Saturday, December 02, 2006

For White Folks: How To Be An Ally (Part 3)

Some years ago--quite a few, I think--I faced the fact that I like to talk. Rather a lot, actually. The issue was raised the first time soon after I started first grade (as in "Is a joy to have in class, but likes to talk to her neighbors"). It popped up again more painfully in the form of my own personal hazing as an incoming freshman during the hot minute I was in nurse's training when I was instructed to stand in the hospital cafeteria for a half-hour talking to a statue.

Anyway, through the years, my talking got me something of a reputation, but since I was good at it and often clever or funny or impassioned, I was tolerated and even encouraged, by and large. Particularly since I could really use the skill in front of the press or at a demonstration or when speaking before a mass audience or whatever.

Then my daughter came along and as she aged, she would shut the door between me as a talker and her as a listener sometimes. "Inner monologue, Mom," she would cue me in a flat voice on occasion when I was talking to myself while under the mistaken impression that I was speaking to her.

"You're doing it again, Mom," she would mention casually over dinner at a restaurant, "You're holding a conversation for which I'm not necessary--posing questions and then answering them yourself." (And yes, she really does talk that way. She did, after all, grow up with me and her also highly verbal older brother. We often sounded like a Neil Simon script, much to the amazement of outsiders.)

And over time, my training under her tutelage helped me to hone, I think (I hope?), my tendency to monopolize conversation too ruthlessly. I learned to rest a finger or two on my lips to remind myself not to blurt out my thoughts while someone else is speaking. And I started listening so intently that sometimes a speaker in front of a smallish group will wind up speaking almost entirely to me alone.

In any case, "voice"--verbal or written (and at one time, sung)--is crucial to me. It is breath. It is imperative. I can spend ridiculous amounts of time alone, and even in silence. But I must, absolutely must, be able to express myself somehow.

So maybe that's why I understood almost immediately when I was exposed some years ago to the idea that, as a person who looks like I do, it is my responsibility to serve sometimes as a bridge between African-Americans and my counterparts in the European-American community. For one thing, White people will sometimes listen to me when they won't listen to people of color. And if I can express even something of the exact nature of institutionalized oppression in the name of racism, then the listeners may find themselves more willing--and able--to listen to a person of color speak for themselves at some point.

In fact, I have been told through the years by a number of my African-American students that I caused them to see the realities of "the system" much more clearly than they had ever imagined them--even as people of color. And I am, frankly, thrilled by this, when it occurs. I imagine that it empowers them, even if it does come from me.

But decades ago, I was taught that part of serving as a bridge is to introduce my fellow-speakers of color. To share the stage, if you will. To prepare the minds of listeners and then, when I have their attention, to give up the lectern to one who might otherwise not have access to it. That this is part of my job as one who has a clue. As one who wants to make a difference. As an ally. And the process of doing this, of course, sometimes means that I have to shut up (saying this to myself, of course, in the nicest possible way).

Sometimes, however, I hear stories from African-Americans who are struggling with the ramifications of not being allowed to find--or use--their voice under circumstances over which I can exert no control. And it saddens me greatly. Feeling the way I do about self-expression, I can't even imagine what it must be like to live in skin attached to lips that are forever expected to be sealed. Or worse, are always expected to make White folks feel good or safe or superior.

What a nightmare it must be, as an African-American, to have your White boss say jovially with an eager look, "You didn't take that the wrong way, did ya? You know we don't see color around here!" Or to have somebody lean toward you warmly at a church function and say, "Now, if all the Blacks were like you, we wouldn't have the problems we have in this country, you know what I mean?" Or to have the mother of your new friend (who just happens to be White) reach over at a bar-b-que and ask curiously, "Would you mind if I touched your hair? It looks so soft..." All the time knowing that your response must be measured and controlled and a lie.

And from what I can gather, these situations are made worse by the fact that you can't always see them coming. And while being constantly vigilant can give you ulcers, if you let your guard down, you're sure to get spiked eventually. And if you respond too quickly--because your guard was down--the repercussions can be severe. A lost job. A lost friend. A lost opportunity. Exclusion. The look.

Now, I don't mean "the look" that White people use when an African-American comes unexpectedly through the door to apply for a particular job or shows up at a party where everyone else is White or walks into the restaurant with a White date and his or her White child. I'm talking about "the look," however imperceptible, that says, "Hold up there--you just crossed the line." The color line. Into the space that's reserved for grown folks. The space of respect. As demonstrated by African-American deference to White people. And that's a dangerous look. It can be just a warning. But it can also mean that you--or your spirit--is about to get lynched.

So, African-Americans learn early to avoid "the look." They second guess themselves. They be quiet unless spoken to. They learn to smile a tight little smile and nod or grunt or "Hmmm" to avoid actually having to tell a bold-faced lie to a White person who really believes that they are well-meaning, but will get their feelings hurt in a New York minute and react--either now or at some unexpected future moment--in a way intended to "put you in your place" whether they admit it, or even know it, or not.

