What Comes Next? Notes from An Ally, in Process…

This was not an easy piece to write. The following is not easy to share. But out of respect for the folks in my circles (the people in my life who blur lines between scholar/colleague/friend/family), for the larger populations and greater goods that I am committed to, and for myself, I’m here to share my truths with criticality and humility.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been residing in a safe space of privilege. I have remained rather silent and, on a few occasions, consciously chosen to disengage from what’s been going on when it’s inconvenient or something in my life feels more pressing (conference presentations, the holidays, doing observations at my dissertation site, moving into a new apartment, the list could go on). That’s privilege. The ability to do this–to choose if and when I want to think or talk about Michael Brown or Eric Garner or #BlackLivesMatter–is a privilege. 

Sidenote: As Francesca Ramsey explains, privilege doesn’t mean you’re rich, that you had an easy life, that you never had to struggle or work hard; rather, it describes “that there are some things in life that you will not experience or ever have to think about just because of who you are.” In her latest video, she offers five tips for being an ally–a person committed to fighting for the equality of marginalized groups that one is not a part of. If I thought it’d be more effective to transcribe every brilliant word she says in the piece, I would, but I think most of us would agree that a 3-minute engaging, to-the-point video is way better.

As a white person, a cisgendered female, of a high socioeconomic status, I do not experience many of the realities that have been at the center of recent events. I can go through entire days without once thinking about my race or how someone walking down the street is reading my body based on the color of my skin. I have grown up always feeling protected in the presence of authority figures, that my safety was their primary concern. I can afford to choose where I live, which is in a neighborhood with solid infrastructure, a plethora of options for food, clothes, household items, relatively safe streets. And while I may fall victim to street harassment, it happens infrequently; I am not feared or negatively judged because of my stature, physical features, and clothing in the same ways that men, and most often, men of color are walking down the block.

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Peaceful protesters march from Union Square to Times Square via Sixth Avenue (E. Bailin, 2014)

Peaceful protesters march from Union Square to Times Square via Sixth Avenue (E. Bailin, 2014)

To be clear, I’m not saying that I’ve been ignoring what’s happening either. I’ve read, and watched, and listened deeply and with a heavy heart and a pit in my stomach. And when I’ve come across a solid resource, open letter, conversation starter, or editorial, or event, I’ve shared widely on social media, via email, etc.I’ve watched hoards of peaceful protestors marching up and down Sixth Avenue (pictured below), also known as the Avenue of the Americas (just noticing the irony there), the drum of their chants reverberating between the apartments and office buildings that line the streets; lights flashing and car horns honking, as hands pop out of driver’s side windows in support; and a row of officers in riot gear trailing behind the masses, just in case. But I’ve been an uncharacteristically passive participant in the conversations and actions happening around the unrest and social movements since the death of Michael Brown in August. The truth of the matter is that I’ve been having a difficult time finding the words and my place to meaningfully and authentically articulate my thoughts because, in many ways, I feel like I’m on the outside looking in. I can’t seem to shake this stance of “It’s not my fight,” and that’s troubling to me. And I know how inaccurate and selfish that is–we should all be fighting this fight and as a self-proclaimed white ally, I want to (and know that I have a responsibility to) take on an active role working towards justice for all. But I think my hesitations to step forward, to stand on the ‘front lines’–both literal and figurative (in regards to Internet activism–are rooted in fear. I’m hyper-aware of the fact that my presence alone might reinforce the very thing I work so hard to be mindful and critical of everyday: my white privilege. The excerpt below is from an Instagram post by a woman of color getting ready for the Millions March in NYC this past Saturday:

“To our ‘allies’: […] today is not about you. Let us lead. You are most welcome in this space today, but please realize that for many of us, this is not a game or an Instagram opportunity; this is one aspect of our continued fight for our lives and our humanity. I am asking that you respect us and our space. #MillionsMarchNYC #BlackLivesMatter”

This is a powerful example of what’s been stirring in my gut, at the root of my hesitations or unknowingness of how to be involved in an authentic way. I know I am welcome at the march. I know I would be respectful and cognizant of voice, power and agency; but I’m also concerned about the white people attending the protests for the wrong reasons, who overtly exercise their white privilege, who misappropriate pieces of Black activist culture, who reinforce expectations and assumptions. I don’t want to be grouped with them. And so up until this point, I have identified with this ‘type’ of protestor:

Supporters who choose not to be on the frontline for personal reasons but will do their best to spread the good word so that the conversation keeps up its momentum. These folks have no intention of standing on a public soapbox. They show support in quieter, less conspicuous ways. Example: Your coworker in Accounting with the busy schedule who still finds time to share really awesome articles on your timeline (from Blue Telusma at The Grio, 12/8/14).

