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A Beginner’s Guide to Becoming an Ally to the Black Community

culture and society

Lately it seems like we haven’t gone two weeks without a high-profile event regarding race getting kicked up in the media. And while a lot of people I know who are passionate about social justice get vocal about it, a number of people around me are surprisingly silent. The silence came up recently among a group of friends, and the general response was “I want to do something, but 1) I don’t know how or where to start. 2) I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing. 3) I don’t understand ______.”

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Until I made a deliberate move to dig in and start figuring it all out for me, I did much of the same. Here’s a gentle primer (from an expert on absolutely nothing, so take it all with a pinch of salt — and feel free to add to it) on what you can do to become an ally to the black community and help eradicate racism.

1. We can stop telling racist jokes, and we can stop laughing at racist jokes. The one about the mom with five kids, all with different last names? The one about afros? The one about fried chicken? The one about the guy with the iPhone in the unemployment line?

It may seem soft, everyday, or subtle, but even micro-aggressions are damaging. Imagine if that one seemingly well-meaning guy who told that mildly racist joke for the humor value was met with blank expressions. :| :| :|

2. We can temper the knee-jerk reaction to be offended and do a little research. A few years back, I was at a conference that was for work and simultaneously celebrated diversity. It was a mixed crowd, but white people were definitely in the minority. I spotted a man walking around wearing a t-shirt that declared “I love black women.”

My initial response was to be offended. Black women? What about everyone else? Does he consider me less-than because I’m not black? I was so intimidated that I didn’t even ask questions.

But now, I get it. I get #blacklivesmatter and I get #blackgirlsrock and I get “I love black women.” Not only do I get it, I support it.

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Saying black lives matter isn’t saying that other lives don’t matter. Declaring that black girls rock is celebratory, not exclusive. We have to say these things because our country statistically does not believe that black lives matter. Our country historically does not celebrate black girls. Our society doesn’t consider black women to be the preferred aesthetic. And if one needs proof, google the words “pretty girl” or “beautiful woman” and see how long you scroll before finding a photo of a black girl.

“Remember when girls used to walk around in that Urban Outfitters tee that says ‘Everyone loves an Italian girl?'” a friend asked me. “That’s how I feel. I’m proud to be black, just like people are proud to be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.”

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3. We can understand that black people face struggles that we do not. We can come to terms with the fact that racism is getting better, but it still exists and it creates challenges for black people that white people do not face.

They fear for their sons’ well-being. They have people cross the street to avoid them. They have to appropriate themselves for their own personal safety. They get pulled over 31% more than white drivers do. They deal with discrimination, racism, and stereotypes.

+ Black Woman Poses as a White Woman to Get Job Offers  From the comments: This “experiment” has been done many times before with the same results – send in the exact same resume but with one name Tamika Brown and one name Tracy Brown and Tracy gets the interview 38% more often than Tamika.

+ Affected  Karen (black) and her husband Marcus (white) have vastly different experiences living in their suburban neighborhood.

4. We can diversify our media. Check out what people of color are writing, speaking, and tweeting. Intentionally seeking out narratives from people who do not look like us is a killer to ignorance and apathy.

As an example, Humans of New York is my favorite thing on Facebook. NYC is so diverse and has so many immigrants. Brandon Stanton shares their stories beautifully, and it’s amazing to read the comments and see how much empathy they evoke.

You can check out websites like Huff Post Black Voices, Awesomely Luvvie, The Root, The Grio, and sooo many more. BuzzFeed video also produces some really interesting (and sometimes humorous) videos about race.

5. We can teach our children about race. “Normalize” different cultures in our own homes. I used to think that as years pass, society will become less racist. At some point, grandparents who use the n-word will no longer be with us. At some point, middle-aged dads will no longer declare to their daughters that they better not try to date any black boys. But realistically, racism knows no parameters of age, gender, socioeconomic status, etc, so it’s important to teach our children about equality.

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Read them books about race and books featuring children with different backgrounds. Give them multiracial toys. Let them listen to a variety of music. Some book suggestions: (These are affiliate links, and any proceeds will go to Black Girls Rock!, Inc.)

+ I Am Rosa Parks
+ I Am Jackie Robinson
+ I Am Martin Luther King Jr.
+ Chocolate Me
+ The Skin You Live In
+ I Love My Hair
+ Big Hair, Don’t Care
+ Full, Full, Full of Love

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6. We can make black friends. I know this may seem disingenuous. I’m not suggesting you start a Tinder-esque hunt to fill your quota, but simply to think about the community around you. Are you drawn to people who look like you? Totally normal. But have you (unconsciously, maybe) not pursued relationships with black people in your area? Invite someone out for coffee. Visit a black church (if visiting a church is in your comfort zone). Arrange a playdate for your kids. Not because you feel guilty, but because having a diverse group of friends will enhance your life, expand your worldview, and allow you to pick up more interesting recipes. ;)

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7. We can stop making an anecdotal experience discount what we’re learning about race. “But black people are racist against ME.” “But racism goes both ways.” “This black girl on my street stole the double stroller parked in my driveway.”

