How White People Can Support People Of Color Now
Allyship isn’t a one-time thing — it’s a series of investments. Here are some concrete actions you can take to support people of color in Trump's America.
That was the year of the nationwide dumpster fire, we’ll tell our grandchildren one day. The year the Warriors blew a 3–1 lead in the finals. The year we lost David Bowie, Prince, and Vine. The year a man successfully campaigned on racism, misogyny, and anti-immigrant sentiment all the way to the highest office in the land.
Things have felt confusing, scary, and downright dystopian in the two weeks since the election. Projections about the future make me feel like I’m living inside hastily written chapters from a rejected Margaret Atwood novel (“a little heavy-handed with the metaphors, don’t you think?”).
There’s a whole lot of terrifying (and fake!) news out there. There’s been an alarming resurgence of hate crimes against people of various backgrounds, with no sign of slowing down anytime soon. With so much happening so fast, it’s hard for anyone to know what to do except lie in bed crying and making memes. But chances are, if you’re white and you’re feeling overwhelmed right now, the people of color in your life are dealing with even more compounded forms of stress and straight-up fear — and for good reason.
When the news of Donald Trump winning the election first started to pour in, my phone became a life raft. Texts and calls and DMs and emails from other people of color rolled in urgently, each one bleeding into the next for days on end: “Are you alone? Are you okay? Are we okay? I love you. I saw this coming, but I’m scared. We will keep going. We have to keep going.” We held each other because we had to. Because we have to.
But the sparse messages from white friends were less steady, more unsure: “How could this have happened?” and “I don’t know what to do” flanked each “How are you?” The requests came soon after, the way they often do. “How do I fix this? What do we — white people — do?”
Exhausted and overwhelmed, I didn’t have answers at first. I needed rest before I could respond. Before I could teach, before I could reach back into my experiences organizing on campus and beyond to do this newly urgent work. But now, two weeks and several terrifying cabinet appointments later, I want to help teach them how to build us all a raft. Show them how to be the most helpful friends they can during these ominous times. So I pulled together this very nonexhaustive list of ways to help. We’ve entered a new storm, but lessons from the past can still guide us. Here’s a start.
1. Don’t ask your friends — or random internet acquaintances — of color to #process everything with you.
Emotional labor is exhausting, and people of color are already carrying the burden of existing as targets in this openly hostile terrain. The last thing we are equipped to do under duress is take on the weight of your anxieties too. If your first temptation is to text a black friend about your own fear, you’re probably contributing to that load — even if it’s not intentional.
Find other outlets to explore what you’re feeling. Reach out to other white people to have those conversations, write in a journal or blog, or talk to a mental health professional if you’re able to. People of color can’t be your de facto therapists whenever something scary happens, especially when we’re the ones directly in harm’s way.
2. If you want to reach out to your friends of color to ask about how they’re feeling, don’t force a conversation.
Again, having emotionally fraught conversations can be draining. So if you want to check in on your friends or co-workers, send a simple but supportive message that doesn’t require them to respond back with a paragraph. I’ve found that messages like “I know you are probably dealing with a lot right now, but I just wanted you to know that I’m here if it’d help you to talk with someone” can mean the world. They convey your desire to be there — without putting the onus on the recipient to stop what they’re doing and engage you.
Have you ever had a day when texting back or even getting out of bed feels like a task hard enough for the final level of a video game? We get those too. And in the coming years, as news and events continue to underscore just how much danger we’re in, there will probably be even more days like this. So don’t take it personally if a friend doesn’t immediately respond to your reaching out; sometimes the best way to support someone is to give them space.
3. Invest your energy into having difficult conversations with white people around you.
Ask open-ended questions about race and stereotypes. Feel free to share how your own thought process has evolved and why; admit to not having all the answers. Be frank when someone says something fucked up. You have far more leverage with other white people than people of color do.
3a. Especially your family members!
Holiday conversations can be especially difficult, but don’t avoid your “racist uncle” because it’s easier than challenging his views. Again, you have far more leverage with him than any person of color would. Avoiding difficult discussions about race is a luxury we don’t have.
