“Ok, so a white woman who calls herself a black woman, a racist white supremacist, and a confederate flag all walk into a bar…”
While this might sound like the beginning of some strange joke, and I did intentionally phrase it like one, what has happened in our country over these last two weeks is certainly anything but a joke. It seems like things are going from bad, to worse, to downright ugly. In one corner we have Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who “Blackfaced” for over a decade and lied to everyone about her true identity. In another corner we have a horrifically racist, violent, despicable human being (and someone who raises the question: Does he even deserve to be considered human?) Finally, in the other corner we have a symbol of racism, white supremacy, and deep hatred that has been in use since the Civil War, and that flag is flown proudly over some of our state capitol buildings.
There has been, and will continue to be, conversations, heated debates, and arguments over racism and racial injustice in America. I think it’s important for us to realize that situations of injustice such as these three examples above are not new circumstances. Things like this have been happening since the birth of our nation, and even before that. Racism isn’t a new thing. We are just hearing about it more, largely in part because of our social media driven age, as well as the hard work that social justice activists have been doing to shed light on these issues.
In this blog post, I will attempt to explain how we, especially as white people, can join in the fight for social justice, and learn how to raise our voices in solidarity with our black brothers and sisters. I will also try to explain why it’s so important that we don’t just leave the social justice fight to the “other people”. We cannot continue to sit by silently on the sidelines. It’s time for us to get up off the comfortable bench, walk out onto the field, and put our bodies on the line. We are most certainly going to be hit, knocked down, and even fumble the ball at times, but we aren’t out there to be perfect. We are out there to work with our team to “win the game”. To defeat racism and bigotry. To instill justice. To rediscover our humanity.
My own journey of discovering ways in which I can act in solidarity as a white man has been a fast paced ride with plenty of bumps along the way. White solidarity isn’t an easy thing to figure out. It’s kind of messy. It takes intentional thinking, asking lots of questions, and most of all, a willing heart and a listening ear. The last piece about listening is incredibly important, and something that many white social justice warriors forget to do. Since I, as a white man, haven’t exactly experienced first hand racial discrimination, I need to be listening to those who have.
One of the most influential and impactful experiences which helped me develop even more as a social justice ally was the Black Power Rally that I attended during my junior year at Michigan State University. This event has been at MSU for over 40 years, and it’s hosted by the Black Student Alliance and other African American groups at the university. I heard about it through some friends and also through my Urban Educators Cohort. I thought it might be an awesome event for me to go to, and I knew I had to figure out a way to make it work in my schedule. Even though I was excited about being able to attend this event, I would be lying if there wasn’t a small part of me that questioned if I, a white person, should go (or even was allowed to go) to an event like this. It’s incredibly important to me to be authentic in everything I do in life, and I value how positive real authenticity can be when people show it. Somewhere inside of me wondered if I could be authentic and go to a black power rally.
What would people think? Would they judge me there? Would I be the only white person there? Would they take me seriously? Do they know that I care deeply about social justice issues?
Even though I questioned whether I should go or not, I knew that this was partially just fear of being the “other” for once. If I went to a black power rally, I would absolutely not be in the racial majority. Most of my life has been filled with people who look like me. My comfortable, West Michigan, white suburbia life. This was going to push me outside of my comfort zone. It was going to be a challenge. But I knew that I was craving a challenge. I desired to have things “shaken up”. Once I made up my mind that I was definitely going, I asked some friends if we could all go together. There were seven of us in our group, three white, four black. I’m pretty sure the three white people in our group were about 60% of the white population at the event. You don’t exactly have to be good at math to know that that’s not a whole lot of white people.
The Black Power Rally was absolutely amazing. So many thought-provoking skits, powerful poetry, expressive dances, and incredible speakers. The keynote speaker was Marc Lamont Hill, who is an African American academic, journalist, author, activist, and frequent guest on CNN. His speech was very moving, and I truly felt inspired to work even harder to fight for racial justice. He talked about “The day after” and what we as people do after something big happens, whether it’s good or bad. He called all of us to never lose that spirit of fighting for justice for all those who are marginalized, and to constantly ask ourselves what else we can give.
