By NIRAN AL-AGBA, MD
Over Memorial Day weekend 13 years ago, my younger brother, Laith, died in an accident. He was 26 years old. Losing young people in their mid-20’s is particularly devastating because they are embarking on adulthood and their futures hold limitless hopes, dreams, and possibilities. For the survivors, no holiday brings the same joy as it did before. Someone is not there, and never will be.
Wanda Cooper-Jones, the mother of Ahmaud Arbery, has endured unbearable pain. Gregory and Trevor McMichaels shot and killed her son while he was running down the road. They were not arrested and charged with a crime until 74 days later. A third man, William Bryan, stood by and recorded the murder of Ahmaud Arbery on his cellphone for more than 4 minutes. 74 days passed before he was charged with committing a crime. The gruesome facts of this story have enraged me because I know a little something about the unrelenting grief associated with unexpected death.
My brother’s death was accidental, which made me incredibly sad. Wanda Cooper-Jones’ son was ruthlessly lynched and then this week George Floyd was killed in broad daylight by a police officer in Minneapolis, both of which make me unspeakably angry.
Enough is enough. This nation must stop tolerating lynching of black men and women. While racism is difficult to discuss, it is also necessary, valuable, and essential in order to bring about change. My previous column addressed white privilege and ever since, readers have been asking, “What now?”
Now, we need to become allies to people and communities of color.
But what does it mean exactly to be an ally?
First, we can listen more and talk less. There is no path to understanding without listening. If a person of color trusts you enough to share how discrimination and prejudice impacts them, stop talking. Listen. Watch. Learn. Tackling any problem requires awareness before action. White privilege can be a powerful tool for an ally to fight racial oppression. We must acknowledge privilege without asking for absolution of our guilt about having it. If these conversations make you uncomfortable, own those feelings. Be careful not to lend support just to make yourself feel good — this is not about you or me.
As allies, we can acknowledge the history of institutional racism in America: a system of structural advantage favoring whites over non-whites in social, political, health, and economic arenas. In truth, these are abuses of power artfully disguised as acceptable social constructs. This racial hierarchy was built and reinforced over many generations, making inequality based on race, gender, or ethnicity, profoundly systemic. Dismantling them requires invalidating arbitrary biases each of us hold about those who are different from us.
Reject pervasive stereotypes which do harm. Allies look for connections between racism, economics, and other forms of injustice, but poverty is not a defining characteristic of being black in America. The notion that racial disparity begins and ends with smaller black pocketbooks is incorrect. In fact, ample education and wealth cannot insulate black people against the harms of systemic racism.
Do your own work. Asking people of color to teach you more about racial discrimination burdens those in need of support. Educate yourself. It relieves people of color who are exhausted by fighting oppression alone.
Advancing the opinions and ideas of others is a way to contribute without taking up space. The role of an effective ally is not to speak for others, rather to remove impediments which prevent those who are marginalized from speaking for themselves.
Become comfortable with being uncomfortable in the pursuit of equity and justice. Talking about race can be challenging, but isn’t that the point? No amount of white discomfort can match the danger of being black in America. Remember that. Talk about racism, but resist the urge to take action on behalf of people of color without knowing what they need. Guard against being a savior to swoop in and fix communities of color. Their communities do not need fixing. Instead, amplify voices of color. Better yet, listen first and then amplify.
Endorsing racial equality often means taking a stand against injustice. Call out friends or colleagues on their racial bias, even when no one is watching. It can be disconcerting to do this, yet it is our moral obligation as citizens of a free and equitable society. Take the risk. Never let the sun set on the endorsement of racism by someone you know.
Never deny, minimize or justify racism. Whitesplaining — or advising a person of color on how to deal with oppression — is not helpful. Offering suggestions places the onus on those who are marginalized, as if they have not already worked to overcome racial injustice. Instead, ask how you can support the safety and health of people of color.
Finally, let us admit we all see color. Ignoring color is not the solution because seeing color isn’t the problem. The real issue is our conscious or subconscious action when we see color. Mellody Hobson, CEO of Ariel Investments, gave an inspiring TED talk about being color brave instead of color blind. She said, “We cannot afford to be color blind.” She is right.
Racism is the most divisive issue facing this country. The mere fact that 74 days elapsed between the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery and the arrest of the men who murdered him demonstrates how tightly racial discrimination is woven into the fabric of America. Whites becoming allies to communities and people of color is the way we can change the heart of our nation.
It is time for all of us to become color brave.