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“What African Americans Want from White Allies”

I did a talk yesterday at the Unitarian church. They had e-mailed me a few weeks before and asked me to do one hour on “What African Americans Want from White Allies.”

The audience was primarily white people who are liberal and members of the Unitarian congregation. The first speaker was a young Black woman in her twenties, Raven Cook. She has taken my fundamentals class and teaches Black history to white people at the Omni Center for Peace and Justice. She did a great job. I spoke next. There was a reporter there from the local newspaper, and a photographer, and there is an article in the paper about it.

Really exciting for me was the overwhelming response from the audience. Many people wanted to start a group at the church to work on their racism. The minister asked me if I would come and speak to the congregation on a Sunday morning, and I agreed to do it. I had about eight copies of Barbara Love’s new pamphlet1, and they went like hotcakes [went very fast]. Many people are waiting for me to get more.

Below is my talk:

Sto(m)p Racism:What African Americans Want from White Allies

Good morning. I first want to thank you for inviting me. Racism is a huge struggle for all of us. It is a struggle that none of us created and that causes us all to suffer to varying degrees. I am assuming today that you want me to be frank with you about what it means to be an ally. I make that assumption because I can see it on you and because you are here; you want to change this. I believe you suffer a great deal already with guilt and shame about racism, and my goal is not to cause you further suffering.

What I will be doing, in a very limited amount of time, is giving you a perspective on your role in the perpetuation of racism and a way out of it. I can’t really tell you what Black people want from you as allies, but it was a catchy title, and I’m glad it got you here. There’s a bit of a stereotype in that title, as you probably know.

But I want to back up for a minute and get to know you a little bit better. You know a few things about me. This will be somewhat participatory so it will help me to know who you are. Let’s take a minute for you to tell me three things: (1) your name, (2) one thing you like about who you are, and (3) why you came.

(People answer the questions.)

So welcome! And thanks for coming! There may be things I say today that will cause you to have some feelings. Now that I know you better, I think I can ask you to do this: I want you to monitor yourself for me. While giving me your full attention, I want you also to be noticing your feelings about what I’m saying. Here is what I would like: Just raise your hand in the air when you notice a feeling in you. Do you think you could do that? (Anyone having any feelings right now?) We’ll practice a bit. Here is what will happen: You will raise your hand, and I will stop for a bit. I will ask each of you to grab a partner, and you will talk to each other for a minute.

I’m going to require a few ground rules though. The first has to do with confidentiality. Can you agree that you will not repeat what your partner says? Not even to them? Good. The next thing is that while your partner is talking, you will just listen and not chime in [add something]. Okay? And the third thing is that as you talk you will try to let your feelings surface, not try to hide them or choke them back. Fair enough? I call this a “mini-session.” Let’s try it. Do you have a partner? Decide who will speak first, and who will listen first. You will each talk for three minutes, and I will monitor the time. Your topic right now is any feelings that have surfaced for you during Raven’s presentation, and mine so far.

(mini-session)

How was that for you? Was it difficult? You did great!

I believe I can count on you [rely on you] to do this—to just raise your hand when you can tell [notice] that you are having an emotional response. But I am going to be monitoring, too. When it looks to me like someone in the room is moved by something, I will call for a mini-session. You don’t have to talk to the same person each time. In fact, I think it will be more fun and more useful if you don’t, if you switch around.

Let me go back to the stereotype for a minute. I think you would agree that each of you is unique. There is no one exactly like you in all the world. That is something amazing and miraculous about you! You are like snowflakes. There are no two snowflakes alike. Did you know that?

I once saw a cartoon in which during a snowy day two snowflakes were talking about the people who were out in the snow. One snowflake said to the other, “Just look at them. There are no two of them exactly alike.”

That is true about us all. If you got all the Black folk together, even just those of us in Fayetteville, we would probably never come to consensus on what we want from you. So I won’t try to answer that for all Black people. What I will try to do is to tell you what we don’t want. And I have to admit that this is only my perspective. I can’t speak for everyone, but I believe this is something you want to know, and I believe it will enhance your efforts as an ally.

My great-great-grandmother, Marie Morgan, was the result of a rape on a plantation in New Orleans (Louisiana, USA). Her mother was enslaved there. Her father was Jean LaPiere, the plantation owner. Our ancestors were kidnapped from their homeland, ripped away from their people and their cultures, forced into slavery, beaten, raped, tortured and worked to death, their children taken from them and sold, by your ancestors. It is a little bit difficult for us to fully trust you.

I am calling for a mini-session right now. Find your partner. I will call time. Three minutes each.

(mini-session)

We want to trust you, because we are stuck here. We have to make the best of it, right? So we want to trust you. What makes that difficult is an attitude you carry and that you can’t hide, no matter how hard you try. I am being frank and honest with you, because there is no way you can ever know the mistakes you make unless someone like me has the courage to tell you. I offer this as a gift to you, not as a criticism.

