, fought seven slaves and sons of slaves. Over his crucified corpse marched 200,000 Black soldiers and 4,000,000 freedmen singing 'John Brown's body lies a mouldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on!" DuBois, Bond, and Gordon joined those earlier African-Americans in acknowledging Brown as an ally.
Now, obviously, I am hardly calling on "White" folks to die for "the cause" in the interests of being deemed "allies." I am beginning with Brown to remind us that he and his family and many others in the history of the United States were, in fact, boldly and unapologetically allies with their brothers and sisters of color--and accepted by many as such. An earlier post of mine on William Lloyd Garrison describes another of them. But there were enough European-Americans who less spectacularly allied themselves with people of color for a range of reasons (business, love, or logic) that laws were enacted to punish those errant "White" folks and deter others from casually following in their footsteps.
Still, whether it was a bi-racial couple marrying and moving West, European-Americans collecting money to buy Africans and African-Americans for the express purpose of setting them free, or entire families of European-Americans committing themselves for decades to harboring fugitives as part of the Underground Railroad (an activity that could be worthy of death), people who looked--and thought--like me have always existed. Socialization teaching that skin tone and heritage determines worth didn't take for everyone. So the idea that "well, that's just the way it was back then" is no more true than that racism is a thing of the past now. It has always been a choice for people who look like me to develop whatever attitude they please toward the socially-constructed, political notion of "race." And it still is, regardless of how pervasive institutionalized oppression in the name of racism remains.
Having said all that, let me tell some stories about what being an ally has sometimes looked like in my own life.
Back when I was in middle school in northern Illinois in the late 1950's and early 1960's, we used to plug in the juke box and dance in the cafeteria after lunch. Now, I wasn't supposed to dance at all, being that dancing was an activity of the devil and all, but I just couldn't help myself. I love to dance. Always have. So when one of the African-American students went to Baltimore and brought back "The Continental," a very smooth dance similar to "The Electric Slide" today, characterized by a small group all facing the same direction and executing the same moves in lock-step precision, I was instantly hooked. As quickly as I could master it, I was on the floor with the "Black" kids (and one other tiny "White" girl wearing harlequin glasses), honestly oblivious for some reason to the fact that others might not understand.
It didn't take long before Dupree, one of the African-American boys--short and high yella--asked me to hand-dance or jitterbug or whatever we were calling it at the time to "Stagger Lee" or "Alley Oop" and I said yes without hesitation. Clearly, he had great nerve and he could really dance, unlike the "White" boys who tended to let the girls dance with each other. So I enjoyed it, in spite of the fact that we did not speak to each other while dancing and did not fraternize at any other time inside or outside of school.
Still, my best friend (a Colonel's daughter who had pink shag carpeting in her bedroom) soon mentioned with obvious discomfort that "people are talking about you because you dance with negroes during lunch." I didn't even answer her because I had not considered this, did not understand why they were talking about me, and didn't intend to quit dancing with whomever I wanted regardless. Heck! I wasn't supposed to be dancing in the first place. I might as well have a good partner. Besides, it's not like we were going steady or something. Anyway, my point is that an ally actively participates in the creation of a world wherein they and their allies co-exist as equals without apology. If the other students saw me as "above" Dupree, he apparently did not, even in 1959. Nor did I. We were partners. Allies. Modeling for everyone in sight a new world of social acceptance. Ready or not.
In the interest of trying to keep this focused and not write some kind of magnum opus, I'm going to jump ahead now to an incident a couple of decades later, when I walked up to a photo processing counter in a discount store to pick up the pictures I had brought in for developing. A tall African-American man was standing at the counter already, waiting for a salesperson to appear. The minute I approached, a "White" woman came out of nowhere and directed her attention immediately to me. "May I help you?" she asked brightly.
"Well," I replied, nodding in the man's direction, "he was here first."
"Oh, I'm sure it would only take me a minute to take care of you," she countered, still smiling, never taking her eyes off me.
"You don't understand," I said pointedly, "HE...was here first..."
At which point she finally turned to him as if noticing him for the first time and, without missing a hitch or changing her tone, she simply went on, "Oh! Well, in that case, may I help you?"
The man's eyes caught mine for only a second. Eyeball to eyeball, we stood, complete strangers, never to see other or have anything else to do with each other ever again, to my knowledge. But recognizing and acknowledging each other. I didn't do what I did to make a point or to be "kind" or because I was trying to be "politically correct" (this was long before the PC movement). I did it the same way I would have done it for anyone else who was there first, because it was the right thing to do. There was no "gratitude" in his eyes. There was no "patronizing" in mine. We were allies, that's all. Allies rise to the occasion at hand--as needful--and require nothing but the knowledge that they are acting appropriately as a healthy and responsible human and a member of the greater human race.
