The events of the last week, beginning with Amy Cooper’s false claims of being under attack, to the horrors of witnessing George Floyd’s killing by a police officer with a history of misconduct, the suspicious circumstances of Regis Korchinski-Paquet’s death after family had called the police for help, and Tony McDade’s shooting death, have brought racial injustice to the forefront in a way that seems to be impacting in an unprecedented way. As an academic, a justice advocate and white mother of bi-racial children, many white folks have been approaching me with questions about how to be an ally. I’ve been doing a lot of anti-racism coaching for white people this week as folks try to make sense of white privilege, white tears, what to do with grief and how to be an ally. For those working to make sense of this, I'm offering a bit of a road map filled with links for further reading.
When I was a little, it amused me the way that my dearly departed grandmother, Grace, would boldly J-walk. I grew up right in downtown Toronto, first in Little Italy to the north-west of Kensington Market, then in community housing nestled between a pre-gentrified Queen St West and China Town to the south-east of the market. I was not allowed to J-walk. Gracie, however, would stroll out into the main street of Streetsville, Mississauga, giggling, “It’s ok, Japji, they don’t want to kill you either.”
My grandmother did not have an easy life. Her mother was hospitalized, her father worked hard labour, and she and her brother bounced around among other family members. She was poor, abandoned and, it seems, mistreated. But she had the security that, in a general sense, her life had a value recognized by society at large. She had privilege.
Some white people hear the term white privilege and react. They point out the ways that they have suffered—perhaps they were poor, abused, worked in grueling circumstances or whatever the case. It can be easy to feel like the term white privilege refers to other white people with picturesque lives. That is not what white privilege means. White privilege refers to the security that you have based on the colour of your skin. White privilege means that whatever hardships you have faced, the challenges would have been exponentially worse if you experienced those circumstances as a person of colour (POC).
Understanding our own privilege requires empathy, perspective, and the capacity to put ourselves in another person’s position. For people who have not yet come to terms with their own personal struggles, this can be next to impossible to do. It requires bringing awareness first to our selves and then extending that awareness to others. It requires waking up to reality, holding space for suffering, the very definition of being woke. Yet it is only when we make the space to be present with our whole selves that we can reach our potential, and when we do this our capacity for empathy flourishes and we seek to support others in the same.
This past week has been excruciating by all reasonable accounts. Months into the stress of the global COVID-19 pandemic, physical distancing and associated stresses, we witnessed a white woman falsify being under attack, immediately followed by the murder of black man by a police officer already dogged by dozens of complaints of misconduct. The empathetic among us have been rocked to the core. If it was not clear before, it is now—we are either racist or anti-racist, there really is no middle ground. We mourn, we weep and then are told that our white tears are not welcome.
I have coached many people through bewildered states on this issue. Aren’t my tears a reflection of my compassion? Why would they be unwelcome? This has been hard for many compassionate white people and I feel you. Many of my family members are POC and I grieve deeply. Yet white tears have been weaponized to hijack conversations about racial injustices so often that for many POC they literally produce a trauma response. Many of the white people I’ve been speaking with describe experiencing an uncomfortable feeling, having to manage their behaviour and emotional response to protect someone else’s comfort. This very discomfort is an opportunity to grow empathy because POC are constantly expected manage their behaviour and emotional responses for white people’s comfort.
Circle of Grief
At the same time, this grief is an expression of your empathy and it is what motivates you to act. It is important to stay connected to your feelings of grief, but how? You will need to mourn and may need people to lean on.
The circles of grief, ring theory model clearly outlines a compassionate approach to this. Imagine a series of concentric circles, with a point in the centre—the centre representing the person suffering, the next representing the people closest to that person, the next that person’s close community, followed by their broader community, and so on to an exterior circle with little or no connection to the centre of pain.
If you need comfort, seek someone farther out than you. If you are looking for a collaborator in action, seek someone in your same circle. And, if you are able to offer support, offer it to someone closer to the pain. Most of us seem to know this intuitively on an individual scale—just as you would not ask a mother who’s child had died to hold space for your tears, do not ask those closer to racial injustice to hold space as you work to stay woke.
So, you’ve recognized your privilege, used your discomfort to expand your capacity for empathy, and have a model for where to put your feelings. Now what? The key to being a good ally is to apply these principles as you move to act. As people farther from the centre of pain, it is incumbent on us white folks to act in a state of listening and response, without taking over the conversation.
As white anti-racist allies we can amplify voices and employ our privilege to protect. We can educate ourselves, reading the work of POC without asking that they do the work for us (check this resource list and these Canadian books The Skin We’re In and Policing Black Lives), we can support business owned and operated by POC (Nish Dish, Salmon and Bannock, The Roti Hut) and we can contact our local authorities to support calls for justice on specific cases. To my fellow white anti-racist allies: let us all have the grace to recognize our privilege, the fortitude to cultivate empathy, the wisdom to not lean on the suffering, the courage to confront injustices and let us continue to listen because being an ally is a practice, not an identity.