Shelter-in-place has inspired many new behaviors in many people, such as replacing periods of boredom with meditation, self-reflection and an investment in self-improvement books. Yet, I dare to ask when people were listing their #quarantinegoals how many included becoming a better ally to the black community, educating themselves on how to be actively anti-racist, and amplifying black voices? Mine didn’t, but especially in light of the ongoing protests over the killing of Black individuals by police, I wanted to do better.
The turning point for me to reprioritize how I spend my time reflecting and what media I consume during this time came May 8. As it did for many runners around the world, the horrific murder of Ahmaud Arbery struck a chord with me. News of the hunt-to-kill death of Arbery during his daily run through the neighborhood felt to me like a heinous headline from another decade. As a physical act of solidarity, I joined runners around the world to stand up for justice for Arbery, running the boulevards of Logan Square for 2.23 miles, all while feeling safe in my neighborhood in broad daylight, making me that much more aware of my white privilege. My pace was fueled by my anger and sadness as I imagined the terror Arbery must have felt that day.
In my hope to recruit my other running friends to join these acts, I tagged #RunwithMaud and “#RunningwhileBlackisnotacrime” in my Instagram stories. This marked my first personal social media post outwardly supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. I felt uneasy, not knowing whether my black friends would feel supported or offended by my post. Still, I knew at that moment that my discomfort was not the main issue and that it was important to share this post with my predominantly white friends, whom I knew would feel uncomfortable too.
One of my friends, a beautiful Afro-Latina runner sponsored by Nike, was quick to reply. “Thank you for being an ally,” she said. I was relieved but also wanted to find out other ways I could be a better ally. The messages we exchanged over the next 20 minutes would shift my perspective on what actions I could take moving forward (lessons that many more would learn soon enough as more information on supporting Black Lives Matter got widely shared following the police killing of George Floyd).
Breaking the Silence
My friend told me I had taken the first step, which is breaking the silence. That silence is the biggest challenge, and silence about violence committed against black people, specifically silence among the white community, emboldens offenders and escalates the stakes of their racially charged acts and hate on the black community. Silence is being complicit. Black people cannot solve this alone. The system that has allowed these incidents to become commonplace and too often prevented black humanity from being seen isn’t one that black Americans built and it isn’t one they can dismantle. Without nonblack allies becoming sickened and as outraged, taking a stand, and leveraging their influence and power to move change in policy and practice, these murders will continue.
My friend reiterated that we must actively call out racist comments and racist behavior when we see it. We need to bring it out of hiding to stamp it out in every corner of our communities. This is critical to saving black lives, including her own, my friend told me.
I listened with an open heart, but her words felt like a punch in the stomach. At that moment, I had flashes of uncomfortable standoffs with friends over racially inappropriate comments. I recall many moments I tried to “deescalate and diffuse” situations between my black friends and bouncers, bartenders or waiters who were discriminating against them. Worst of all, I know that on multiple occasions, I deprived my friends of validation and clear support when these situations arose, instead of seeing the racism they experienced, trying to chalk it up to some kind of misunderstanding.
Like with a scab painfully being ripped off slowly, I realized my behavior in almost all of these situations had been silent and passive, a bystander. My passive actions were unproductive and essentially permitted the injustice of these situations, giving more power to the offender. Sure, I joined my friends to walk out of restaurants, yelling back with the group as we left. But I was rarely the one calling the behavior out! I believed in Black Lives Matter, but I was not actively doing my part to support its mission. I realized the tremendous transfer of responsibility, burden and accountability from this exchange I must adopt.
Needles to say, the next few weeks would require me to hold myself accountable and do better. It required events in the wider world for me to break my own silence and actively do better.
Like many Americans who also saw they could do better, I marched. I donated. I pledged. I called. I supported #blackouttuesday, which I know received backlash from some of the Black community as “slactivism” rather than effective actions. But it was a start for me because it helped me see the way that many other white folks are feeling via social media. And hardest of all, I have begun to question a few friendships as well, based on how people have responded to these actions.
But in this process of engaging in self-reflection and taking action, I have also noticed a bigger dilemma. The available knowledge I had ignored for years out of privilege (multiplied by the speed at which I can process this information) exceeds the window of time this moment will give us to create meaningful change. So while I know that pausing for reflection is important, we have to take parallel paths of action. Put more bluntly, black lives and the well-being of the black community can’t wait for the rest of the (white) world to catch up.
So how do we take action NOW, even if we don’t have all the answers? Here’s some advice I got from Nickay and other black friends:
- Educate yourself on systemic racism and your role. If you are white, understand your white privilege and call yourself (and family members) out for ignoring this privilege.
- Use that privilege to give up money, time and power to create safer spaces and opportunities for others.
- Read books by black authors, support black-owned businesses, and share black creators’ art and music.
Investing in the economic prosperity of the black community by supporting black-owned businesses and black voices is a critical way to transfer the wealth from the elite who often support or lobby for policies that further disenfranchise black communities. So, in an effort to seek a better understanding and help #amplifyingmelanatedvoices as well as discover these businesses myself, I reached out to a few black-owned bookstores and Logan Square’s own City Lit Books (2523 N. Kedzie Blvd.) to get some reading recommendations, which you can check out here.
Featured photo: Tom Vlodek
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