That said, there are three events that occurred in the last two weeks that have pushed me to finally engage in deeper self-reflection, serving as a reminder that to stay silent is to be complicit. It’s dangerous.

1) Two weeks ago a close friend, colleague, and fellow ally, Gabby (pseudonym), wrote a [wonderfully sincere and authentic] blog post consisting of a series of questions–big questions about social inequalities, the justice system, safety, education–that had been floating around in her head. After posting a link to her piece on Facebook, a few of her [white] friends and family members began to push back in the comments section. She made the important, but challenging, decision to respond hoping to open up a dialogue. When I saw her the following morning, she was frustrated and hurt not only by some of the opinions aired out on social media, but also for the ways in which the intention behind her blog post–simply to offer questions, not stand on a soapbox–had been lost upon a group of people close to her. I’d been having similar experiences in the previous weeks and, in conjunction with exercising the privilege to ‘turn it off’, I had failed to seek out someone (in this case I needed a white ally) to talk to about the shared experience of being a white person who can so clearly see the need to stand in solidarity and be in conversation with people of color, but also be struggling to find the common ground to even begin a conversation with other white folks. The details of Gabby’s Facebook triage aren’t important–they played out like many of the polarized conversations that we’ve all seen unfolding on social media in the last few months–what is important is that the follow-up conversation with Gabby served as a reminder that some of the hardest moments of being an ally are when confronted with the conflicting perspectives of the people you love most in this world. That said, and in my opinion, the work and expectations of an ally aren’t to re-indoctrinate people with what I feel is ‘correct;’ rather, the purpose is to challenge, to question, to push [white] people to engage in deeper and more meaningful reflections on how they’re positioned in this world and how that colors the way we understand other people and the world around us (pun intended).

2) Early last week I attended a screening of the new film, Selma (in theaters December 25), about the campaign for Black voter rights in the 1960s, led by Martin Luther King Jr. I was so moved and impressed by the performances from David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, the entire cast is incredible. But more importantly, throughout the film, there were moments, storylines, pieces of dialogue that could have been plucked from coverage and conversations about the events in Ferguson and New York City of late. To watch a recounting of the series of moments that led up to an incredible event in Civil Rights history– thousands of people marching from Selma, AL to Montgomery, AL in peaceful protest of unequal voting rights for Black Americans–was to bear witness to these jarring parallels of struggle and injustice and unrest between then and now. I recognize the potential naiveté of that statement. And while we may too often be reminded of the work that still needs to be done in fighting for the civil rights of all people, it’s not always relevant or constructive to compare events of the past to what’s happening now. When we do so, we risk conflating two unique movements and hindering current actions from developing within its present context.

Ava DuVernay and me after screening of "Selma" (12/9/14)

Ava DuVernay and me after screening of “Selma” (12/9/14)

Watching the film, I found myself outraged, heart-wrenched, and strangely, comforted. It never gets easier to re-witness events in our country’s history of physical, verbal and emotional violence towards people of color and I often struggle with the importance of telling such stories in Hollywood films as opposed to preserving archives and artifacts and oral histories from those present at the time and allowing the stories to tell themselves. And at the same time, in light of the outrage and unrest in the aftermath of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, I found solace in the reminder of how tightly tethered community organizing, activism, peaceful protests and marches are to Black American History. And while I must also account for the visceral effects of a multimodal text–the role that the images, the music, the words combined played in how I viewed, understood and internalized the text–it was successful in moving me, making me think, making me feel, like ‘good’ films should. In the Q&A after the film, director Ava DuVernay described the timing as “kismet.”

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963), Martin Luther King Jr. writes,

You may well ask, ‘Why direct action, why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue so that it can no longer be ignored […] There is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth.

3) And then last Thursday, a panel presentation and community dialogue, “Eric Garner: Analyses, Implications, and What Comes Next,” was held at Teachers College (TC). The event, co-hosted by The Vice President’s Office for Diversity and Community Affairs and the newly minted Civic Participation Project, was moderated by Dr. Chris Emdin, and the panel consisted of Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, and Jamila Lyiscott (all from Teachers College), and Dr. Randolph McLaughlin (Pace University). The description of the event read:

garner-event-flyer-revThe recent verdict in the Eric Garner case spotlights longstanding failures in what Attorney General Eric Holder has called “the sense of trust that must exist between law enforcement and the communities they are charged to serve and protect.” The implications of this verdict invite consideration and action on many levels, including criminal justice policies and procedures, the continuing legacy of American racism in the lives of Black men, and the roles played by contemporary systems and institutions in the perpetuation of racism. In this presentation, panelists will address the multifaceted implications of the Garner verdict and connect them to the current and future work of TC students and faculty. Opportunities for audience dialogue and action planning will close the presentation. You can read the Twitter conversation from the event here: #WhatComesNextTC

