This is a brief, white woman’s guide to not sucking as an ally by a white woman who frequently sucks at being an ally. So, let’s start with a cautionary tale, inspired by my most recent fork-up.
Despite growing up in Texas, where football is the 8th sacrament, I have never really been a fan. But I love a good Super Bowl party like the rest of the country, mostly because I appreciate any opportunity to eat my weight in appetizers.
This year was no different. I was on call at work, so delicious appetizers were replaced by Cool Ranch Doritos that I scored from the vending machine after scrounging up 80 cents from my flight bag. But I sat around the break room TV with a handful of coworkers talking shit about the Patriots.
When the 84 Lumber Company ad came on, I was floored even before I saw the ending. As soon as their website came back online, I watched the entire ad and wept big, fat, white woman tears when the daughter pulled the American flag made of scraps out of her backpack. I shared it on my personal Facebook page, and here on CWR.
I read that the owner voted for Trump. My first thought was, “Wow, this is the kind of empathy and sensitivity that I never see displayed from Trump voters. If they’re willing to admit that the way Dear Leader approaches immigration isn’t okay, that’s ground we have to build on!”
I went to sleep that night still thinking about the ad. But the more I thought about it, the more uneasy I became. I woke up with the “Welp. I’ve stepped in it this time,” feeling that you quickly become familiar with after deciding to regularly confront your privilege.
If I had paused for a few hours and thought critically about why the ad drew such a strong reaction from me and examined the motivation, and if I had had *shut up and listened* instead of feeling first, reacting second, thinking third, I would have been able to learn something about myself. And that means I would have been better equipped to dismantle the pieces of the “America As A Vaguely Mcconaughey-esque White Savior” narrative that I came across.
The ad is a fantastic example of what advertising is supposed to do – evoke an emotional response in the viewer that draws him or her to the product in question. They aren’t interested in humanizing the plight of immigrants, they’re selling emotional stock in a lumber company with declining employee retention. I was so swept away by the evocative cinematography and the narrative of the mother and her daughter that I ignored the fact that the commercial was a GIANT ADVERTISEMENT FOR THE WALL, with a white man building a pretty door that the chosen few could enter through.
Instead, I shouted my love for the ad from the virtual rooftops during the same week that my neatly-organized editorial calendar called for this blog post. So. Hooray, self. Gold stars all around. It was a good reminder to not get complacent in my role as an ally, and to take stock of the some of the lessons I’ve gleaned along the way. So in that spirit, here are some things I’ve learned by doing the exact opposite and falling on my face:
- It Isn’t About Me And My Feelings.
I am a white woman married to a Black man. I have experienced some uncomfortable situations and comments as a result of that, but that is not racism and is nothing like the systemic racism he has experienced his entire life. If he dies tomorrow (God forbid), I am just another middle class, college-educated, able-bodied white lady. I could technically walk away from this marriage and never come in close contact with the struggle of Black Americans again. He can’t leave his skin behind. I can’t center my fight against racism on myself or what it means for MY experience. Black lives matter because Black lives matter, not because I’m married to a Black life that matters to me.
- If I Have Feelings, Examine Why.
If something makes me angry, if something makes me sad, if something feels unjust or unfair or wrong, I need to take a step back and ask myself, why? Am I being defensive because my privilege is being challenged (spoiler alert, probably yes)? Am I about to speak over minority voices? Is this making me feel good because it uplifts the role of white men or women fighting an injustice and not amplifying the injustice itself?
- Shut Up And Listen.
I’m going to disagree with my friends and family, and that’s okay. But if my friends and family who are people of color are saying one thing, and I’m vehemently disagreeing and saying another, that’s a big ‘ol clue to shut up and listen. You know that thing dudes do when you’re discussing something like periods or childbirth or the gender wage gap or the weather or whether or not Westbrook is going to stay with the OKC Thunder or literally anything else white men might possibly have opinions about? I do it, too. It sucks.
- Keep Going.
“I don’t talk about race because I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing.” I hear it so many times. Hell, I’ve said it so many times. Can I let you in on a secret? You’re going to screw it up. You’re going to say the wrong thing, you’re going to hurt someone you love, you’re going to have to go to them and say “Hey. That thing I said yesterday was inexcusable, and I’m sorry.” And you’re going to have to prove that you mean it. But even worse than speaking up and saying the wrong thing is staying silent in the face of racism. Hint: that goes for social media, too.
It is nobody’s job but our own to teach ourselves how to navigate this life, but hopefully you can learn from some of my mistakes. God knows I’ve made enough for all of us.