Ask. Listen. Believe. (How to be a White Ally)

I could also have subtitled this post “How to discover the world you live in.” I will come back to this point–why being a white ally to people of color also discloses the world we live in–but, first, let’s take on the three imperatives in the title:

ASK people of color about their life experiences, and don’t assume that your experiences are universal. LISTEN to what POC have to say, which requires shutting up long enough to listen. BELIEVE what POC tell you, even if it initially seems to contradict your sense of the world.

These three shorthands imply, among other things, letting POC take the lead in discussions of their experience in the world, so, before I go on, I want to point to an excellent post by my friend TJ (aka Professor Tallie, aka Dr. Tallie, aka The Teej) in which he offers a generous and useful primer on the work of becoming a conscientious white ally to people of color. Both his post and his curated links are great places to start (or continue) the work of being an ally, and I strongly recommend reading them either before or after continuing through this post. Acting as a conscientious ally to any community is, of course, more complicated than a three-word list, but shorthands can be useful guides, particularly if we think of them as places to start or principles that frame a more complex practice. While I am talking specifically about being a white ally to POC, we should also think about these three points in terms of what it means to be an ally to women (for men), to the LBGTQ community, to international subaltern communities, and others.

Ask. Ask people of color about their life experiences, and don’t assume that your experiences are universal.

Your life experiences are not universal, and they will not always serve as a reliable guide to understanding how the world at large works. This goes double if you are a white person living in a culture where “white” is treated as normative, neutral and universal (if you live in the US, Europe, Australia, Canada, etc., this means you). While it is only human to interpret the world through our concrete experience of it, the societal structures we live within encounter us (white people) in very different ways than they encounter people of color. These differences happen every day, and they cover the full range of significance from seemingly trivial minutia to life-and-death events. While you might be able to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, you cannot live a life in their skin, so, if we are ever going to know how people of color experience social, political, economic, juridical, educational, (etc.) structures designed for and by white people, we have to ask them. What is it like to live in our country (to go to school, apply for jobs, shop for clothes, walk around the block, rent an apartment, etc.) as a person of color?

As TJ says, we–white people who want to be allies–have to take on the burden of our own education. We have to do some work. Asking doesn’t always mean grabbing the closest POC and presenting her with a series of questions formed from our ignorance. Part of asking is asking productive questions, and that means seeking out the resources that are already available to us (like the links in TJ’s post or the suggestions in this post). Read about the variety of personal experiences that POC have recorded in memoirs, histories, novels, stories, anecdotes, diaries, poems, etc. Read theoretical explanations of how race functions more broadly and systemically in America (and beyond). Read about the history of race in America, and get a concrete understanding of what people mean when they talk about the Middle Passage, slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and Civil Rights movements, and focus especially on black perspectives on these events. (The same is true for First Nations/American Indian history and experience, Latino/a experience, etc. You should know the details of Cherokee Removal and the Chinese Exclusion Act). Read minority-focused websites like The Root or the Maynard Institute. Follow leaders of diverse communities on social media. Find ways to hear POC speak in their own voice about the world we share. This research will help you formulate better questions for the POC you talk with face to face, and it will help you understand the answers, replies, stories and follow-up questions they give you.

Listen. Listen to what POC have to say, which requires shutting up long enough to listen. Actually listening is hard work.

First and foremost, listening requires us to stop speaking, and even to stop waiting for our turn to speak. Most human beings have something of an economic view of conversation: we think of it as an exchange or a trade off. While we’d like to believe the exchange is “I give you my understanding, and you give me your understanding,” it is much more frequently “If I listen to you for a while, then I get my chance to talk.” We–aspiring white allies–cannot approach conversations about race in terms of “equal time” or getting our “fair say”: we cannot afford to take the attitude, “You’ve had your chance, and now its my turn.” We have to ask out of genuine curiosity, and we have to listen with a different exchange in mind: “you take the time and effort to tell me about your life, and I will take the time and effort to listen carefully.” (This is actually pretty good advice for most situations in life, and it is an approach that often takes me a tremendous amount of effort.)

Even if we approach conversations about race with the ideal sharing of understandings (“I’ll give you my truth, you’ll give me yours”), white allies enter this asymmetrical conversation at a disadvantage. While good conversation is frequently an exchange of views, we need the knowledge that POC have to share more than they need our perspectives. We need to hear what life is like for people of color, to learn about their view of the world, to find out what our shared world looks like through their eyes. Those same POC are almost guaranteed to be very familiar with a variety of white/dominant experiences and perspectives because they are surrounded by expressions of what life is like for white Americans. Mainstream media and cultural production (including political speeches, blockbuster movies, and the nightly news) is primarily crafted by white people for white people. It would be very difficult to live in the US and not be immersed in white experiences and perspectives (almost always unmarked and passed off as universally “American”).