Sometimes people are jerks, regardless of color. Just keep listening + learning, and don’t let a personal experience stop you from doing so.

8. We can start dialogue. I know this is wild, and people generally consider Facebook to be a little bit of a cesspool, but stay with me on this one. Twenty years ago, if you wanted to talk to a couple hundred people you knew about race, you’d have to call them on the phone or have tense dinner parties in groups of eight in order to do so.

I have learned so much on Facebook and Twitter about race over the past year alone. I have a relatively diverse group of friends (and I follow a diverse group of people and news outlets), and am appreciative of articles shared and discussions started.

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The key, I’ve found, is to pace yourself, have an open mind, and avoid being combative. Polite, open discourse is fantastic, and sometimes a friend who is feeling ambivalent about speaking about injustice just needs to see that someone else was brave enough to start the conversation. Your bravery gives others courage, as trite as that may sound.

It’s okay to tell someone that their racist joke sucks. It’s okay to declare that you believe black lives matter. And it’s okay to not have all the answers. Being willing to learn and listen to other narratives challenges ignorance, increases empathy, and moves us to action.

(photos courtesy FlickrRyan, Amanda, Christina, A’Driane)

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34 Comments

  • Reply Sunnie June 23, 2015 at 12:39 am

    Totally agree about following and reading material from diverse viewpoints. I’ve learned so much from reading about the experiences of people who are different from me. Listening is really the beginning of empathy. I’ve never found social media a great tool for “conversation” (which may be because I just don’t use it much) but it’s a great way to learn from and become connected with a wider variety of people and perspectives than you may come across just in your home town.

  • Reply Cassandra June 23, 2015 at 12:49 am

    Thank you, Roo. For another thoughtful, insightful, meaningful post. I am really interested in this new wave of media on black people. I hear stories and it doesn’t seem real, you know? That people still think so one track. But I love your suggestions here, on how I can be a voice and make a difference, even living in my very white neighborhood. I’m proud to be a friend,a supporter and someone for changing the way we treat people. We are ALL people.

  • Reply Kirby June 23, 2015 at 6:41 am

    Happy Hair Girl
    Cupcake Jones Books

    Those are two to add to your list. They are written by black woman for their daughters. My daughters LOVE them!

    This was well written and helpful.

    Thank You Roo!

  • Reply Lindsay June 23, 2015 at 8:48 am

    10/10. Would highly recommend.

    :)

  • Reply Aya June 23, 2015 at 10:11 am

    Amazing post Roo. I hope this goes viral.

  • Reply Leslie June 23, 2015 at 1:42 pm

    Amazing post! I am a black woman/wife and mother. I have a BS in electrical engineering and a MBA. I live in a suburb of CT with my husband, two handsome sons and beautiful daughter. My oldest son just graduated from college and my younger son will be going to college in the fall. I said all of that because I am just like you. I want the best for my children and want them to grow up. I was going to say more but, I. Just. Want. Them. To. Grow. Up. I spend too many days worrying that someone is going to hurt them just because of the color of their skin. Roo, thank you for this post. I too hope that it will go viral.

    • Reply MichelleLG June 25, 2015 at 9:30 pm

      Leslie, I am desperately sad that mothers of back children are made to fear for their babies lives (over an above the common fear experience of mothers). You fear is real, legitimate, and rational. I am afraid with you, for your kids and for all young black lives, and I am praying for and want to act for change.

      • Reply Leslie June 25, 2015 at 10:06 pm

        Thank you MICHELLELG! ?

      • Reply k July 7, 2016 at 9:59 am

        You hit it on the head here Michelle: “Your fear is real, legitimate, and rational.”
        (And it’s so not okay that this is the truth for so many in this country that claims to celebrate diversity)

  • Reply RookieMom Heather June 23, 2015 at 3:27 pm

    Thanks, Roo! I’m going to share your words and buy some books.

  • Reply KNatGU June 23, 2015 at 4:10 pm

    One of my high school teachers taught us to leave race out of our stories. That adding this detailed, turns an anecdotal story about a life experience related to the few people involved, into a racist story. (IE) I was walking down a street and a man approaching me, is better than I was walking down the street and a [Race] man approached me. All these years later, I still think of that lesson.

