When White Allies Step Forward

Does it feel like your head is spinning?

There’s been hardly a week over the past year that has not offered fresh urgency for Americans to get and stay engaged in national conversations about race. From the deaths of unarmed black people at the hands of law enforcement officers, to the massacre of nine black parishioners in South Carolina at the hands of a man who wrote of wanting to start a race war, to the burning of black churches in the South in a week, there have been ample and urgent opportunities to talk about the “Uncomfortable Subject.”

The immediacy of these horrific events has caused many to stop and focus on the moment — to pay our respects. But I’m not satisfied with asking myself, “isn’t it tragic? Isn’t that sad?” My heart breaks and I am trying to figure out what more I can do.

I’ve mentioned before, I am working on, and learning about, being a more effective white ally. What that means to me is that I do what I can in the longer term work of breaking down inequities borne out of institutional and structural racism, and I work to overturn the inequities racism creates in education, housing, the workplace and the larger U.S. culture.

Becoming a white ally began with some incontrovertible personal truths: I have never had to fear being profiled when I walked into a store, or being pulled over when I drive a nice car, redlining when I wanted to buy a home, or rejection when I needed a loan or a job. I know that isn’t the reality for brown and black people. I believe racism exists. I’ve seen it denied, minimized, justified but I do not doubt the links between racism, economic disparities, classism, sexism, gender discrimination, and other forms of injustice. I learn about, and from, people who have worked for racial justice. I support the leadership of people of color. And, especially in this moment, I am reminded that I am not alone on this journey.

At the funeral eulogizing South Carolina State Senator Clementa Pinckney, President Barack Obama called for Americans to pay more attention to less apparent forms of racism. When he said, “maybe we now realize the way a racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize it so that we’re guarding against not just racial slurs, but we’re also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal,” it resonated for me. I thought of the important equity work we are doing here at Meyer, as well as my peers in the D5 Coalition who helping push philanthropy to reflect the diverse country we share.

When a recent Wall Street Journal editorial opined that “the system and philosophy of institutionalized racism identified by Dr. King no longer exists,” another white ally, Stewart Butterfield, the CEO of Slack, denounced the editorial board’s denial on Twitter. “Pretending it doesn’t exist is, cognitively, really hard work. And it is dishonest and unfair and cruel work too. It’s its own violence,” he tweeted. “Acknowledging that we still have a very, very long way to go is literally the least anyone could do.” That’s a white ally stepping onto the field, inspiring honest dialogue.

Another white ally comes from a family steeped in white privilege and generations of political power, Senator Paul Thurmond, the son of segregationist Strom Thurmond, addressed the matter of the Confederate flag, still flying above South Carolina’s state capitol after the killings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Where other lawmakers testified the flag was about Southern heritage, Thurmond countered that the flag was deeply rooted in oppressive story of slavery. It was the truth. We have to begin with truth.

Time and time again, Oregonians hold as their number one value their quality of life. True quality of life for all requires each of us reach our full potential, a significant challenge when we don’t have a line of stepping stones laid out neatly from the moment we are born.

It’s not easy. When I get into conversations about race with people of color, I can at times feel my heart rate go up or I get anxious. I can’t experience firsthand the emotions or level of anger or frustration at being judged by the color of my skin. I’m not always sure what is the right thing or the wrong thing to say. It can feel like wandering into uncharted territory, but it is so important to do it. Otherwise, we’re really not working toward change if all we say when nine people lose their lives is, “isn’t that sad?”

It is sad. How do you handle that?

Me, I’m going to commit to continuing to educate myself and others about racism. To raise issues around racism and discrimination in public and private. I plan to personally learn and engage more around the work of our local organizations working to dismantle racism. But I am going to do more than that. Meyer has made many inroads in diversity and equity but our field hasn’t diversified much; nor has my social circle broadened as I would like. There’s work to do there. I like how my immediate professional world has changed. I’m better for it. More important, the Meyer Trust is better for it.

How about you? Tell me about the steps you’re taking to help make this place, our Oregon, flourish for everyone. Reach out to me in the comment section below, or on Twitter @dougastamm. I look forward to your insights.

— Doug

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