As white allies, we aren’t entering this conversation to enlighten POC; we are asking them to graciously share their experience with us so we can have access to a broader range of human experiences (and stop pretending that our limited experiences are in fact universal). [The black American sociologist W.E.B. DuBois offered a set of conceptual tools for thinking about this asymmetrical relationship between knowledge and cultural dominance over 100 years ago, and his initial essay in The Souls of Black Folk is still very good reading on this topic.]

Believe. Believe what POC tell you, even if it initially seems to contradict your sense of the world.

When I say that we should believe what POC tell us about their life experiences and our shared world, I am not advocating a blind acceptance of everything any individual person tells you (that turns quickly into tokenism). We should always think with others using our own powers of reason, and, in general, I advocate an attitude of general suspicion and careful, wary scrutiny. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to locate the correct target for scrutiny, especially when we need to scrutinize what philosophers call “unstated premises” and rhetoricians call “commonplaces.” Because human minds are finite and the world is a very big, very complicated place, we can never state all of the relevant premises or argue without the support of commonplaces. It is particuarly difficult to scrutinize these ideas when they present themselves as “common sense”–assumptions that form the background of daily life and escape scrutiny by appearing as natural or too obvious for questioning.

In a culture with a history of white supremacy (or patriarchy, or heteronormativity, or ableism), many concepts that we accept as “common sense” are neither natural nor neutral and serve to support the existing power arrangements of the status quo. If you’ve read this far, you have probably noticed a recurring theme: the collection of social structures that are frequently referred to as “white privilege” have a peculiar, inverse relationship to knowledge. Because they present themselves as “common sense,” they go unnoticed and unscrutinized unless something out of the ordinary happens to draw our attention to them. (Heidegger discusses this phenomenon in terms of tools: you pick up a hammer and work with it, and you never give much thought to what makes it a hammer unless it fails to drive the nail in front of you: if it breaks or has a design flaw, it will stop being “ready-at-hand” and become a “thing-in-itself” available for scrutiny.)

Since white supremacist power structures tend to operate smoothly for white people (they are ready-to-hand), we don’t tend to notice them on our own. By contrast, POC run up against these strucutres constantly. If the cops pull you over regularly for no particular reason, if you are stopped and frisked weekly, if people who look like you are killed with official sanction but little reason, then you are much more likely to scrutinize police practices and the “common sense” concepts that justify them. DuBois makes a similar argument when he discusses the “Veil” that fell between him and his white classmates: because many of the good things (opportunities, positions, etc. open to white Americans but not black) in life fell on their side of the veil, he was keenly aware of the division between his world and theirs. His classmates, though, had little reason to contemplate the world he inhabited, so they had no particular reason to see the difference (this is closely related to what DuBois calls “second sight”). In both cases, a black American’s experience in the world foregrounds the commonplaces/unstated premises that explain why certain opportunities and freedoms (including freedom of movement and due process of law) are more available to whites than blacks.

Through the same mechanisms, the white people who live within the priviledged positions of our still deeply white-supremacist society will fail to see the structures that lift them up and pull others down. If we do not question the unstated premises of American justice–if we can’t hear the absence of black people, women, American Indians, and others in the declaration that “all men are created equal”–then we are unlikely to recognize the validity of the claims that POC make about their lives. If we are too settled and too comfortable in our insulated perception of the world, then we will dismiss their stories and histories as ridiculous, unfounded and against “common sense.” If we genuinely ask, listen and believe, then we put our understanding of the world at risk.

In other words, if we are serious about becoming white allies to people of color and acting in good faith towards them, we need the humility to believe them long enough to examine our assumptions. (Humility is a great cardinal virtue, and without it other virtues don’t get much room to work.) If we are humble enough to ask, listen and believe, and if we have the courage (another cardinal virtue) to put at risk our existing conceptions of the world and our place in it, then our collaborative work has the added benefit of revealing the world around us.

One of my students (herself a person of color) asked me this year why I care so much about the Civil Rights Movement; she reasoned that, as a straight, white man in the South, things would have been just fine for me without it. I told her that, while I probably would have had many economic and material opportunities, those would have been purchased at the price of knowing who I am, knowing who my neighbors are, and knowing how the world we share functions. Profound ignorance about myself, my neighbors and my world is a high price to pay, even apart from the more-or-less altruistic drive for justice. That trade-off is as real today as it was in 1963. While we may be tempted to think that we are doing charity work by becoming white allies to POC, the truth is that they do more for us than we can for them. They help us to know ourselves, to quote Wallace Stevens, “more truly and more strange.” This is not, as Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in his extended open letter to his son, a fair thing for white people to ask: his son (and other POC) cannot live their lives for our sake. So make sure that you ask, listen, and believe with thanks and gratitude.

[Thanks to everyone who has helped and continues to help me see the world, and especially the women, people of color and queer folk without whom I would be lost.]


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