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By Rachel Goldfarb
Some of my fellow white antiracist allies are horrified by what happened in Ferguson, MO on Sunday. I know this because it’s all we seem to be able to say about the issue. We are shocked, and horrified, and saddened. We mourn for the loss of yet another young Black man. We don’t understand how this keeps happening. This shooting even fits our narrative better than usual, since he was to start college this week. Michael Brown was supposed to be a success story in a few more years. Instead, a cop emptied his gun into an unarmed young man.
I know that you’re horrified. What are you doing about it?
Don’t tell me there’s nothing to be done except mourn. That’s how we got to this point, to a year in which I can list death after death after death. We have mourned every day for too long. We mourn one Black person’s death for a week, then the next, then the next. Mourning is not an activity that precludes all others. Your mourning has not stopped your climate activism, your fight for reproductive rights, or your “Ready for Hillary” and “Ready for Warren” campaigns.
And don’t tell me that it’s hopeless. I’m not willing to accept that. Giving up means that we accept the coming deaths of more people. I don’t accept that more of these deaths are inevitable. If you are willing to accept more death, I want you to take a deep hard look at yourself, and decide if you should really be using the word “liberal” anymore.
And if you tell me it’s not your place to step up, I’ll tell you that you’re right. It’s not your place—not your place to lead. Today, you will be a follower. Today, you will step back and provide the help and support that today’s civil rights movement needs from you, just as white liberals provided help and support to the civil rights movements of the 1960s.
The first thing you are going to do, if you’ve never done so, is say this sentence aloud: “This country is still racist.” This country is still racist. It’s almost a relief when you finally admit it, when you accept that the work of the civil rights movements aren’t done yet. You should say this sentence aloud to your white friends who haven’t yet put together the puzzle pieces. You should say it to the people of color in your life who have no idea if you are someone they can count on to empathize with their struggles. You should say it because a Black man is killed by a police officer, security guard, or vigilante every 28 hours in this country.
The second thing you are going to do is start reading. I want you to read Ta-Nehisi Coates, on why we still need reparations and the death penalty and Black culture. I want you to read about the relationship between the reproductive justice movement and these continued killings. I want you to read Mychal Denzel Smith’s desire for justice and Brittney Cooper’s defense of Black rage and everything, everything by Roxane Gay. If you are still trying to admit defeat in the face of racism, you aren’t reading enough people of color. Until they give up, you don’t get to.
The third thing you are going to do is show up. That’s all you have to do! You don’t have to be the organizer, the boots on the ground, the press spokesperson, or the speaker. You just need to show up where the leaders of today’s civil rights movement tell you to show up. Listen to the Dream Defenders, to BYP100, to Million Hoodies. They’ll tell you when and where they need your help and support. Bring your friends, your coalition groups, your partners. Just show up.
The fourth thing you’re going to do is be quiet. You’re in the room, or at the rally, or in the space, so folks know that you’re a supporter. You don’t need to contribute a lot to support. You don’t really need to contribute at all. Listen to what the people of color in the room are telling you about their experiences of racism and how they think we should change the world. If you’re contributing, it should be to offer up resources. If you know leaders of a relevant community group, if you have a skill to share, if you have contacts in an elected’s office, that’s when you’ll speak up. The rest of the time, you’ll just listen.
The last thing you are going to do is ask how you can help. You’re going to ask someone who actually works on civil rights issues, who faces racism, who you know or who you meet by showing up. You’re not going to push back on what they ask you to do—you’ll just do it. That’s what they need from you. It will probably be boring work. It almost certainly won’t be glamorous, or easy, or any less depressing than the world around us. That’s what they need from you. Do it.
Each time one of these deaths happens, I see my fellow white liberals writing about the history behind the incident and why white allies need to do more to fight racism. We’re not unaware of the work that needs to be done. But with the repeated barrage of death after death—one this week, another the next—it seems to me that in our repetitions of the need for change, we forget that change doesn’t happen without work. We continue to repeat this performance of mourning, sadness, and calls for change. We never get past the mourning and to the work. But the Black community keeps fighting and organizing through each death. It’s time that white allies do the same.
I’m listening, and I’m reading, and I’m showing up, and I’m staying quiet, and I’m offering to help. That’s what being an ally means. The Black community, and people of color across this country, need you to be an ally today. And as an ally, you are probably safer than any of the organizers you’re supporting. It’s time, my fellow white allies, for us to step up by stepping back and following the lead of today’s civil rights movement. I’ll see you there.
Rachel Goldfarb is a feminist writer and activist in New York City, where she works in communications at a progressive policy organization and volunteers as a clinic escort. You can find her previous clips here, and follow her on Twitter @RachelG8489.