Last year, BuzzFeed’s own audio wiz Meg Cramer stepped into the Another Round studio to share an open letter to other white folks on how to be better allies. Here’s part of what she said:
4. Amplify the work and words of the most marginalized people.
People in power get cited as experts on marginalized people’s experiences because they’re considered “unbiased.” You can help push back against this faulty paradigm by insisting marginalized people are the experts on their own lives and the -isms that affect them.
Get into the habit of sharing articles and essays and poetry and art by people of color. Buy their books. Link to them on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr. Email their work to your relatives. Use your platform to make sure their thoughts and perspectives and ideas and analyses reach audiences who might not have had access to them otherwise. It’s strategic and also just intellectually honest (after all, you didn’t just wake up one morning with fully developed racial justice analysis).
Looking for some reading lists to start with? Here are some on black feminism, intersectionality, anti-Islamophobia, supporting immigrants, thinking about alternatives to policing and community accountability, and perspectives from queer and trans people of color.
5. Intervene when you see harassment happening.
People in dangerous situations probably aren’t safe enough to casually scan their surroundings and take note of who’s wearing a safety pin. If you see someone targeting another person with any version of racist, sexist, anti-Muslim, or anti-queer aggression, quickly evaluate the situation. Aggressors are far more likely to back down if the person intervening is someone they see as equal, so if you’re white, a person shouting racist slurs at someone else would take your “Hey, stop that” far more seriously than a black person’s. It’s unfortunate, but it’s real.
Use your voice in these moments. Intervene calmly, with words that help deescalate the situation. Things like “Hey, that’s not cool” work surprisingly well. You can check this guide out for more resources on de-escalation. This works online, too. Sites like Twitter can be hotbeds of harassment for marginalized people. But when white people, especially men, interrupt to tell harassers their behavior is unacceptable, they are far more likely to stop their abuse.
6. If you’re going to engage the country’s ongoing protests, do so responsibly.
If you’ve never been to a protest or rally before, it’s easy to get swept up in the energy of the moment. People march, yell, and express their deeply held frustrations. They cry, laugh, and hold one another. Frequently, police show up and situations can escalate quickly.
It’s important to be aware of how you navigate these spaces if you choose to go. Are you being loud and disrespectful toward police? That might agitate them — and people of color are the ones who most often bear the brunt of the ensuing violence. However, in situations where police are targeting people of color, place yourself between the parties or make it clear that you are recording the encounter. Because police are less likely to do you harm, this can de-escalate the situation. I’ve seen it happen with my own eyes.
Stick to following the cues of those most vulnerable, and don’t try to make the action about you. Are you speaking over the people of color? Are you participating in chants that don’t apply to you, like “I can’t breathe”? These actions can make protests feel actively unsafe for people of color. Remember that you are there to be supportive, and your actions should reflect it.
7. Get involved for the long haul.
If you have access to financial resources, give to anti-bigotry organizations that will undoubtedly need to scale up their efforts in the coming months and years. I don’t want to officially endorse charities, but Jezebel published a list of some larger national organizations, and organizers in Los Angeles compiled another list, focused on smaller community-focused groups to consider. Set up recurring donations. Encourage your family and friends with access to wealth to do so too.
Consider volunteering with service-based organizations and lending your labor to advocacy groups. Do you have valuable skills, like copywriting or graphic design? Offer to help a local organization with their communications or administrative work; if your skills can be taught to other volunteers, consider offering to host a skill-share workshop so that the knowledge ripples beyond you. Do you have social capital? Ask your highly connected friends and family to consider stepping up in these ways as well. Do you have access to event space? Open it up to organizing groups who need meeting places.
Show up and show out for the 2018 midterm elections. Volunteer beforehand to get out the vote in your network and in your area. Report voter intimidation. Get involved and informed at the local level, and help ensure others have access to that knowledge too.
Ask people what they need.
8. Remember to stay vigilant (and patient).
Allyship isn’t a static label; it’s a series of actions, an investment. You should be doing this work because you care, because it will help move us all toward a more just world, because it will help save lives. Please don’t expect people of color to continually reward you for caring (remember that emotional labor thing?). Be humble, not defensive, when you are called out. Be patient, compassionate, and kind. We have so much work in the years ahead. But here’s to surviving them together.