One young African-American I know (I'll call him "A."), who's been running things by me for years now, dropped by with his baby son last week and, while I was wallowing on the floor with the youngster, told me about winding up in the trick bag (yet again) at his new job this time, which he had loved until last week. Basically, as the story went, a new White social worker had been hired and had made it clear within days that she will not go into "certain" neighborhoods (despite the fact that she's from New York City and, duh, is a social worker), that she considers her African-American co-workers "them" (as opposed to she and the boss who are White), and that, while she reserves the right to make thinly-veiled racist comments in the office to specific individuals, she will run to the boss in tears if she is confronted on it. The other workers of color just shut down in the face of the situation, but A. had called her on her behaviors, only to have her "rescued" by the boss who literally threatened A.'s job all of a sudden, since A. is now a "high-maintenance employee."

A. is disappointed and frustrated. He wants to love his job. He wants to do it well. He's a highly competent, highly educated, deeply caring man who would be a wonderful asset to any social work team. But now--instead of being able to focus on his work like the professional he is--if he wants to continue to pay his rent, he's going to have to buck and shuffle. He has to accept the gibes of a White woman and say nothing in return or suffer for it. And that's what I mean by loss of voice.

A day or two after I spoke with A., I got an email from another African-American--a woman, this time--who I'll call "B." B. wrote me because she had been attacked for her comments on a blog (not her own) and she was tired of always having to defend herself for calling it the way she sees it as a person of color. She's expected to be intellectual, reasonable, and understanding in her statements to White people whose gentle sensibilities are wounded by her attempts to protect herself--from their attacks. Excuse me? At the end of her email, having expressed her frustration, she even went so far as to ask me not to tell anyone that she expressed to me how painful it is for her to be stuck in this space of having to be a literary punching bag. She, too, is being prevented from using her voice.

Later that same week, an African-American student came to me to discuss entering a prestigious essay competition. The young man ("C.") is not one of my students, but he's bright and mature enough to know what's going on with him. Plus, he wrote me an email one time that was electric with his passionate commitment to social change. Nevertheless, it became quickly apparent that he had lost his voice somewhere along the line.

I spent two hours with C. the first night and two more the night after that, cajoling, encouraging, reminding, challenging. And finally he admitted that the only reason he was using the essay in question (on Latino immigration) was that he didn't want to appear to be "just another Black man whining about race."

"Who better to express the African-American reality?" I countered. "Who better to plead the case for racial fairness?"

The next day, a Saturday, I got another email from C.

"Thanks for opening my mind..." he began. "From adolescence to this moment, I have been so uptight...Today, I am letting go! Yes, for a change, I will allow myself to enjoy an EXPERIENCE...As you've encouraged, 'My stars shall all come out to show their sparkling glimmer.' I am aware that trials and criticism shall follow, but that's all part of the process, right? This is so awesome, and the train is moving and, finally, I'm a passenger on board. Your words have not fallen on deaf ears..."

I wept great sobs in joy for this young man. And for the incredible honor of being allowed to help him find his voice. And for the millions of other people of color--old and young, male and female, rich and poor--whose voices may never be heard or even used.

But let's face it, I have a peculiar place in society in which to operate. And a particular skill, perhaps, in operating there. How can others help people of color to find their voices?

Well, for one thing, you can listen--really listen. It's hard to find a voice you've never been allowed to use. And it's hard to hear with ears that have never practiced listening. But we can help each other, if we bring honest hearts to the task.

Then, you can validate the truth you hear by accepting its legitimacy, no matter now difficult it is to face, no matter how sad it is to look at, no matter how formidable the wall it seems to illumine, no matter how deep the chasm it seems to produce. You can say, "Yes. I hear you. Yes. It must be painful. Yes. It is immoral. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes."

And finally, you can sit beside the wounded.

I saw a quote years ago by a woman back in the sixties, a SNCC-member, I think, who said something about, "What it all comes down to in the end is one person saying 'I will sit next to you.'" A commitment so simple it can be made by anyone. Without training. Without education. Without planning. Without agenda. "I will sit next to you." When the tempers blaze and the tears come. "I will sit next to you." In the rain. In the sun. In the darkness of night. "I will sit next to you." We can share a sandwich. We can pass the dipper down the row. We can breathe the air of a planet that has waited five hundred years for these words: "I will sit next to you."

In 1963, Anne Moody, the author of Coming of Age in Mississippi, probably one of the single most important books ever written by a U.S. citizen, having already spent years of her youth risking and losing everything but her life, walked into a Woolworth's in Jackson, Mississippi, and sat quietly down at the segregated lunch counter with two friends, one European-American and one Native American. It was the beginning of the end of racial segregation in America.

As angry White men pushed, struck, poured catsup, mustard and sugar over the heads of, and spit on Anne and her two allies, John Salter and Joan Trumpauer, they sat--together--and unleashed a power that could not be denied. They sat, silent, and were heard around the world. Eventually, we, too, may find our collective voice. But it will only be when everyone gets to speak.


Anonymous said...

:-) Great piece, for many reasons, on how 'silencing' works, for one.

Interesting: some of the non-Euro friends I've made via jobs I have had, I was attracted to originally because I admired their skill/wisdom in handling tough work situations. Only upon getting to know them better did I realize how much struggle with self-doubt lay behind that strength & composure.

