So here we are, and its almost March. Another Black History Month has passed, and if you paid attention maybe you learned a little history about various African American personalities and have more knowledge about what people of color have offered to our world. I am here to ask that we do more than just be spectators.
We live in one of the more integrated cities in America. Integrated, but not inclusive. I wonder – how often do you sit down to dinner with humans of another race, in your own home, or in theirs? Are your interactions with people of another color just through work, or other situations that are out of your control? If you are “white,” and you have children, do you have your child’s friends of color over to your house for sleepovers? More importantly, do you allow your child to go to theirs? Do you still find yourself holding your bag more tightly when you meet a “black” man on the street, or find yourself avoiding eye contact with the person asking you for money at the entrance to the pharmacy or the gas station?
If you haven’t figured it out by now, my call to action is that we make a better effort to connect with one another. We can shuck and jive all day at work or in line at the grocery store, but to make a real change in our world, it must first begin in our hearts. We must open up and be willing to be vulnerable. We must take chances. We must reach out, and be willing to be rejected. We must bravely trust, even though the evidence indicates that might be pretty foolish. Given the state of things, and the history of how people of color have been treated in our country since its start, its understandable that there will be some deep trust issues to discuss in this endeavor.
And if you want to help, but you’re not sure what to do, back in 2006 Paul Kivel put together a resource called Guidelines for Being Strong White Allies:
Every situation is different and calls for critical thinking about how to make a difference.
1. Assume racism is everywhere, every day. Just as economics influences everything we do, just as gender and gender politics influence everything we do, assume that racism is affecting your daily life. We assume this because it’s true, and because a privilege of being white is the freedom to not deal with racism all the time. We have to learn to see the effect that racism has. Notice who speaks, what is said, how things are done and described. Notice who isn’t present when racist talk occurs. Notice code words for race, and the implications of the policies, patterns, and comments that are being expressed. You already notice the skin color of everyone you meet—now notice what difference it makes.
2. Notice who is the center of attention and who is the center of power. Racism works by directing violence and blame toward people of color and consolidating power and privilege for white people.
3. Notice how racism is denied, minimized, and justified.
4. Understand and learn from the history of whiteness and racism. Notice how racism has changed over time and how it has subverted or resisted challenges. Study the tactics that have worked effectively against it.
5. Understand the connections between racism, economic issues, sexism, and other forms of injustice.
6. Take a stand against injustice. Take risks. It is scary, difficult, and may bring up feelings of inadequacy, lack of selfconfidence, indecision, or fear of making mistakes, but ultimately it is the only healthy and moral human thing to do. Intervene in situations where racism is being passed on.
7. Be strategic. Decide what is important to challenge and what’s not. Think about strategy in particular situations. Attack the source of power.
8. Don’t confuse a battle with the war. Behind particular incidents and interactions are larger patterns. Racism is flexible and adaptable. There will be gains and losses in the struggle for justice and equality.
9. Don’t call names or be personally abusive. Since power is often defined as power over others—the ability to abuse or control people—it is easy to become abusive ourselves. However, we usually end up abusing people who have less power than we do because it is less dangerous. Attacking people doesn’t address the systemic nature of racism and inequality.
10. Support the leadership of people of color. Do this consistently, but not uncritically.
11. Learn something about the history of white people who have worked for racial justice. There is a long history of white people who have fought for racial justice. Their stories can inspire and sustain you.
12. Don’t do it alone. You will not end racism by yourself. We can do it if we work together. Build support, set up networks, and work with already established groups.
13. Talk with your children and other young people about racism.
Years ago I heard Thich Nhat Hanh speak at the Shell, before it got its fancy renovation. He spoke of how we can change the world. He said it starts within our hearts, and works out from there. From our hearts, to our home, to our neighbors, to our community, to our city, to our country, to other nations, to the world. He made clear that we must treat anyone who is angry or hurting as if they are a crying infant – not in an “infantilizing” way – but rather, in the sense that if you hear a newborn crying, FIRST you pick the baby up and hold her and love her, THEN try to find out what is wrong and address it. The love comes first, the solution comes next. The solution is impossible without love.
In reaching out and trying to connect with people that are supposedly different than us, we must be patient. If you are “white” and heterosexual, as I am, it is particularly important to remember that people of different races, different sexual preferences or gender identities, different than Christian religions, and different ethnicities – these humans don’t have many good reasons to trust you. Or me. We cannot expect oppressed people to jump at the chance to be mistreated once again. But what we can do is reach out, be patient, and hold a space for the communion to happen in some shape or form.
Once that does happen, the most important thing to do is listen. Ahh, listening. Such a challenge. For my entire adult life, my father and I have had diametrically opposed politics. We have argued, and as a result we have not spoken for long stretches. I have made vows to myself to not discuss politics to avoid rifts in our relationship, so I can focus on the loving. But he wants to discuss these things, so recently I just began to listen. Instead of fighting my corner, defending my viewpoint, or making some great point – I just get quiet and let him talk. (This is no small task.) An amazing thing has happened. As a result of me listening, our conversations have morphed into an exploration of these issues – a dialogue – instead of a debate or an argument that risks anger and hurt and disconnection. It turns out that we are more alike than either of us thought – perhaps not yet on a ballot box level – but most certainly on a human level. We have become closer, more connected. There is more love. And that’s what really matters, yes?
Memphis – I ask that we extend our hands and hearts to one another, even though it can be fraught with so much deep baggage from our history. It may be looking that man in the eye as he passes you on the street and nodding at him, acknowledging his humanity. It may be taking more time to listen to your co-worker about her kids. It may be asking someone to dinner who you would not normally think to invite. It might be making sure your own children are aware of the disparities in this world, and making sure you see no difference in where they spend the night. It might be buying a home in an area that might make some raise their eyebrows. It can be any number of things. And it will be unique to each situation. Start small, and just keep going.
It definitely means being vulnerable. It absolutely means there will be mistakes, and mis-steps, but if we keep clear on the fact that we are all here to share this city, and we all want it to be a better home, then the tension and the hurdles on the path are clearly worth it. We are all fallible humans who deserve the safe space to learn and grow.
Our history directly affects our present. Our history is rich with lessons, and our present must be inclusive if we hope to have a better future for all of us. The shortest and surest path to this is with individual human connection. This connection will reverberate throughout our neighborhoods, our city, our nation, our world. With humility and this greater goal in mind, with each step we will make Memphis – and the world – the dream we all know can become our living reality.
Lorin Vincent is a mother, singer, songwriter, DJ and owner of Harmony Home Management.