The protests in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore last year shook up the fabric of American race relations as we currently know them—at least for those of us who were listening. To dissect what transpired in the protests is to split hairs. The fact that the protests occurred at all is evidence enough that we have a race problem here in America, and reverberations of what happened last year in response to the murders of unarmed black youth are still being felt strongly today. The question I grappled with while seeing the newsreels on Trayvon Martin and the Ferguson protests, was “How can I, a white person, do anything of value to help?” This was not my lived experience, and no matter how much sympathy or anger I felt about it, there was no way for me to really, truly relate. What right did I have to enter this discourse?
We hear the term “ally” thrown around in the midst of these movements often; it was something I’d heard many times in relation to LGBT advocacy groups—to be an “ally”—but not something I’d considered in relationship to racial justice. As far as “allies” went, I’d heard friends and others criticize figures like Lady Gaga, who some felt was co-opting the LGBT rights movement and making herself the locus of the conversation.
Because this question had troubled me for some time, I decided to reach out to a Black Lives Matter activist who I had been following on YouTube, and explained to her my reservations. I then asked her directly: What does it mean to be an ally? This was her response:
A lot of white people ask me this kind of question. I think the best way to be an ally is to listen and prop up marginalized voices, not center yourself in the conversation. I also think a huge part of being an ally is using your privilege to enter into certain spaces and make marginalized groups visible and heard, and also to have conversations with other privileged people about whats going on.
In other words, to be a white ally, or an ally in general, is to, in a sense, be acquiescent; to be open to hearing others; to listen. That, I believe, is the foremost component of being an ally—to recognize that this isn’t about me, and to be ready and willing to listen to what those who it is about have to say. Second to that, is to utilize my prerogative in order to encourage the discourse. In reading and reviewing submissions here at CURA, we are listening; and moreover, in publishing them, we are helping make marginalized voices heard. We are, in that sense, allies.
As a white person who has been reared in a society in which white people inherently have the benefit of the doubt, I think it is often difficult to see what is right in front of my face because I am consistently shielded from it. Likewise, in a culture in which white narratives and voices prevail, white people carry an unconscious perception that the dialogue is centered around us—and the first step we need to take as allies is to recognize that that is inherently wrong.
~ Scott Harn