Sometimes I feel like I should keep my political opinions to in-person discussions where my words are less likely to be misconstrued and more likely to actually be heard and discussed rather than ‘liked’ or trolled. With all that is going on in Baltimore right now, however, I do not feel as a writer or a white ally that I have the freedom to remain quiet at this time. As Ray Bradbury writes in Farenheit 451, “I did not speak and thus became guilty myself.” My two cents may not be worth much, but I cannot keep them in my pocket and pretend they don’t count for something.
There are a lot of opposing opinions being tossed around (or thrown) about the racial unrest in Baltimore. I want to steer clear of focusing on my opinion and instead offer five pieces of advice that I believe white allies, or people generally seeking to be more empathetic, should all be employing at this time. Please understand that these are tips I as a white person think other white people should be doing; I want to speak from my experiences and not others’.
- Be Your Own Devil’s Advocate
When my students need to talk to me about any problem, I do something very simple: I listen. As long as they are talking, I listen. When they are done talking, if there is something I want to understand better, I ask a question. Then, I continue to listen. I only share my opinions when the student explicitly asks me for one.
The problem with many white people right now is that we are not listening. Instead of hearing the other side of the issue and trying to understand the frustration and anger that people of color are experiencing, we are playing the devil’s advocate to an issue we have not tried playing the advocate to. The approach of the devil’s advocate is best used when you are on one side of the issue and want to see the other side. Instead, we see one side and then try even harder to support that side.
It is like looking at the optical illusion that shows a picture of a rabbit and a picture of a woman and refusing to see the woman. She is there, she can be perceived by many, but we are convinced the world can only be one (read: our) way.
If we are to truly be allies to our friends of color, we need to start playing the devil’s advocate to our own viewpoints and listen harder to the other side. Don’t play the other side of the argument unless you are asked to. It is—at best—disrespectful, and—at worst—very harmful. A little self-reflection could go a long way right now.
- Be Careful About Your Hashtags (And General Statements)
Here is a hashtag that is doing more harm than good: #AllLivesMatter. A few months back I posted a blog about Kanye and racism at the Grammys and used the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Some people told me to be careful about using hashtags that boost one group at the expense of others.
A large percentage of the minority population believes that their lives are not worth as much as white lives because people of color keep dying in situations where they should not. Now, think about the percentage of the majority population that believe their lives are not worth as much as black lives because they are excluded from a hashtag. Regardless of whether you think police brutality and systemic racism are a problem, a hashtag does not hold as much weight as a life. They are incomparable.
You don’t have to think that people of color are dying because of police brutality, but you do need to stop making general statements about who deserves what. I continue to see posts like “maybe if you weren’t doing anything wrong…” or “you are defending a man who did x, y, and z.” Here is the glaring problem with this argument: the white male who murdered people in a Colorado theater lived, the white male who openly carried an AK-47 around Ohio was not perceived as a threat to police, and the white male who murdered his entire family in Oregon not only lived, but James Franco just played him in a movie and he contributes to the New York Times from Death Row. He may be in prison for life until he is executed, but American society has deemed his voice still worthy of hearing.
This is not an argument about who deserves to die. If we deem that white people who do wrong deserve to live, we cannot excuse the death of black people who do not even make it to court to speak for themselves. Do not turn America into the Wild West and uphold your Constitutional right to bear arms but not someone else’s right to a fair trial. We are not cowboys on the Western frontier.
- Be Balanced
As an eighth grade English teacher, one of the state standards I am required to teach my students is to recognize and dissect bias in news articles. Every day when I visit Facebook or Twitter, I am reminded of why it is so important to teach children this seemingly simple concept. There are older adults who purport to be much wiser than me, and yet they believe they are right about issues simply because everything they read seems to tell them they are right. It is easy to be agreed with when you only seek out what agrees with you.
I do something in my class called a Socratic Seminar. Students read articles from opposing viewpoints and then dissect them by asking questions, debating the issue, and coming to new conclusions. If I notice that their conversation is starting to become an echo of each other, I stop them and say, “I didn’t ask you to sit here and pat each other on the back, saying, ‘Good opinion, bro.’ I asked you to debate an issue. Somebody disagree before I split the credit for one opinion amongst all of you.”
Too many of us have grown up to not recognize confirmation bias when we are playing right into it. We read the articles that confirm our opinions, watch the channels that affirm our ideas, and hang out with the people who allow us to continue believing what we already believed when we met them. It is a great way to maintain the status quo and never grow. In a satirical speech by Mark Twain, he tells children that if they try hard enough to build their character on the advice he has given (such as only lying if you’re good at it), they will “be surprised and gratified to see how nicely and sharply it resembles everybody else’s.” Stop trying to remain who you were when you got here, or like all your one-sided friends. Listen to a different opinion and refer to #1 before you disagree with it outright.
- Be an Activist, not a Slacktivist
Social media has power. If it weren’t for social media, our attention to these issues might have fizzled out a long time ago. Social media gives us a chance—if done right—to discuss the hard topics with people all over the globe.
That being said, it is just as easy to believe that sharing an article or opinion online is the same as doing something for the betterment of society. A voice is a powerful tool, but it needs hands and feet to do the work it preaches. I’ve a friend who has been at what seems like every protest since last summer. He goes to protest, but he does even more than that: he goes to be there for the people in need. This week alone he raised money to feed over 500 children in Baltimore.
In an age where we confuse liking a post with being an advocate for an idea, we need more people like him, the ones who will stand by cities amidst their turmoil. Whichever side of the issue you fall on, you can support the people in these cities who need you to do more than comment on their situations from afar. I am starting to wonder if we should have a rule in place that only allows you to state your opinion about an issue after you have done something beneficial for the people affected.
- Be Aware of and Uproot Racism
The argument that we are a post-racial society is (and has always been) a myth. It is ignorant to deny it at this point. It is also ignorant to pretend to be an ally by acting like you are above racism. Statements like “I’m not a racist,” “I have black friends,” “I don’t see color,” may be well-intentioned, but are ideas that only seek to protect yourself from guilt or self-reflection.
We have all been raised to hold prejudices, whether we learned them from our families, our environments, or mass media. Let’s drop the holier-than-thou act and stop acting like we have somehow personally conquered something as massive and complicated as racism. Our society is not above or beyond racism. We are in the thick of it. What we need is not people who proclaim to have overcome racism, but ones who recognize their prejudices, address them, and actively seek to be more anti-racist every day. It is better to acknowledge our racism and work against it than to uphold our racism without challenging it.
Celebrating the black mother who scolded her son for being at the protests can be perceived as agreeing with a person of color because they are using physical aggression toward another person of color, the very thing we swear the police are not doing. Criticizing people of color for violent riots and ignoring the Bloods and Crips who called a truce in order to maintain peace in Baltimore is an awfully unfair way to uphold stereotypes.
If I could offer a sixth piece of advice, I think that we should strive to be more for Baltimore, for Ferguson, for Chicago, for Freddie Gray and Jason Harrison and Terrance Kellum and Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and Michael Brown and Walter Scott and everyone else who is taken from this world too soon. Be more empathetic, be more loving, be more supportive, be more aware of what you are saying and how much you are listening. We owe that much to these and countless others. We owe it to our future.