  • Reply Tonia L. Clark June 23, 2015 at 5:58 pm

    #2 is the one I see the most prevalent in social media. That knee jerk reaction people have that by qualifying one life you are disqualifying another.
    When my kids were younger, If I told my son how cute and adorable he is and my daughter (who constantly hears how pretty and cute she is) chimed in “What about ME?! Aren’t I cute too?!” I would tell her that my saying how cute her brother is doesn’t make her any LESS cute, she just is and she’s told that by me and several others frequently. Yet she felt somehow that took away from her cuteness by calling her brother cute too. She wanted to be the ONLY cute one.
    My point? All lives matter because we are all children of God. The whole point of #BlackLivesMatter is not to take away from white lives but to help us understand that black lives matter as well as white lives. That supporting the black community doesn’t mean that we hate white lives, it means we support humanity and being humane.
    If a man abuses a woman
    By letting us know how badly they are treated by some policemen doesn’t mean ALL policemen are racists. It means they want us to know that they fear for the lives by the same people who we expect to protect us and what can WE do to help? They feel helpless just as you would if you were treated this way every day of your life.
    Yes the media makes things look worse than they really are, but that doesn’t mean these things aren’t actually happening.
    I would rather my children grow up in a world where we are seen for who we are as individuals based on our individual actions and not lumped into a blanket statement regardless of race, gender or religious beliefs.

  • Reply Kiley June 24, 2015 at 9:15 am

    This was absolutely beautiful! I grew up in a mixed race household and am biracial. My children are also biracial. I have struggled with ignorance and racism from both blacks and whites (including family members) throughout my life. Instead of being bitter, i am so thankful for that experience, because i belive it has shaped me into who i am. All lives matter, regardless of race, color, religion, gender, sexuality, etc… and i can take what i’ve learned and teach my children how to grow up to be accepting, compassioante, loving individuals. I want my daughter to know she is beautiful and love her hair, even though it does not look like queen Elsa’s… and my son to know that he doesn’t have to try to fit-in with either the “white crowd” or the “black crowd”, because he doesn’t have to choose a side… This issue is so so important and you were the perfect person to address it! Thank you!

  • Reply Coffee Break: June 24th June 24, 2015 at 2:01 pm

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  • Reply Lisa Keys June 25, 2015 at 12:40 pm

    thoughtful post…I would also suggest that people get into the habit of practicing self-compassion….when one can love themselves they will stop putting down others to elevate themselves

  • Reply Kristina June 25, 2015 at 1:49 pm

    I’ve found this How to Be a Good Ally list helpful for years. It’s not always comfortable, but it’s always necessary, and we can work on checking our privileges together.

    http://theangryblackwoman.com/2009/10/01/the-dos-and-donts-of-being-a-good-ally/

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  • Reply Elisa August 8, 2015 at 3:32 am

    There needs to be more voices like yours; we create change within our own communities. So, go on & keep doing your thing. :)
    PS: You just inspired me to write a similar blog post, but for how Asian-Americans can be allies…. I’m gonna get that one drafted ASAP!

  • Reply Ivy A Nguyen October 3, 2015 at 1:51 pm

    About your 2nd point, might you be based in the Philly, NYC, or DC areas? I own 7 ‘I Love Black Women’ t-shirts (different colours) & wear one every time I go out to class or into the centre of Philly for events, errands, etc. Recently I have worn them on trips, too. I started buying them in October of 2014 & made a point of wearing it to class on Election Day with my ‘I Voted’ sticker on it last year. You may have seen me in them before.

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  • Reply Juanita Ali- Smith July 7, 2016 at 1:08 pm

    I went through the experience of riding on the back of the bus, having to sit in the balcony at the move theater, going through the back door with Mom when she went to clean homes. I remember the young white women that she cleaned for calling her by her first name. I use to get so angry because I felt that was so disrespectful to my Mom. I was raised in a household where we were taught to respect those older than us.I went to a all black school, there were times we shared seats. We had all black teachers and they did a awesome job of teaching us our history . Its so sad. I am so happy I found this sit. Its always good to know that black lives matter to more than just black people. Keep up the good work.

  • Reply ALEXA July 7, 2016 at 7:47 pm

    Yes! And yes some more! The only thing that truly can change a person’s heart is exposure, interaction, and education. This is such a phenomenal post, I am sharing everywhere!

  • Reply Melissa July 7, 2016 at 8:01 pm

    Thank you SO much for this post. I’ve read it multiple times and I’ve gotten hope and tears each time. The compassion you have on either end is much appreciated and so constructive, it offers a way to move forward and make progress. I can’t thank you enough.

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  • Reply Melissa July 10, 2016 at 3:48 pm

    From a 30-something white woman in Baton Rouge, where Alton Sterling was killed & where protests have been going on all weekend – THANK YOU. I love & respect our police & I know ways to show them I do. But I have been asking my husband, How can I show black people that I love & respect them also? How can I show the 2 black families in our predominantly white neighborhood that they are welcome here? This article helps so much. ❤️

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