Anonymous said...

I am a talker, too, and I'm still working hard on being a better listener. I'll be thinking a lot about your words today.

Anonymous said...

I love your thoughts on race. Especially "how to be an ally" parts 1 - 3. I was linking people today....and realized they are not linked as a unit? Or in a category of their own? Or...even at the end of Part 1, unless I missed it. I'm hunting now for Part two.

I guess the only critique I want to make, if you'll allow me is that I sort of wish these talks included the entire range of peoples that are involved. So much discussion out there seems to paint the problems with these dynamics as white/black. I think this is the most obvious. But it is not the one hurting Mexico. And not the one hurting Iraqis. It is, I think, the larger, or underlying paradigm that fits white vs black as well as white vs brown(s), and on and on.

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the words "I will sit next to you." I teach high school juniors about the civil rights movement and they are sometimes overwhelmed about the official "strategies" work they see, with all the planning and organizing and practice. I will read them your words tomorrow, to sit down next to those they what to support. Period.

changeseeker said...

PZ, see what you made me do? xo

Joannao, it's a constant process of learning. Sometimes, I do fairly well. Sometimes, I amaze myself with my silence. And sometimes...I don't do so hot. Ah, well.

NLX-J, you made me realize that, with as much play as this series is getting, I should make it easier to find and follow. So I put links over on my blog roll. Thanks for the suggestion.

As for your other comment, I couldn't agree more. Unfortunately, some White folks (many? most?) are so oblivious, they can't seem to (or won't?) notice even the most obvious manifestations of "racial" relations. By starting with simple dichotomies, I try to get the ball rolling, as it were.

In person, in the classroom, I can slip in and out of using various examples and drawing analogies, related to ethnicity, nationality, gender, physical "disability," you name it. On this blog, I keep the focus very narrow purposely, though I wrote a couple of things related to the war on Iraq (which I don't call the war in Iraq, I call the war on Iraq) when I just couldn't help myself.

If I start including all the particularities that so desperately need to be considered by so-called White people, I would become overwhelmed emotionally, as well as intellectually. But my heart is sick with what the White power structure has done and is doing to Native American nations and other indigenous peoples, Latinos, Iraqis, Afghanis, Palestinians, Muslims, Middle Easterners, in general, and in truth, anyone who stands between a White man and whatever he desires.

I will say, however, that under the more recent on-slaughts against brown-skinned people immigrants, I have taken to nodding to them on the street now in the same way I give acknowledgement to African-American strangers. The accompanying eye-contact and returned nods, in solemn solidarity remind me that the human race is slowly, but surely (and maybe even not all that slowly anymore) being divided into those who are ordinary humans (who see themselves as brothers and sisters, however different they may be) and those who want to lord it over everybody else. And increasingly, we ordinary humans are making the necessary connections to one day simply stop the madness.

Anonymous, thank you for your kind words. I am happy, really happy, I could help.

Anonymous said...

Yes - the saying hello to Mexicans/ persons from points south really seems to help. Formerly, we had fewer recent immigrants here than we have had in the past five or six years. I always say hello because my instant reaction was, wow, somebody from back home! Then I realized how thrilled they were, having someone JUST SAY HELLO, as opposed to go on about what-are-you-doing-here, etc.

Anonymous said...

Well after reading this blog I can only think of one thing to say.

I can't wait to see you on Oprah...


Katie G.

Anonymous said...

I know I've already commented, but I've just been reading BBC America online and catching up some things. I'v been reading all these articles about the banning of gay marriages across the country, except for in one state which is Mass. I've seen pictures of everything from young gay couples with children, to elderly gay couples who've been together for 50 years or more. These people are crying, they're so angry because all they want is to be married and they can't even be granted that.
I feel their anger.
It brings tears to my eyes. It all goes back to inequality. Gays are still not treated fairly in the United States and it makes me sick. I guess I haven't really be advocating gay rights, because I guess I'm comfortable in my own accepting bubble. I need to open my freaken eyes, you know?
I wish for social change. I pray for it. Someone in the article said that like anything, social change takes time to happen. How patient can we be before it becomes too much? I don't know. Maybe it's not the same thing. But I feel like I can relate to this (A) character. It just makes me sick.

Anyways, I don't know where that came from. But I for a moment I felt so helpless I needed to say it.

Katie G.

Anonymous said...

Going on Oprah is not a bad idea. I am quite serious! :-)

changeseeker said...

Katie, Gertrude Stein (a very interesting lesbian herself) once said "A rose is a rose is a rose." She could just as well have said "oppression is oppression is oppression." One of my mentors called the relationship between racism and sexism "the scarlet analogy." He believed that it would be very difficult to address one without addressing the other.

I hear your pain and I acknowledge it. Just know, as I said earlier in the comments, the oppressed make up an ever greater percentage of the population of the earth. Wherever you find oppression, you will find social conflict. And no people ever allowed themselves to be oppressed forever. ;^)

As for Oprah, PZ (and Katie), I'm looking forward to it. After the first book is published. And before I start traveling.

*nods softly with a smile*