How to be a better ally text

We caught a glimpse of this in the #IAmStellenbosch campaign where a group of well-meaning students drew up some posters highlighting something about them that made them unique or different to the stereotype that their skin colour or background might typically suggest. It received a huge backlash from the media and people of all races across the country for a number of reasons. Possibly the biggest one was that once again we saw a race problem and we made it about us.

“But it wasn’t just white people doing it. It was people of all races.” That is true, although even a number of those people from other races were buying into the narrative by describing themselves as “non-white” as if “white” is the standard we compare everything to. That must have been heart-breaking for so many people to see.

This morning i was trying to think what post to write about trying to be an ally in the ongoing race conversation and journey and i had an idea of how it could have looked in Americaland around the time of setting slaves free:

“We realise we have been wrong. We should never have enslaved people. We have now freed them. We are getting it right now. How do we continue life now that the people who used to serve us are gone?”

Do you hear all the ‘we’ in there? The ‘I’ language? The ‘This-Is-Once-More-Still-About-Me’?

i am learning that this is one of the key pieces of moving forwards in South Africa. Realising that it CANNOT any longer be about me. About us. About white people. We dominated the narrative for so long. It is time the story was shifted to and told by someone else.

We need to learn to ACTIVELY LISTEN. 

Two of the ideas from the list of Ten Communication Commandments from the previous post i find particularly helpful in this:

Thou shalt listen actively, ask questions, and refrain from giving advice.

If you hear an idea that is new or strange, try it on for size.

For too long, white people were setting the pace, leading the way, creating the history [the one i learnt at school was a very biased one-sided affair] and in many ways attempting to be the standard [beauty magazines, television series, movies, sports stars] that we expected others to try and attain or adulate. It is long overdue time for us to let someone else have that space and to sincerely pay attention to what they may have to say.

As a white person we tend to egg-shell walk around these things and say them nicely because we don’t want to offend and we want to keep it all civil and YOU KNOW WHAT? We did offend. Apartheid was offensive. Wanting a Get-Out-Of-Apartheid-Free card that let’s us move forwards as if nothing happened and that that nothing had no consequences is offensive and unkind and oblivious, so to put it in more direct, less comfortable language we need to learn to SHUT UP!

“Ah, Brett man, that is unnecessarily harsh. You need to chill and go easy on us.”

No, i think the time for that may have passed. If you have not yet realised that there is still a need for some serious bridge-building in this country, then you need to catch up. But if you have and are there, then this is an aspect that must take centre stage. We need to learn to listen.

Which all feels a little bit like a paradox. Because in the #IAmStellenbosch post i was suggesting that white people need to speak up. And that is true. Here is how i see it:

# Where there are people not getting it and living in continued ignorance or misinformation, it is the role of us as white people to speak into that. As ‘Suits’ put it so eloquently last night, white people need to help our own “get their shit together”. Many of us are tired of trying to do this and frustrated with attempts at helping white people understand ‘white privilege’ and unpacking the absence of any kind of ‘white guilt’ and some have given up and decided only to continue working with those who get it and want to make a difference. But it should not be up to the oppressed or marginalised to have to explain this to us any more. Except where there is authentic relationship and they are holding us accountable.

# Where the conversation of moving forwards and what South Africa looks like and how reparation and restitution and reconciliation need to take place, that is an area where we need to be quiet and listen and follow people of colour in this area. i’m not saying we must not be a part of those conversations, but i am suggesting that we should not be the ones leading them. And that we need to err on keeping quiet.

Listen with the Intent to Understand

Thou shalt listen actively, ask questions, and refrain from giving advice.

If you hear an idea that is new or strange, try it on for size.

How does the idea of listening sit with you? Is this something you feel you do well or could do better at? What other ideas do you think could help make us a good ally in these conversations about race?

[For more ideas on How To Be An Ally, click here]