I know I’m a few weeks behind the news cycle, but I’ve been thinking about that whole Rachel Dolezal thing.
As a white person, if you don’t have someone in your life who can say to you, “Oh, sweetie….NO…” when you go to get a perm and start darkening your skin, it’s possible you are not the ally you claim to be. Come to think of it, I’m not sure “ally” is a title that ought to be claimed. Aspired to, but not claimed. Bestowed, but not taken. But I digress.
The thing that I love most about Turk and J.D.’s friendship in Scrubs is that J.D. is so thoroughly ignorant sometimes. He is so clueless, and yet is able to care deeply about Turk because of the strength of their friendship. You can tell that these men have a full-on bromance (and off-screen, they do as well). Their friendship works because even though J.D. and Turk both have their own failings as people and are not afraid to call each other out sometimes, it’s always within the context of the fact that they clearly care about each other. Whatever happens, however they have to deal with one another to be heard (an important piece here is that it’s obvious they will be heard at some point), they show up for each other. Being an ally is not about never saying the wrong thing; it is about being willing to earnestly listen up when you do. It’s about being willing to keep trying.
One possible step forward in the current racial climate is for more white people to be willing to really accept criticism and correction, especially when it’s coming from black people (without getting defensive or saying things like, “I’m not a racist!” We get it. You didn’t own slaves. It’s not about that), and for more black people to be willing to use their energy and courage to confront us on our stuff (I get that this is hard because the conversation has gone so badly for so long). If Ms. Dolezal had someone in her life who could lovingly and gently sit on her until she promised not to “identify as black” any more, she might be in a very different situation now. After hearing about that whole mess, I reached out to a couple of trusted friends and asked, “If I ever talk about getting a perm, you’ll stage an intervention…right?”
If white people would seek to be true allies to people of color, it is essential that we are intentional about creating spaces with equal footing in our relationships. This doesn’t happen through posting articles to Facebook about (or even by) black people. This happens when we are face to face with a person, notice that they are uncomfortable, and listen instead of trying to gloss over their discomfort. The “I, Racist” article was spot on…far too much of the current conversation on race is spent in protecting white feelings. Jessica Williams was spot on when she pointed out that black people “need a white person to get their message out.” This is both frustrating and currently true.
Well, “if I may, I’m white…” And many white people could benefit from learning to listen well to the person of color right in front of them. It won’t fix everything, but it’s a start.