Saturday, January 24, 2015

Nicholas Kristof and How to Be an Ally

A tweet is just a tweet, but when you have 1.5 million followers, many of who believe in your power as a social justice hero, these kinds of tweets matter.

On the face of it, the tweet makes no sense. Michael Brown was killed on August 9. Tamir Rice was killed on November 22.  By the time Rice died, activists had been invested in Brown's case for months. Brown's Grand Jury decision was on November 24, so perhaps that's what Kristof means.

Or more likely, he's just comparing Rice to Brown and thinking about how much more media friendly the little boy is.

At any rate, I have a few short reactions.
  1. Movements do not emerge from central committees waiting for perfect victims. Sometimes legal cases do (Loving v Virginia, Lawrence v Texas). 
  2. Kristof has a bad history of looking for perfect victims. One would think he might have learned.
  3. There's an implicit "no angel" behind Kristof's tweet, a suggestion that Brown's lack of childlike innocent perfection makes him culpable for his death. Such not only works directly against the principles of #BlackLivesMatter, but I think ignores how willing people are to blame any black victim of police violence. Tamir Rice has been blamed. His parents have been blamed. People who want to defend cops from the consequences of their actions will blame the victims.
And so it's time to remind Nick Kristof, and indeed all of us, as I struggle with this plenty, how to be an ally. You don't tell groups fighting for justice that they are doing it wrong, you don't play white-savior, but you say - what do you need, how can I help, what should I do? And if they're too busy to answer, just be present and listen.

Here, not for the first time, are my rules for being an ally.
  1. Listen.
  2. Remember it's not about you.
  3. Remember it's sometimes about you (calling out bigotry inside your own group.)
  4. Mostly, though, it's not about you, so elevate the voices of those inside the movement instead of your own.
  5. Don't expect gratitude for just being a decent person. 
That fifth one is tough. One wants recognition for, as a white person, standing up against racial injustice. But remember, it's not about you. 

Another thing I like to say is that if you have the power inside an issue (and as a straight, white, tenured, abled male I almost always do), the first thing you have to do is listen. And the last thing you have to do is listen. In between, you speak, you make it clear that the injustice is not in your name, and then you go back to listening again.

So that's all I have to say for now. I'll be listening.

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