The Making of an Ally
Two recent interactions led me to speculate on what it takes to create allies and change minds and hearts.
The first interaction was online. We disagreed, but we had a decent back-and-forth, and back-and-forth is typically a good thing as it implies engagement. However, an intriguing study based on analysis of the subreddit Change My View noted, “[T]oo much engagement can indicate futile insistence; in fact, after 5 rounds of back-and-forth, the challenger has virtually no chance of receiving a ∆.” The delta symbol indicated that someone’s mind was changed. As you can probably guess, we went past that number.
The second interaction, and this piece’s catalyst, was during a Zoom meeting. Over 300 teachers came together for training on racial trauma. There were several issues with the meeting. But, chief among them was the inability to engage in good meaningful dialogue. While participating in well-meaning, but ultimately unproductive discussions is a vice of mine, this was the event that made me wonder, “Is being patient with people’s ignorance or biases worth it?”
Like many, I came into that meeting with a strong passion for anti-racism, social justice, cultural responsiveness, and doing whatever it takes to create Dr. King’s “Beloved Community.” I always say Dr. King’s because even though Josiah Royce initially came up with the idea, Dr. King refined and popularized our current understanding of it. Anyway, the meeting was not going well, but its failings became most apparent after a colleague of mine made a statement along the lines of poverty being a result of bad choices.
Now, without context, I understand how problematic that statement was. I understand why people would feel anger or, at the very least, concern over a statement like that. That mindset could cause real harm! But, the amount of disrespect and hate I saw come from others was over the top. And, it turns out that’s not exactly what he meant, he was saying that poor choices was the result of poverty in his life. He was later given the chance to explain that he meant it as a personal statement, not a judgement of everyone who is experiencing poverty. He was opening up about his own experiences. But, the nature of the meeting did not allow him to explain himself.
This meeting failed, but, I don’t blame those who felt angry. When we feel passion for topics that are close to our hearts, we have every right to feel anger as it is entirely possible to feel anger and stay logical at the same time.
The problem was that there were entirely too many people for us to engage in any meaningful dialogue. I’m sure the intent was to change or embolden several minds all at once. However, the impact was a meeting that led to a massive amount of harm and misunderstandings. This work is going to take many conversations. Not just one big information session.
My colleague was vulnerable, human, open-minded, and, most importantly, a potential ally in this fight. Would it not have done him some good to try to level with him? I think it might have. After all, my mindset has changed. I, in many ways, was very similar to him.
From the ages of ~4–12, I lived slightly above and frequently slipped below the poverty line. During that time, I moved around a lot in part due to a custody battle between my parents and partly because I am a military brat. The courts initially granted my mother custody.
Living with my mother was not terrible. She made sure I was fed, clothed, clean, proud to be black, and even took time to drive out of our community to ensure I attended the better and whiter elementary schools nearby.
However, at times, she found it difficult to hold down a job. We held up lines looking for EBT or Food Stamps. She would leave me with strangers who drank and consumed drugs; she was a strong proponent of “whoopin,” she drank a lot, and I also remember growing up hearing things like, “I can’t work too many hours, or they’ll take away our assistance.”
Then, I would go to visit my father. He worked at a food processing plant. He drank a beer maybe once a month. There, we didn’t hold up lines looking for EBT cards or Food Stamps, his apartment wasn’t glamorous, but it was comfortable. And I got to spend time with my uncle who taught me martial arts moves and how to draw, and my aunt who was working in the medical field and as a college professor! I got to go on trips, the neighborhoods felt safer, and I never got spanked as a form of punishment.
To be clear, I am not attacking my biological mother. Black women have not been dealt a fair hand in the U.S. Sexism and racism are real, and so, all BIPOC women get a double dose of marginalization. According to research done by the National Women’s Law Center, in 2014, 1 in 4 Black women lived in poverty! So, although some of my experiences were painful, I now understand that my biological mother was in many ways doing her best.
I tell this story to illustrate a point. Logically speaking, based on my upbringing, why wouldn’t I believe that the way to solve poverty was to work hard? Why wouldn’t I think that Black people could succeed if they’d stop breaking the law? With only my immediate experiences, no books, or any person to guide me, less than a decade ago, I too would have felt that poverty was a result of bad choices.
I had not yet engaged with texts explaining redlining, gentrification, how generational wealth works, the problems with policing in America, the ongoing history of voter suppression, none of it! It took a compassionate, empathetic, and, most importantly, patient friend to teach me out of my biases and misunderstandings.
There are plenty of people out in the world who don’t have fully formed views. When pushed to comment on specific issues, they stumble into problematic statements that they don’t mean, they are entirely out of their depth. And, while they do have some learning to do, they still deserve respect. I know that in many cases, an honest, good-faith conversation could lead to positive outcomes. It’s not that these people don’t agree with me. They just don’t know they agree with me.
So, I would like all of us who are more informed to consider two things: 1.) Whether through college, upbringing, or a good friend, some of us are MUCH more well-versed in these topics and (2.) We need to lead with compassion and empathy.
Based on my upbringing, imagine how I’d feel if someone were to deny that poverty can, in some cases, at least IN PART be a result of bad choices. It would be disingenuous, and it would also invalidate my childhood trauma. Also, remember how vulnerable someone is making themselves when they speak from their own experience.
I assure you that other people in that Zoom meeting agreed with my colleague before he explained himself. Those people are all potential allies! They are not off the hook. They need to do the work necessary to unlearn racism, internalized, institutionalized, or otherwise. But, they are not on an opposing side. They are not as far along on the journey.
Which brings us back to the initial question: Is being patient with people’s ignorance or biases worth it?
Yes. I think so.
Shortly following Donald Trump’s 2016 election, I sat in on a meeting with a group of people to discuss how we felt about the election results. A significant minority of people expressed an unwillingness to try to understand a Trump supporter. They felt that due to Trump’s bigoted views, his supporters were undeserving of understanding. The basic idea was that Trump was trash, so anyone who voted for him must also be worthless.
I was conflicted then, and I’m conflicted now. I understood the sentiment. I too have a hard time understanding how someone could see a demonstrably sexist and racist person and still feel it was right to vote for him. But, I grew up in a ruby-red state. If I was unwilling to engage with a Trump supporter or anyone with different views than me, I would never be able to go back home.
On the other hand, should a person have to hold in pain when they feel directly or indirectly traumatized? Should that person be forced to bite their tongue while rage informed by years of mistreatment builds?
No. Probably not.
But somebody has to try.
I recently discovered sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s “empathy wall” concept and James Baldwin’s thoughts on how Americans have a hard time coming to terms with who they are. Both Baldwin and Hochschild realized that a lot of the pain we experience when attempting to understand one another comes from identity conflicts. We hold our personalities close to our hearts, but often find it difficult to empathize with others. So, dealing with our prejudices causes pain, as it forces us to confront our faulty conceptions of ourselves. And, it forces us to accept that others may be more than our initial assessments of them.
Remember my story? Based on my experiences, my reasoning that hard work beats poverty faster than handouts was sound. My limited knowledge and perspective did not mean I was stupid or unable to change. However, when I did change, I had to accept a gross truth about myself. I was classist, elitist, but most importantly, ignorant. It hurt to confront my ignorance.
So, and I say this very pointedly and passionately, those who are still learning or haven’t grappled with their prejudice have to do the work. Long-held ideas and ingrained practices cause harm.
But, we also have to be willing to understand that nobody was born woke. And, since the world hasn’t beaten the idealism out of me yet, I still feel like people can change. I know it will take an extreme amount of empathy, compassion, and patience, but I also know it’s worth it.