Once upon a time, almost 20 years ago, I drove from Canada to Florida with my mom, my sister, and my then-infant son. We stopped to eat at the Waffle House because that’s what you do when there are Waffle Houses in the vicinity. There was a young African American woman who was our server, and her southern accent was so thick that I couldn’t understand her. I felt a bunch of things at once – I didn’t want her to think I was looking down on her because she was my server, whom I couldn’t understand. I didn’t want to ask for a different server lest it look like I didn’t want to be served by a black girl. I didn’t want to look like an entitled white woman, so I kept apologizing to her. I don’t know if she got this often – this being a popular restaurant just off highway 75, a major thoroughfare from Detroit to Florida with lots of tourists. But whenever we are in southern states, I always feel anxious because I don’t want to look like there’s even the suspicion of racism on me. But I also don’t want to be the person standing up saying “Look at me, I’m not being racist.” Like that’s an accomplishment of some kind. Gah.
And because my thinkythoughts are 89% train of thought, that brought me to a Bishop Desmond Tutu quote:
“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”
There are a lot of people in the water right now, and they’ve fallen in off of different wharves, piers, bridges, quays and docks. There are so many aspects of the world right now that are uncertain and unjust and unprecedented. Other aspects have always felt uncertain and unjust to many people. There are many, many people in the water.
Sometimes I feel like I’m in the water, too. But there are so many that are in far greater peril than me. At a time when I have something to hold on to so that I stay out of the rapids, many others don’t. I want to be a good ally. But I also don’t want to drown myself in the effort.
A few years ago, a thinkythought got stuck in my head – I don’t even remember where it came from now, but it was around how people react during a crisis. There are people who build, and there are people who fight fires. Builders show up day after day, month after month, doing the things that need to get done to move the world along. Firefighters spring into action during a crisis. The article (TedTalk? Blog post?) said that very few people can do both roles, so figure out which you are, and be spectacular at it. Then trust that there are others who made the other choice.
The world is in a place right now where everyone needs to know what it means to be a good ally. My $dayJob has Microlearning Monday sessions and Slack channels and official statements and policies covering BLM and inclusive language and Pride. We want to do the right thing. And I get that I should be educating myself about how to not be an asshole to my peers and coworkers and folks I encounter out in the wild. But I also get that I don’t know what I don’t know. I’m feeling a bunch of things here, too. Several weeks ago, a friend posted something to his FB that said that it is exhausting for black people to explain it all the time, and then when white folks feel badly, to comfort them in their white upset.
Back in the day, when Saved by the Bell was a thing in pre/teenage lives, I didn’t tune in regularly, but there was one episode that stuck with me – Teen Line (find a good snarky synopsis here). Basically, Zach goes on a date with a girl in a wheelchair, and turns into a bit of an ass about it. The girl says to him, “I’d rather be your friend than your cause”
Yes. That is exactly it. It feels like there’s a fine line, and I don’t feel confident in how I’m traversing it. I want to be an ally to those who need an ally. I want to acknowledge the experiences of those who have struggled, or are struggling. And I don’t want to look like I’m doing it for show. I want to use my privilege to the benefit of others, without making it look like I’m waving an enormous flag that doesn’t exactly belong to me. There’s a phrase in the accessibility community: Nothing about me, without me. That’s kind of the tack I’m taking with all my efforts to be a good ally.
There’s still choppy water ahead.
It would be easy for me to suggest that we all race upriver and see what the H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks is going on up there, and wrestle that monster to the ground. But if we’re all up there, there’s no one on lifeguard duty downriver.
If you can keep people out of the rapids, do.
If you can head upriver and see why there are so many falling in, do that.
If you can be part of the solution so that less fall in, do that.
But you know, if all you’ve got is that you can help someone keep their head above water, absolutely do that.