Courageous and intentional conversations around implicit bias and racism aimed at the black community have always taken place. These conversations were occurring long before the tragedies of George Floyd, Trayvon Martin and many others. As I scroll through the social media timelines and see so many new perceived allies of the black community, I can’t help but think, why now?
I am gratified by the recent public statements from leaders at small to large public and private universities and corporations conveying their support and pledging to stand by the black community to end racial injustices. Still, as I read, I wonder, what now?
As a higher education practitioner who has worked in many areas of student affairs since my undergrad years, I have poured out so many of my thoughts and feelings to the people on campuses who hold the influence and power to make final decisions concerning racial injustice, institutionalized racism, inequalities for all marginalized communities and more. And certainly, higher education institutions have addressed these issues in the past -- usually through programs and events hosted by the Office of Multicultural Affairs or Office of Equity and Inclusion or some similar part of the college or university. But black students, staff and faculty want and need more. So, again, I ask, what now?
I once personally shared with a white colleague of mine at an institution that we needed more conversations around racism as perceived by black students and staff members. I told them that, although many marginalized and underrepresented communities have experienced some form of prejudice or racism, historically no other group of people has been subjected to such hostilities and their continuing negative effects as much as black people. What my colleague said next was most troubling. They immediately responded, “This isn’t the office or department to have these conversations. Our white colleagues will feel attacked and won’t speak.”
I strongly disagree with that point of view. On the contrary, all offices, departments and university officials need to have these conversations as often as possible. Being white shouldn’t exclude one’s involvement in critical discussions around race. Being black doesn’t exclude us from being hated, discriminated against, physically harmed and seen as unequal based on the color of our skin.
So while it’s great that the black community has more professed allies now than ever, it’s important for all of us to consider what a true ally of an underrepresented community actually is. Are allies just going to go hard in the paint on social media and virtually combat bigotry and racism so their racist friends can see and debate them? Well, it’s a start. Are our allies going to step up to the plate at town halls, our institutions and staff meetings and speak out on behalf of the unheard? Are they going to demand changes in policies and more trainings, funding and social and educational programs to support the black community -- what members of that community and many others on and off the campuses that have sought, and fought for, for so long?
These types of conversations must happen expeditiously and effectively. For those of you willing to be part of them, here are some helpful tips and strategies to become an ally beyond simply posting on Facebook.
Attend multiple (consistency is key) cultural student organization meetings. Black student unions, black student success centers and black male/female initiative programs offer spaces for the sole purpose of creating comfortable, supportive environments to foster community and engagement for black students with peers who look like them. Not sure where to start at your own institution? Go to your campus’s student-led organizations’ general webpage and find these communities. Or contact the diversity and inclusion office and inquire about contact information and/or meeting times and locations.
Partner with the diversity office or inclusion coordinator on your campus. Work to create opportunities for all people to converse and be informed about and challenged on the topics of race, gender, intersectionality and police brutality. Don’t try to lead these conversations -- it’s important for an ally to listen and learn. But you can become a part of the support system by helping plan and/or advertise the program. Trust me, that will go a long way.
Watch films and documentaries that highlight racial inequality and discrimination. To start, I’ll list a few of my favorites: When They See Us, 13th, Dear White People, Fruitvale Station, Just Mercy and The Hate U Give.
Now here’s the challenge. Talk with a black friend about these movies and shows. Share your perspective and allow your black friend to do the same. Please don’t make it awkward when bringing it up! For example, one way you can ask a friend to talk about it is to say, “Hey, I wanted to start to learn more about racial inequality against the black community and was encouraged to watch some of these programs. Would you be interested and comfortable having a conversation about it after I finish?” Sorry, I have to spell out how to do this but, unfortunately, I've learned from experience that nonblack people struggle with communicating effectively with their black friends more often than you think.
Continue to call out racism and bigotry through social media. This shouldn’t be the only action you take, but as I mentioned, it’s at least a start. If you’ve started speaking out against racism, then don’t stop! Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd were not the first victims of racism and will not be the last. We want you to continue to speak up and speak out to fight this war with us. Are you ready for the long battle?
Organize group talks to discuss race, social injustices and the role privilege plays in the fight for racial justice. Creating spaces for nonblack people to come together to share perspectives and learn how to support the black community is a great way to build and expand alliances. Black people constantly talk about race and how their blackness can be a beacon of change on and off campuses -- in their families, communities, churches and other organizations. It’s time for white people and other groups who have certain privileges based on the color of their skin and family history to start these community talks to explore their racial identity and the impact it has on our nation. That will provide a space to challenge and inform your peers about racist systems built to hold black people back. I have provided some sources below that can provide insights about how to start these types of conversations.
Review articles and other resources on the issues. Some of those include: “Becoming an Anti-Racist White Ally,” a tool kit on “Navigating the Conflict Zone and Becoming an Ally,” “Empathy and Being an Ally,” and “What Is an Ally?” ACPA, College Student Educators International, also provides resources on Black Lives Matter. And the African American Historical Society’s Black Perspectives offers numerous relevant articles, including “Black Lives Matter, Black Power and the Role of White Allies.”
I refuse to be clichéd and write “In conclusion” at this point, because this is only the beginning. Please take this fight seriously. Black people have lived through this emotional, mental and physical abuse for far too long. Our communities are changing for the better and growing stronger to combat the hate we received from the start of our existence in this country.
You’re welcome to join the struggle, but are you ready? So as you navigate these new opportunities through allyship, I challenge you to ask yourself the two questions that I raised at the beginning: Why now? And what now?