There is a reason that we don’t speak up to you about things like this and a reason that it takes courage to do so. One of the ways that we African-heritage folk have been socialized is to take care of white people. We do it in very subtle ways that you probably never notice. In truth, most of us don’t notice it ourselves, because it has become second nature to us. We smile and agree when we think something you just said was stupid. We bear insults, slights, and being ignored. We notice your white privilege when you take the best seating, the most comfortable accommodations, and so on, and we try not to show our feelings about it. We just go on, but we go back to our safety with Black friends and families and we shake our heads and say, “White people!”

When this caretaking was new to us, it was installed under the threat of death. It was made clear to us in no uncertain terms that we would take care of white people in every possible way or that we would be whipped and/or lynched. We learned that lesson well, and we taught it to our children. All Black parents, even today, have that moment when they must sit down with their sons and daughters and explain their relationships to white people, how to stay alive in this world. My precious son is autistic. He often misses the subtleties in life. It was a challenge for me when he was sixteen to explain to him that everything he had been taught was a lie. The police are not there to protect you. They are there to protect white people from you. Please do not turn to them for help.

So we are stoic with you. We experience you in ways that we never mention to you. Don’t think we never mention it—it is just not to you. We have these talks among ourselves, where it feels safe. But there is a way that it still feels life threatening to us to have a voice in this world, to challenge your actions in even the smallest ways. It throws us back two hundred years when we were silenced with the whip and the noose, and we can no longer think—we can only hope to survive it. So this is what bravery looks like. It looks like Raven, and it looks like me.

It is very brave of you, also, to reach out across the racial divide and to try to mend the horrific wound that this country’s history has created. I applaud your bravery and your courage. And yet, it often doesn’t go well, does it? The difficulty is that attitude I spoke about. You probably don’t see it, but it is glaring to us. I’ll describe it, and I’ll tell you what to do about it.

The attitude is condescension. It is some degree of a missionary stance. It is a reaching down. I think you don’t mean for it to be there, and you try very hard sometimes to take an egalitarian stance. The problem is that you didn’t choose it. It was handed to you. Your precious parents were steeped in racism. Your lovely ministers, teachers, scout leaders taught you good values, good manners, and proper grooming, and along with it they handed you things like Manifest Destiny, “the white man’s burden,” the Doctrine of Discovery. Racism is sprinkled between the lines of your Bibles. It can be found throughout your dictionaries. It is a part of your fairy tales. It is deeply woven into the English language. Racism and white supremacy were sprinkled on your cornflakes every morning. You still carry them. They are the air you breathe. They are what feels normal to you. And they are the reason that when a Person of the Global Majority speaks up and points them out, it sounds like they just misunderstood something that was done or said, they are too sensitive, they are overreacting. Or they are uppity [presumptuously arrogant], not staying in their place.

You have made different choices from the ones your parents made. You have taken a higher road. That is commendable and you can be pleased with yourselves. But what happened to all that you were taught to believe about who you are as a white person and your place in the world? And how do you reconcile yourselves to the fact that this status is reinforced all day, every day, in magazines, newspapers, billboards, the news, constant police brutality?

What you have had to do is to pack that conditioning away, to push it deep inside you where you don’t have to confront it and it can no longer guide your lives and your behavior. That has been the best you could do, and it has helped. But the racism is still there, deeply buried and hidden away, only to surprise you when it surfaces.

You function on top of it. You act it out unawarely every day. You surprise yourself when you hear that racial slur come out of your mouth when a Black person runs a light [drives through a red light] and you have to slam on your brakes. You are surprised at yourself when you clutch your purse a little tighter and move to the other side of the street, because it is getting dark and the person walking toward you is a Black man. You are surprised at your urge to lock your car doors when you’re driving through a Black neighborhood. You wonder, “Where did that come from? That’s not who I am or what I believe.” That is the conditioning that has been tucked away.

And how do I know this about you? Because I know it about myself. This is what racism has done to us. It has taught us to believe things we know are not true about ourselves and each other. It has caused us to act on ideas that we no longer believe but that still guide our lives in strange and unthinking ways. For us who are African heritage, it is called “internalized racism.” It is what has been hammered into us so consistently, and for so long, that we have come to believe it about ourselves and about each other.

(mini-session)

We all know what those beliefs are. We were all taught them, not just you. We were taught them, too—about ourselves. Black people are dirty. We are dishonest. We are lazy. We have low morals. We are ugly. We are stupid. We are over-sexed. You have all heard the expression. “Once you go Black, you will never go back.” The truth is, I never heard that expression until a white person told it to me.

Those lies about our people are designed to keep us small, invisible, and powerless. They are designed for you to enforce that position on us. We enforce it upon ourselves now, because we have come to believe that we are those things.