Attending the event, seeing many of the people who fall into the “circles” referred to in the beginning of the post, re-grounded me. After finishing my coursework last spring, I don’t have to be on campus as often and it’s easy for a week or two to pass before I find myself back in the hallways, writing and catching up with friends in the dining hall, attending meetings and events. Every time I return, I’m reminded of the support system that I’ve found at TC, and I promise myself to be better at getting up there for every event I can. This was one of those events. I won’t recap the entire thing, you can watch the live stream of the evening here, but I will mention a few highlights: For her presentation, Dr. Sealey-Ruiz read responses she received from colleagues, friends and family asking them to complete “What If…” statements. Wonderings included, “What if violence was the last resort instead of the first option?” “What if we policed Wall Street the same way we police our communities?” “What if schools provided a space for white, black, brown and multiracial people to talk about race?” She probably read about 50 questions, and they were so incredibly powerful. Jamila performed a spoken word poem about diasporic consciousness and facilitated my break-out group discussion after the panel. She embodies the role of scholar-activist with grace and grit. She is a leader and a fighter and I’m proud to call her a sister.


Dr. Chris Emdin

And Dr. Emdin moderated the panel, which we don’t often see him doing, “Because,” he explains, “I am not moderate.” He spoke about the “absence of recognition” at Teachers College in the moments following the decisions in the Brown and Garner cases; the experience of grieving in an unsupported environment as “feeling wounded in a space that you call home.” He told us that the purpose of the night’s event was to “do today what was missing then; to undo what we did wrong because as an institution, we should have had a collective response. For the Black students in particular, and for our allies, to know that your pain and anguish is recognized is significant […] There’s a failure of this institution and institutions like it to allow people to grieve in the ways that they know how; to be in the ways that they know how.” Yes, all lives matter, Chris tells us, “but tonight we are talking about the fact that Black lives matter and that fact that we have to be allowed to breathe. Of course this is about Eric Garner, but it’s not just about that case per se. We want to talk about all the instances in institutions like this where people have felt like they can’t breathe[…]” He goes on:

When I can’t give somebody a pound, and when I can’t talk about hip-hop; and I can’t be mad; and I can’t scream; and I can’t use the language that I use in my community in these spaces, you are choking out my humanity and I can’t breathe. Eric Garner is a symbol of a larger issue that we’re all dealing with. When we’re looking for justice in his case, and collective ongoing justice in our cases every single day. When we have to speak quietly and sit and cross our legs and wait for folks to clap after we speak, we are being choked. And I can’t breathe with those practices [sigh]. In a teachers college, an institution that was founded on ensuring that we prepare educators to meet the needs of the poor in New York City, our mission has to live with us everyday, and our mission needs to be expanded when circumstances change. We need to prepare teachers to be better, we have to be better…If we continue to choke each other because we don’t ascribe to the norms of the institution, if we refuse to allow people to no longer breathe, we are as responsible as the officers who were not indicted in the Garner case.

I’m going to leave that there. To hang for a moment. I don’t think it requires any further explanation, but I will say that these three individuals reignited something in me that night. They reminded me of the work that still needs to be done just within our institution’s walls. I saw people unhappy, angry, grieving, but coming together to dialogue and support and figure out ways to heal while moving forward. For the last 45 minutes of the evening, an audience of about 60 people divided into four break-out sessions, each one led by a panelist. Our prompt was to discuss in action-oriented ways, “What Comes Next” for Teachers College, and the question I raised in my small group was, “What comes next for allies in this work?”

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I think to call this a ‘confession’ would be misdirected. Some may feel that a confession–an admission or acknowledgment of something one is guilty of or embarrassed about–is precisely what this is, and more importantly, what is needed to move forward. But for me, guilt is valid only as a bi-product, not as a conclusive, exhaustive end. To label this a ‘confession,’ to stay in the space of guilt or embarrassment, would be to sanction inauthentic engagement in these conversations and vindicate my shortcomings. That’s not productive. Yes, this post is about me–it would be irresponsible to speak for anyone else–and it’s my hope that it may help to pull back the curtain on what the work(-in-progress) of a white ally can look like. I hope it might illustrate how messy and imperfect and scary it is to be vulnerable in spaces and conversations where I am often the racial minority, where the color of my skin holds powers and histories that I do not identify with, but also can never underestimate, forget or ignore. It is my hope that this reflection serves as an exercise to reaffirm my commitments as an ally while also working to illustrate the ways in which ally-ship can be challenging but so necessary. More than necessary, it is vital.

Photo from The Seattle Times

Photo from The Seattle Times

We know through painful experience that freedom in never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was ‘well-timed’ according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘wait.’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’ It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-informed infant of frustration. We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’ […} when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society […] when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued by inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodyness’ — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait (Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963, Letter from Birmingham Jail).

In process and in solidarity, always,