The difficult thing about being an ally is that it requires real, look-deep-into-your-soul work.
It’s easy to do little things we’re proud of here and there. But these things should really be a baseline for human decency, not gold-star events we use to assure ourselves we’re one of the “good ones” (Kiese Laymon explores this idea in Heavy as he works on both developing his allyship situated in intersectional feminism and holding onto his humanity as he navigates New York in a post 9/11 state—though not both at the same time). It’s harder to dig down into the racism and/or misogyny and/or homophobia…xenophobia…transphobia… ablism… that we’ve inhaled like oxygen.
Recently, I’ve given up trying to have all the answers to anything. It’s freeing. And a matter of self-preservation.
I’ve spent the vast majority of my life trying to hide any crack in the facade of my omnipotence. Really. To be wrong (to me) was a hair’s breadth away from a complete, catastrophic moral failure.
But, if my goal is to be an antiracist—not just as a badge I stick on my person for a nod & a smile from other white liberals but as a way of being that goes to the core not only of my actions but my beliefs and my ideas/thoughts—I’m going to be wrong a lot. A whole hell of a lot.
Being afraid to ever be wrong just keeps me stuck. And that stuckness has heavy consequences for other folks.
I recently encountered two other books (in addition to Heavy) that spoke to the places I need to grow, because the authors (both women of color) were so forthright about the times they’d been short sighted, ignorant, and/or cringeworthy regarding race or queerness. They situated themselves in the conversation without making the conversation about them. Even when the book was, in large part, about them.*
For me, these texts illustrated how much I still have to learn about positioning myself in a conversation—instead of just opting to not speak in favor of “listening.*” Because listening has become code for I’m-not-going-to-say-a-damn-word-because-I-might-be-wrong. And while that might keep me from the sting of being corrected (deep down, I remain the kid that teared up every time a teacher or peer offered me “constructive feedback”), it doesn’t prompt growth or move me any closer to real anti-racism.
Late Saturday afternoon, I was in the bookstore and a young woman came in.
I am white.
She is black.
I am behind the counter.
She is on the sales floor among the stacks.
I ask if she needs anything.
She’s just browsing a bit before heading to the airport.
I’m sitting leaned back in chair compiling a book order online.
She’s weighed down with a huge backpack, a neck pillow, a large thermos cup with a straw stuck in it, and a bag from the shop next door.
As I watch her struggle to stand back up after looking at a cookbook on one of the bottom shelves, I realize maybe I haven’t been as hospitable as I should be. So I nod toward the front (where I usually ask people to leave their drinks) and tell her she can put her stuff up there if she’d like.
I know some of you already see where this is going. I, unfortunately, did not see where this was going.
Less than 2 minutes later, she left without saying a word. Just to be clear, almost no one leaves the bookstore without speaking. The store is so small, it’d be like walking out of someone’s living room and out their front door without saying bye.
45 seconds later the store phone rang.
It was her.
Some things she wanted me to know:
- She always supports local bookstores.
- I’d lost a customer.
- Just because she is black doesn’t mean she’s going to steal.
- It’s racist to assume black folx will steal when they come into my store.
Several things collided in my brain at one time as I tried to figure out what was going on. But I couldn’t. I was flustered and horrified. But still pretty clueless.
I know you’ve put it together by now. But she had to do it for me. Because my brain was short-circuiting a bit.
When I asked her if she wanted to put it down, she heard I think you’re going to steal something.
I’m sure a fourth of what I said to her on the phone was wildly unintelligible—there were a lot of no-oh-my-god-I’m-so-sorry-I-didn’t-think-thats and me stumbling to explain that I just thought she looked uncomfortable.
By the end of the call, she maybe 80% believed me. Or she didn’t believe me at all. But she left me with the parting advice to think about the way I phrase things in the future.
Which is sound advice.
I sat there after we hung up, my heart pounding, my hands shaking, trying to figure out how that interaction had gone so wildly wrong.
A friend of mine recently remarked that if we’re ever going to hope for mutual cross-cultural/cross-racial understanding, we have to get to the presuppositions that underlie our disagreements. And to do that, we’re going to have to start listening better.
So I listened.
What I heard was that this has happened to her before. Probably numerous times. And, in hearing that, I realized that it didn’t matter one iota if I didn’t think she was going to steal something—because her experience with other white women has been instructive about the assumptions we make.
My next impulse was to get her back on the phone and convince her that I didn’t think something so repugnant—but then that’s just wanting to prove I’m one of the “good ones” isn’t it?
The “good one” argument is infuriating and useless. And since I’m trying real hard to be neither, I dug to find the presuppositions behind my own actions. I didn’t give one thought to asking her if she wanted to put her bag down, because literally no one has ever asked me to hand over my bag because they thought I’d steal. (Well, there is that one place I love that’s close by that requires everyone to relinquish their bag at the door…and I rarely go there because I find that underlying insinuation that I might steal something off-putting).
My privilege has allowed me pleasant shopping experiences where no one is following me around (with their eyes or their bodies) because they think I am the “kind of person” that will steal. And when the insinuation is there, no matter how implied, my privilege can allow me to avoid the entire situation by shopping somewhere else.
So, I didn’t really think through my words, because I only thought about the impact they’d have on a customer like me.
Being a good ally requires more than that.
“Impact is always more important than intent,” this woman who taught me things I wasn’t looking to learn but needed to know on a quiet Saturday afternoon said.
I am responsible for my impact. And white women, as a group, have inflicted tremendous negative impact on black folx. So, if I feel any frustration about the unexpected exchange on Saturday afternoon, my frustration should be directly leveled at all the white women that young woman interacted with in the past that made it so easy for her to believe I thought she’d steal something because she’s black.
I wish I’d chosen my words with more care and seen past my own privilege.
Now I know better.
I will do better.
White women need to do better. All of us.
*I know writing this piece is, in part, centering myself. It’s a little inherent in the craft. I’m trying to work with that consciously.
**There are definitely times when (especially for me as a white woman) listening is what I should be doing. But eventually, after listening, should come action. I’ve been hiding instead.