It requires courage for me and for Raven, women of African heritage, to stand before you and to share our minds, because we are bucking hundreds of years of violent conditioning that screams at us to keep our mouths shut, to be good in the kitchen and good in the bedroom. I was taught that I am not smart. I have worked hard to heal the hurts this society has placed on my mind about who I am. But I still struggle with that conditioning. In the meantime, I have to take it on faith that it is my mind that is needed in the world, that you will never be able to find answers by swimming in the world you have come to see as normal, the world that excludes my intelligence.

I brought with me a stack of booklets that are essential tools in understanding the hurts of racism on people of African heritage and that I believe are essential reading for anyone who truly wants to be an effective ally. They are $3.00 each, and I encourage you to take one home with you and read it. You may need to read it with someone, so that you can shake and cry.

This is the work we all have to do, to unearth and heal the misinformation we have taken in unexamined and allowed to unawarely guide our interactions.

It is what has led to the attitude you bring to relationships with us that erodes trust. But I have good news. It can be healed. One of the well-known expressions of Louise Hay is “What you can’t feel, you can’t heal.” We have to bring all that buried ugliness back to the surface where you can face it, wrestle with it, grieve, shake, and cry.

Racism should be in the DSM-5. “Mental health” professionals are required to own the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, from which they diagnose “mental illness.” Racism should be in there. It is a mental condition that infects us all, and erodes our relationships.

What we have been doing together, the mini-session, is a simple healing process. It is simple, and it is very difficult. We have to do it on a larger scale, a “maxi-session”—not just occasionally, but systematically. We have to face our racism. In order to come to our relationships clean and unhampered by past hurts, we have to make a commitment to set up an ongoing relationship like this in which we commit to each other to do this work. And you have to do this work together, not with us. We are not in shape [in a condition] to listen to how you have been hurt by racism.

This work requires at least an hour each week, every week, telling our stories, allowing ourselves to cry out our grief, and to shake about our fears, and to rage about our anger, and even to laugh about our embarrassments and humiliation. Making that commitment to each other will be the bravest thing you have ever done, and it will change your life in ways you cannot imagine. If you make that choice, let me know. I have my cards here. Call me, and I can help.

Every one of you in this room has a memory; it may be buried, but it is there. There was that day that you brought your friend home and your parent said, “No, they cannot come into our house,” or “No, they cannot come to your sleep-over or your party.” And your heart was broken. You fought hard to hold on to us, and at some point you lost that battle. You had to let us go. It may have been the time that they said, “You cannot date him or her.” Any of those things would have broken your heart. Every time that you had to turn away from someone and go on without them, you also gave up a piece of who you are. As your world became smaller and more insular, you became smaller too. This work of being an ally is not for us, it is for you. You have to get yourselves back, and then you can come to us, whole and without guilt and shame.

This is the work, and until we can create an environment for ourselves where we can clean this up, we are not able to ally with anyone in an effective way.

You are deeply hurt by racism. Racism has cut you off from the majority of the people on the planet earth. The planet is mostly populated by people of color. Racism gives you a very narrow perspective on the world. And the doctrine of white supremacy convinces you that your perspective is correct. Your friends, your relatives, your organizations look like you. They see the world through the same lens, and this makes you a squirrel in a cage, making the same mistakes over and over because your perspective is too narrow.

Racism makes you hate yourselves because of the awareness that you benefit daily from the efforts of our ancestors and you participate daily in a system that perpetuates that oppression for the sake of comfort and wealth.

Racism separates you from other white people, because the only way you can comfort yourselves about it is to notice those white people who are more blatantly racist than you are and to hate them for their racism. I promise you, it is in all of us.

Racism has warped your perception of who you are.

I want to tell you what it means to be a human being. You may check this out simply by looking at a new human, a baby, uninfected by racism, and sexism, and classism, and all the others. But because we don’t have a baby to check out, I will lay it out for you. This is a description of you, who lies beneath the rubble of oppressions the world has handed you.

Every undamaged human being is brilliant. That means you are able to know anything that is knowable. That is how smart you are. Every human undamaged by oppression is one hundred percent good, inside and out. This is what it means to be human. Each of us is deeply in love with all the rest of us. We don’t really want to go on without each other. Beneath the hurts we are powerful beyond belief. We were born able to dream big dreams and to make those dreams come true. And our dreams have become small.

I am challenging you to get yourselves back, to clean up the packed-away unaware hurts that have left you disappointed, discouraged, and timid. I challenge you to make a pact with someone that you will do this work together. You will commit to each other’s humanness. You will create together a safe space, a little respite from the world, in which to find yourselves again.

I still say I can’t speak for all Black people, but I believe that in our hearts we all want you, and we want you whole, unashamed and openhearted.

Dorothy Marcy

Fayetteville, Arkansas, USA

(Present Time 191, April 2018)


1 Understanding and Healing the Effects of Internalized Racism: Strategies for Black Liberation, by Barbara Love, the RC International Liberation Reference Person for African Heritage People (available from Rational Island Publishers)


Last modified: 2018-07-29 12:16:36+00