Last weekend, a good friend of mine was the only Black person at a wedding.
There was one guest there, a white woman, who was intent on making sure my friend understood that she “got it”; that she was an ally. She sought my friend out throughout the evening, on multiple occasions, and shared her feeling that she was African in a previous life because of how she danced, and that “the problem in America was that Black people didn’t know that white people really wanted to be Black” – among other things. When challenged about her strange and offensive comments, it didn’t land; she wasn’t open to hearing the impact.
This is also what racism looks like. Although, maybe a different word would be helpful?
It’s not physically violent, it isn’t using the N word, it isn’t excluding anyone. On the outside and to the untrained eye and ear, it may seem like this woman is trying to connect, to be an ally. And likely she believes that she is.
But her actions, the way she continued to seek out my friend and share her views on race, and racism, and her inability to be challenged by someone Black about her comments makes the impact of her actions violent, disrespectful and disregarding: The very things she was railing against. And she likely doesn’t “get” that. My friend is still reeling from the encounter – while the woman has likely already forgotten her name.
This is the underbelly of systemic racism. It’s the result of years, decades, and centuries of a system that devalues people of colour and Black people.
Systemic racism makes us believe that Black people and people of colour are “less than” (and the darker, the less value) – and that this is “just the way it is”. Which makes it difficult (and for some, impossible) to recognize offensive, violent words and opinions because they support the systemic views. Systemic racism gives privilege to those of us with lighter and white skin – which in turn allows us to say stupid and offensive (and inaccurate) things, and to say these without checking ourselves, and without recognizing the impact we are having on our darker skinned brothers and sisters. It also allows us to think that if we don’t mean it, it’s ok.
This type of racism is hard to explain to people who are not of colour, hard to point out without getting into an argument about intention vs impact, and hard to squash – because it’s part of how we have been taught to see each other. And in the face of continuing bias (on various fronts) that reinforces this view, it’s not seen as a problem. It’s not an “us vs. them” like segregation, for instance, it’s just “the way it is.” It’s even more dangerous, because it’s so insidious. And it’s possibly even more exhausting for Black people and people of colour because as a result. Every day, over time – these are micro-aggressions that often go unnoticed and unchallenged.
This type of racism is harder to catch but even more important for allies to stand up and speak up against. Because it’s so pervasive, because it’s so “easy”, and because it rarely is challenged. The bride, who witnessed some of this, did nothing. She calls herself an ally, but wasn’t prepared to deal with it on her wedding day. To which my friend rightly stated, “I don’t get a break from racism. Why should she get a break from being an ally?”
It’s a great question.
At the end of the day, allies still have a choice. Speak up? Step up? Now or later? At all? And sometimes it is true that as allies we don’t recognize the ism when it’s happening, in which case we boldly go about our business clueless, but still calling ourselves allies. Allyship – real allyship – is not a cape we throw on when it’s convenient. It’s like underwear – we need put it on every day.
I don’t have the answer.
Just a whole lot more questions today, about how to heal this pain…