In light of the horrific shootings last week of black men by police officers, we have been thinking, with heavy hearts, about the work that we do. We are psychotherapists in New York City who also facilitate anti-racism trainings, and conduct research around topics of racism and education. This is a time of mourning and anger. For a lot of people, it’s also a confusing time as we try to make sense of these events and understand our role.
Earlier this year we wrote for Quartz offering advice to white people about how to listen to topics about racism. This is a follow-up.
The two main questions we get from white people in our anti-racism training, and particularly after incidents of police violence against men of color, are “What can I do as an ally?” and “Why are we talking about microaggressions when people are dying?”
Both of these questions are natural and compassionate responses to these events. However, the first is problematic for two reasons. In asking what we can do to help, we put the onus on those affected to train and educate us. In effect, it’s an extension and implementation of our privilege. Rather, being an ally is about listening to those willing to share their experience, studying and learning from the resources available, and then sharing that message in white spaces with white people.
There are resources: loads of writings like ours, trainings like Undoing Racism, Jane Elliott’s Blue Eyes Brown Eyes Exercise, Robin DiAngelo’s Trainings, and materials from Teaching Tolerance, all of which could be sourced before we look to people of color to teach us.
Asking people of color what we can do as an ally also risks playing the part of the “white savior”—a historically significant term referencing the repeated narrative of race relations in which a white person comes to the rescue, saving the person of color from their plight. It neglects the fact that people of color have their own leaders, and it implies that they are incompetent and helpless. It’s a theme continuously repeated in film and joked about on Instagram.
This concept is most clearly seen—on both the national to interpersonal levels—when the truth of the minority experience isn’t believed until a person with a power identity (i.e., a straight, white, cis-gender man) speaks to it. Police violence against black men has been a problem in the United States for decades, but it has only recently become a national issue with the advent of cell phone video and social media. In short, it was not recognized on a national level until it was seen by white eyes.
To be an ally we need to listen and trust what we are hearing even when it doesn’t fit into our worldview or personal experience and to be grateful that someone is sharing their experience with us, because they don’t have to. It’s not people of color’s job to teach us and they’ve likely faced a lot of doubt and invalidation of their experience in the past, so being open goes a long way.
The truth is, an ally is easy to spot. It’s not necessarily in your actions or speech. An ally is simply a person who acknowledges that there is a system of privilege and oppression functioning through institutions and culture, that they are participating in, benefiting from, and inevitably perpetuating.
In the US, there is a history of systematically denying people of color access to land and housing, and, thus, wealth and physically denying them access to spaces and resources. Although the modern manifestation of this practice is much more subtle, it has a significant impact on our culture and society, including the events of last week.
Acknowledging this history and the contemporary manifestation of it is the first step to allyship. The second is to accept that you play a part in it. Not intentionally or happily, but inevitably: White people benefit from privilege.
Which leads to the second question: Why talk about microaggressions when people are dying?
Microaggressions are the brief, everyday, verbal, nonverbal or environmental slights, snubs and insults—whether intentional or unintentional—that communicate a derogatory or negative message specifically targeting a person’s minority group membership. And, in response to that question, we hear you.
It sometimes feel like the band playing as the Titanic went down. But it’s these everyday slights that chip away at a person’s dignity and our sense of their humanity. It’s why, as a society and as individuals, we can treat people as less-than equal because of their race, gender, sexuality, religion, socioeconomic class, etc.
Living in the United States, there are far too many messages that men of color are dangerous, these portrayals cultivate our unconscious bias. These unconscious biases allow us all to perpetuate microaggressions without meaning to, or even being aware that we have done so. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle: negative images of people of color fuel (and are sourced from) stereotypes which cultivate unconscious bias, causing microaggressions, which allow us to see individuals as less-than based on their identity (or merely, their physical features), which goes back to the beginning, perpetuating their representation in the media.
We can heal this cycle by counteracting our unconscious bias. How can we do this? By simply exposing ourselves to more realistic images of black men. You can choose to spend more time in spaces where you are a minority (e.g., explore Harlem, check out AfroPunk, etc.) and take note of how you aren’t harassed or mugged. Or, you could simply edit your Instagram feed and follow some really cool men of color (e.g., @pegues_i @jovelroystan @bennyharlem @roophyroy) because the media isn’t going to help you expose yourself to these types of positive images.
In our workshops, we talk about microaggressions in order to develop awareness of the self and others; to work to heal the trauma of experiencing bias; and to become aware of how we are perpetuating it. By talking about these subjects we normalize these topics and lower our stress response to words like “privilege” and “oppression” so we can ultimately become allies.
We are well-meaning people who want change, but likely the solution to this problem is not a single action, just as the problem does not have a simple explanation or manifestation.
Racism is deeply ingrained in our history and we are not going to uproot it overnight. Opening ourselves to others’ experiences, countering negative images of men of color in the media, and supporting representation of people of color in politics, finance and education, and even our Instagram, can go a long way in creating meaningful change.