"It's like, I'm on fire. And, around me is a crowd of really loving and kind people. And, every single one of them sees me burning and they are all so upset. They turn to each other and say, 'Oh this is terrible. Oh my gosh, this looks so painful. Oh, this must hurt so badly. Oh, this is terrible, just terrible.' But nobody grabs a bucket of water."
As a diversity practitioner, I often have incredible allies engage in conversations with me about how they can do better, do more, and act beyond just 'showing up.' Many of them have been compelled to step up after seeing what has been going on in our world, country and in our political climate. I've heard people use phrases like, "I just can't stand by and watch anymore" or "I just need to do something .. anything ... but something."
When folks try to make sense out of our current political and social climate, they comment, "Well one good thing that has come out of the toxic environment is that I've been shaken out of complicity." And, because they are trying to grow, I remind of them of the privilege behind that statement. That, for many people -- those who have been marginalized, oppressed and minoritized -- the fight, fear and threat was always there. I highlight that the comment that they have been "shaken into consciousness" is, in fact, a sign of great privilege. Also known as "You mean to tell me you're JUST realizing (insert race, class, sexism, gender, homophobia, power, privilege, xenophobia...) is a problem??"
But, inevitably, allies and folks who are on the ally journey, eventually hit a point where they are enraged, but aren't sure of the next step.
In a conversation, similar to the one above, I said to my friend, "Pick up the damn bucket of water and start putting out the fire." Her reply was, "But, what if you don't even know where the bucket is?"
With a loving -- but pleading -- heart, I replied, "Is that excuse enough to watch someone burn?"
Our conversation continued with this similar type of pushback. "I mean, even if you find the bucket of water, are you still going to throw it on the fire? OR, are you going to test and see if the water temperature is right? Or are you going to spend time, first, figuring out if the handle is ergonomically correct so that your hand doesn't get hurt before you throw the water? Or do you spend time wondering if the water is properly filtered and free of harsh chemicals? How much are you making this about YOU than about the smell of burning flesh?" (insert lots of images of one of my binge shows, The Walking Dead).
Difficult, but courageous, conversations.
For people on the ally journey, this is for real. They (you/I) get to a point where we have done lots of self-work and see all the holes, implicit assumptions, early messages, problematic stereotypes (insert oodles of social justice language in here). They (you/I) emote the like best of them. They feel the pain both empathetically and sympathetically. They feel their faces get hot with anger. They clutch their hands as they shake. The take both hands, pull at the base of their hair near their temples and say things like, "I'm so angry I could just pull my hair out!" The rage they feel vibrates through their bones.
Yet, they (you/I) do nothing.
Get your hands outta your damn hair .. and grab the damn bucket.
You have to actually help.
You have to stop focusing on YOUR anger, YOUR emotions, YOUR confusion and YOUR rage and actually help the person (community, people, issue, etc) who is burning.
Allies come asking about lots of different issues. Sometimes it's about policy change. Sometimes it's about student or employee advocacy. Sometimes it's about language (aka shith*ole comments) or bullying or exclusion from organizations. Sometimes it's about sexual assault and harassment. Sometimes it's about plain old power and privilege.
This morning, while driving into work, I was listening to NPR and the testimonies of the women (many who were girls at the time) who had been sexual assaulted by the doctor who was hired by the National Gymnastics Association. Over and over again, the women stated that "people knew, and they did nothing." One woman stated that "people knew what he was doing, and they still made me go back to see him again and again." Many women stated that they didn't have to convince people it was happening -- everyone already knew. People were disgusted. People were angry. People horrified. And yet, people made women continue to see this doctor. I'll mention that one of my favorite quotes from the judge was when, after Nasser complained that he was having trouble listening to all of these testimonies, the judge replied, "Spending four or five days listening to them is significantly minor considering the hours of pleasure you had at their expense and ruining their lives."
The testimonies are not for the faint of heart.
Whatever the issue -- race, class, gender, employment, sexual orientation, the right to be called by your pronouns, etc -- here are some helpful actions you can take beyond just feeling bad, mad, confusion, enraged, nervous and angry:
- SPEAK UP. If you see something burning, sound the alarm. That is, if you see someone who is being taken advantage of, who is being overrun by power, who is being unfairly and unjustly treated -- speak up. Use your voice. Is there someone you know who wants to use gender non-binary pronouns but is being shut out or told to "wait until the organization is ready?" Well, speak up!
- POINT TO THE FIRE. In situations where there is injustice, the oppressor often tries to misdirect you. It's the old, "Look! No, don't look here -- look over THERE! WAY over THERE!" That's a tool used to distract you. Point to the fire. Point to the place where injustice is happening. Point to the person who is setting the fire. Remember your CPR training? Look someone in the eye and say, "You, yes, you, go call 9-1-1 and get help." Calling into a crowd will yield you nothing. Be specific. Be direct.
- USE DATA. While we know that stories and storytelling are compelling, you need data to make your case. If someone says your job performance is poor, require data. Require metrics. Require deliverables. In some states, it's just fine if someone says, "Well, I'm firing you because I don't like you." Okay, you can go lots of routes with that one. But, in the end, what does the data say about your issue? Or, use data about LGBT experiences, school satisfaction. Use data about the number of courses related to diversity or the number of people at an institution. Or, use data about participation rates or engagement or family metrics. There is data. Use it.
- SPEAK WITH YOUR FEET AND YOUR WALLET. People who are compelled to go to protests often believe that their presence matters. Well, it does. If you are committed to a situation or experience or organization, show up. Or, if you are protesting, don't show up. Walk out. Use the power of your presence to make a statement. We know that other identities do this -- they say they are withholding their money or participation or support. It works, clearly. So, use that. Use your own feet, your own presence and your own wallet (e.g., the absence of donation or participation speaks loudly!) to take action. There are a number of companies that I do not do business with because of their historic or present day exclusion or oppression of certain types of people and issues. Does my $9.99 make a difference? Maybe. Maybe not. But I don't go to those places, and neither do my children, and certainly no one in my circle.
- REACH OUT TO STAKEHOLDERS. In situations of injustice and oppression, there is a reliance on secrecy. It's the old, "If people knew about this, we'd have to be accountable." Okay, well, let people know about it and hold them accountable. Maintaining secrecy on behalf of the oppressors will usually result in some sort of intimidation, threat, fear, and leaning on relationships (aka "How could you do this to me? We are friends!"). Know the difference between permission and intimidation. What are you willing to do or say? I think about the journalists in the Boston Globe Spotlight series who use the power of media to expose inequity. How might you engage stakeholders, even knowing that this will make those in power upset?
In addition to the other tactics of protest, marching, sit-ins, boycotting, and picketing (thank you, Civil Rights Movement), these are just a few ways that you can take action.
Listen, I get that you're angry. I get that you're confused. I get that you want to do something.
Just don't wait until the water is room temperature.
Peace and love,