By Kellie Schorr
“Help me to breathe in “I Can’t Breathe” and breathe out compassion
Help me to breathe in “I Can’t Breathe” and breathe out education
Help me to breathe in “I Can’t Breathe” and breathe out altruistic action
Help me to breathe in “I Can’t Breathe” and breathe out the practice of liberation.”
~ Pema Khandro (excerpt from a poem written by Pema Khandro read at the Vajrayogini empowerment retreat, May 31, 2020).
Don’t give up.
If you only get one thing from this article, get that. At a time when the sky is on fire, feelings are raw, and violent oppression is evident, we are all in shock, sad and exhausted. It is so very easy to just throw your hands up and say, “I’ll come out of my cave when this is over.” So, I encourage you through this long journey to equality, don’t give up.
As we mourn the devastating murder of George Floyd and move forward with an uprising of awareness and push for justice, it is more important than ever for white people to become allies with our black community. We know the black community needs justice, systemic change, and equality. It is our responsibility as humans to be a part of that.
What we don’t always know is how to do that. This has led to anxiety about exactly how to be an ally.
I’ve seen it in memes, tweets, and thoughtfully posted blogs. Sometimes it sounds like racial apologetics and other times it seems to be a sincere venting of feelings. Either way, we shouldn’t ignore its existence. I’ve heard it in conversations and talked with others about what I call “ally confusion”—a growing sense of resentfulness and frustration caused by the feeling of being constantly corrected and redirected.
When all you’re trying to do is “right” it creates a lot of personal commotion to feel like everything you do is wrong.
The internal dialogue between an ally and the instructions of conventional wisdom shakes out like this:
Ally: This is so wrong. CW: You cannot be silent!
Ally: <Shouting> This is so wrong! CW: Be quiet, they need to hear the community voice.
Ally: Posts quote from community author. CW: OMG stop posting quotes from our people like they are yours!
Ally: Writes a personal note about how this injustice makes the ally angry. CW: Don’t make it about you.
Ally: Posts inspiration quote. CW: Look, Susie Sunshine, people are hurting, don’t minimize it! This is toxic positivity.
Ally: Posts article showing injustice. CW: We have to see this all the time. Don’t add to the negative.
Ally: Says “I don’t know how to help.” CW: Don’t put that burden on the community. We need to self-care. Just be present.
Ally: Changes profile to image, picture, or symbol to show presence. CW: That’s just slacktivism. It doesn’t help anything.
Ally: Gives up. Posts pictures of cats looking cute. CW: You cannot be silent!
The reality is both sides of that quandary are actually on the same side (if not the same page), and both are doing and saying very reasonable things. Times of trauma, anger, and change are so clouded with duality and emotion it gets really hard to see clearly. How do we navigate these murky, important waters?
Know what time it is
“For everything there is a season,” the Bible and the Byrds tell us (turn, turn, turn). The time to learn how to be an ally to a community is not when that community is at its most stressed and vulnerable. Don’t wait until the outcry to create and sustain a relationship with other communities. It really is a burden to them to try to leave their place of grief and anger so they can gently explain to you their needs, their history and where you fit in.
During the crisis: Look for common spaces that you can fill. Don’t be shocked or offended if the answer to “what do you need?” is “money.” A big part of the oppression of any community is financial inequality. Writing a check to a reliable agency within a community may help far more than fighting on Facebook over what social problem is the most horrible or offering meditation classes with your thoughts on equality.
Communities in crisis don’t want a hero or a savior. To mobilize during a crisis they need: money, transportation, food, shelter, medical supplies, and space to breathe. They don’t require your philosophy on racism. They might need a ride to the airport. They don’t expect you to tell them about systemic mechanisms. They need you to tell your community,in your sphere of influence.
Between the flair ups: There is no “after the crisis.” For people in oppressed communities, the crisis never stops. There are, however, spaces between public outcry when things are calmer. Use that time to have deep and sometimes uncomfortable conversations with community friends, read books, attend classes. Get to know others when they aren’t aching, screaming, or sobbing. That meditation class you wanted to give? Now is the time.
No one is responsible to make you a good ally. It’s your job to learn. Pick the best thing you can do depending on the time and you will find an embracing community.
As an ally during a volatile time, don’t just be generous with your money or allowing marchers to use your house as a gathering place, be generous with your attitude and heart as well. People may roll their eyes at you, or criticize, or snap “get out of the way.” Let them. Forgive them.
Give a little space for them to shed energy. Don’t point out hypocrisy, small issues, or things that can be healed quickly. If at all possible, resist with every fiber of your being saying, “I’m just trying to help.” Oppressed communities have been working to rise with a hand bracketed to the floor. Now is not the time to hold a discussion on your smudged nail polish. They are in a struggle; they can’t help with your frailty right now.
Also, take it easy on yourself. Feeling uncomfortable, guilty, or inadequate are really normal emotions for a time like this. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to say/do things that later you decide were not the best. Love your goodness and forgive yourself by releasing, apologizing, and learning something new.
Stand With, Not For
Years ago, I was the only queer person on a panel of spiritual leaders talking about queer spirituality. On one side was a rabbi in the reformed tradition, and on the other was a leader of an affirming Christian church. As people asked questions about the challenges of praying while gay, both leaders talked over me. Everything they said was correct, doctrinal and positive. Not one word of it was informed by what it is actually like to be a queer person in church!
I remember being grateful (for their support) and furious (for the lack of representation). It was essential for those two well-meaning leaders to support our rights. I also wanted them to shut up so I could give authentic voice to the reality of our experience. I needed them beside me, not on top of me.
When you’re wanting to be an ally, be willing to be in the wings, on the side, holding hands, raising power. Don’t go to be seen. Go to point people toward the community that needs to be seen. Leave your ego. Give your heart.
That’s the final and best thing I know about being an ally, even when it’s frustrating. It must start with altruistic intent. You have to want to be an ally to reduce the suffering of others. However, hear me when I say you will need education to do that.
Having good intentions is, at the same time, everything you need, and not nearly enough. You need to be educated as well. Don’t let a Facebook meme inform you. Go, grow, and learn from those within your allied community. Together, we can change the world.
And remember, don’t give up.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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