White Allies: Tips for Communicating in a World Demanding Racial Justice

by Lesley Curtis

 

1. Consider the longer story.

While this moment might seem surprisingly new and fast-moving, what we’re doing right now is recognizing (finally!) a long history of injustice and inequality. Black Americans, in particular, have suffered in the United States because of a history that began with enslavement. Even after emancipation, people who had been enslaved and their descendants, for generations, were regularly denied access to property, decent wages, education, and much more. The effects of these policies still influence our world today. Notably, they have helped maintain old prejudices that dehumanize Black people. This leads to the assumption that somehow the person denied an opportunity actually deserves that injustice. These old assumptions and their resulting dehumanization are what we’re fighting against.

2. Explain why you are taking action.

The longer story helps you explain the why of your actions. When you are announcing your support for Black-owned businesses right now, when you are working to amplify the voices of Black people, when you are declaring your solidarity, what you are really saying is: “For far too long, systemic inequality has prevented equal access and equal opportunity. I want to work to change that.”

3. Look for the story behind the story.

Antiracism starts with communication. Check out number one up there one more time. See what I did there? I used the term “enslavement.” And I used the phrase “people who had been enslaved.” Slavery wasn’t an institution that existed without actors. People enslaved other people. They dared to own another person. Then they dared to create fictitious stories about why those actions were justifiable. What injustice, what inequalities does your language hide? Take a look at your communications–what have you missed by not telling the whole story?

4. This isn’t about you.

Maybe you have spent most of your life blissfully ignorant of this problem. Maybe you’ve never worried about someone following you too closely in a store because they assumed you were more likely to steal due to your skin color. Maybe you sat idly by while friends or relatives used racial slurs or bad mouthed people because of their skin color. Now you’re feeling some shock, horror, shame, anger, and maybe defensiveness. That’s okay. Find ways to sort through those feelings on a personal level. Then, make the focus of your public response about antiracist action moving forward. 

5. This is emotional. And that’s okay.

You’re feeling some feels about this. We all are. And that’s okay. Shock. Horror. Shame. Defensiveness. Anger. Fatigue. With all of this emotion swirling around, people are on edge and things are changing fast. Recognize that no one knows the exact right answer. Try. Then try harder. That’s all anyone can ask.

6. The emotion doesn’t have to drive the timeline of your action.

Acknowledge the moment. Then take some time to think about what you can do. This is a huge cultural shift. Even if things are moving fast, real change will take time and planning. 

7. Don’t let the fear of making a mistake prevent you from acting. 

You’ll probably say something wrong. Your response might not be sufficient. It might alienate some people. It might take a few tries. Don’t let those fears prevent you from acting. And don’t let them force you to act too soon or without a plan.

8. Keep the lines of communication open.

You might have to admit that you made a mistake. Do it. That’s better than inaction. Listen. Try again.

9. It’s okay to incorporate joy.

This one is best explained by example. Many white parents of white children are rushing to read their kids books about race and racism. Good. We need to build awareness. This approach, however, may give kids the impression that being Black is only about struggling against racism. As always, there’s more to the story. How many of the stories you tell have Black heroes?

10. This is big. Make a plan for the long haul.

This is a cultural shift that many have never seen in their lifetimes. There is no clear roadmap, but there is a genuine determination to make things better. What role can you, your organization, or your business play in bringing that better future to fruition? Your role may be small, but it is essential. And you should tell people about it honestly, with humility, and with hope.

 

Lesley Curtis founded the communications company Sagely in 2017. Since then, she has worked with multiple clients to create effective stories that build community and foster growth. Sagely offers multiracial team-led antiracism communications services for businesses and organizations. Lesley is also the co-translator of this novel on the Haitian Revolution and has written articles on race and marriage and race and parenting. She also holds a Ph.D from Duke University, where she studied the literature of abolitionist movements in the 19th-century Caribbean.

This article was originally published on Medium.

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