Sometime years later, I was going over my mail in the departmental office of whichever school was employing me at the time, when I overheard the "White" department secretary telling another "White" woman an anecdote about being in traffic behind a car that was being driven in a way she was apparently attributing to some stereotypical characteristic of its driver's subculture. I wasn't paying very close attention, but clearly caught the "you know how they do" and the rolling of the eyes. And while I can't positively identify the group to which she was referring, there's a certain tone of voice and set of facial expressions many "White" folks are quick to use when speaking of other racial and ethnic groups.
I was caught in a dilemma. First of all, I couldn't be absolutely sure what she had meant. Secondly, as the department secretary, she could have made my life difficult as an adjunct--from not getting my copied exams on time to not getting subsequent teaching appointments. So I certainly did not want to step in uninvited with a political statement that might affect my well-being, even my income. And lastly, I was in a hurry. I left the office bustling off to wherever I was due, but with my thoughts in an uproar.
"I can't fix everything," I reasoned. "There's no point in my shooting myself in the foot when I'm not even sure what she meant."
But it was no good. I walked back to the office, poked my head in the door, and said calmly to the secretary in front of the other woman, who was still present, "I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't talk like that in front of me again. I don't feel the same way you do about people of other groups and it makes me very uncomfortable to hear stereotypes used in that way."
"Oh," she responded, "you mean what I said about the driver?"
"Yes," I agreed.
"Okay," she replied. And I went off down the hall again.
Allies are allies even when their allies are not present. Or when in the presence of others who may not be allies. That is to say, some European-Americans speak great political rhetoric around people of color when other European-Americans--particularly those who might not agree with them--are not present. But it's not lost on the people of color when they hear a "White" person back-pedal, however subtly, when another "Whitey" happens by. I was offered an excellent position once to join an Afri-centric social service agency once they had been able over a period of nearly a year to ascertain that I was what they called "consistent" in all venues. And I never knew I was being observed.
Over the years, I have mentored students of color as graduates and undergraduates, I have reached out to African-Americans in locations we share regularly and where they might be the only person of color, I have taught and trained and read and participated in settings calculated to raise my own and other's consciousness about "race," and I have sought myriads of opportunities to make tiny connections and infinitessimal differences. Supporting a new organization of African-American students by remembering to participate in their events. Reminding a Puerto Rican mother by the pool that it's okay for her son to play outside, even if it means he'll get "darker" ("Have you looked at the stars in the entertainment field lately?") Giving a young European-American woman a safe place to discuss her concerns that her bi-cultural lifestyle is somehow not appropriate. Learning our shared history and casually telling the truth of it whenever possible. Listening. Appreciating. Growing.
There is also something not to do. European-Americans who want to be allies for people of color don't be "down." That is to say, they don't try to "act" Black or "be" Black or impress Black folks, really, in any way (which is very difficult to do, in any case, given the state of affairs between the "races" in this country just now). European-Americans who want to be allies for people of color just "be." And then, eventually, they may find themselves being invited to "get in where you fit in."
It was my son who first modeled this for me back in 1993. He was sixteen at the time and playing spades across the street with a table of young African-American men at a family barbeque to which we'd been invited--slapping cards, talking smack, and generally just part of the milieu. But he was winning. The other men were drinking alcohol and, as the afternoon went on, I became edgy that Eli was going to wind up with a problem of some sort.
Following him back home at one point, I expressed my concern, only to have him "straighten" me. "I know what I'm doing, Mom," he said as if he was reassuring a child. "Look at my clothes. I'm wearing a Metallica t-shirt and Jenko jeans. Am I trying to be something I'm not? No. If I was trying to 'be Black' or prove something to these guys, they'd have already taught me a lesson. But I'm just being who I am and they can respect that." And he was right.
So there is much a European-American can do as an ally for people of color, but not until the "inside work" is done. The "inside work" (in Part 1 and Part 1b) is "ally work" (if there is such a thing). Some people who look like me come to me urgent with their "need" to "help," to "make a difference," "now." But that's not how it is. If you're not willing, ready, and able to change the universe inside you, then how would you expect to make a difference in the greater society? If you won't even listen to yourself, who would listen to you? And besides, since being an ally is a two (or more) member job, then why would a person of color be willing to trust you before you've at least made a dent in your own personal racial renaissance? You can't be an ally without another ally on the other side of the stream to help you build your bridge and you must prepare yourself with sacred diligence to be worthy of the name.