There was one moment in particular during the Black Power Rally that I can still picture vividly in my mind. During one of the speeches, I don’t really remember if it was Marc Lamont Hill or one of the student keynote speakers, the presenter raised his fist in the air, making the symbol of the Black Power movement, and called on the audience to do the same. This came right after some very impassioned words about fighting for justice always and bringing change to our broken country that still deals with institutional racism today. I could see that everyone in the audience was raising their fists, and I knew that I wanted to raise mine too. I knew deep in my heart that I agreed with everything he was saying, and that I was just as passionate for justice as everyone else in that room.
Again, my impulse and desire to always seem authentic made me hesitate briefly before I raised my fist. Some of the same type of questions entered my mind. Is it wrong if I make this gesture? Am I allowed to? Will they think I’m just trying to fit in? Do they know that I actually believe in this stuff? These thoughts show that I obviously care what people think about me, and that’s something that I’m continuing to struggle through and work on to this day.
It was during this moment of slight hesitation, of not being quite sure of what I should do next, that one of my friends who was with me at the event, Rebekka (who is black) looked over and saw me starting to raise my fist awkwardly. And I’m guessing it looked plenty awkward, probably even slightly comical. Rebekka smiled and said to me, “Yeah, Tim. You raise that fist up high!” There it was. An invitation. This was her inviting me into a space of solidarity with her, and with her people. It was her accepting that I believed in fighting for justice, and she was reminding me that I was allowed to express that. I smiled back and fully extended my arm into the air, making the Black Power fist fully, authentically, and for the first time. I knew that this would be a defining moment for me in my journey of becoming a social justice warrior, and looking back on it now, it is even more obvious.
That’s the thing about white solidarity. Sometimes it can seem awkward. We don’t always know what to say, or what to do. I think it’s wise of white people to seek to be authentic in their actions and words, and to think consciously about how we show up in these spaces of social justice. It’s even wiser for us to be listening and following the lead of black and brown people who are already activists and social justice warriors. They are the ones who have had first hand experiences with being discriminated against because of their skin color.
The other reason why white solidarity matters is because it’s not just up to people of color to fight for the justice they deserve and need. Every time we talk about issues of racism, discrimination, slavery, Jim Crow, we shouldn’t only be asking what black people think of it. Us whites have the authority to speak out against such things too. Admittedly, the experience of a white social justice warrior will look different than that of a black social justice warrior. But that difference is not something to be mourned, but rather celebrated. It adds to the beauty of people of different backgrounds, skin color, experiences, and beliefs working together to seek justice for the marginalized.
So I challenge you to stand up in solidarity with the social justice cause. Speak out against the white supremacist hate groups that are still in existence in our society today. Call for the removal of the Confederate flag because it represents racism and hatred, both in history, as well as today. Don’t fall into the trap of labeling Dylann Roof “mentally ill”, but rather acknowledge this was a terrible individual whose actions were racist and evil. Seek to understand why it’s wrong that Rachel Dolezal “Blackfaced” and masqueraded herself as a black woman for years. Understand why that is incredibly hurtful to a group of people who don’t have the luxury and privilege of choosing what identity that “feel like” being that day.
Proclaim Black Lives Matter, and don’t even think of pulling that “All Lives Matter” bullshit. Remember as someone so brilliantly pointed out on twitter, “You wouldn’t walk into a fundraiser for cancer research and proclaim that other diseases kill people too”. I challenge you to join protest marches, if you have the opportunity to, calling for racial justice to be put into our “Justice System”. Keep having conversations with family, friends, coworkers, heck, even strangers, about how we can work together to improve our broken country to be a more equitable place for ALL to live.
Raise up that fist high. It’s ok. Believe it. Own it. Live it.
I know I do.