By Michael Skolnik
“You talk like you’re black.”
My Thanksgiving dinner table conversation stopped cold in its tracks over a political argument that came down to the question of racial justice and the appropriate role for white people to play in it.
I have held on to that moment, trying to fully understand what my family member meant when he turned to me and said those words with disgust 15 years ago.
I was a whiteboy in the 90s, growing up in a time when Nas convinced us that hip-hop ruled the world, black political influence was beginning to emerge in the hip-hop industry, fashion was dominated by Phat Farm, Sean John, Roc-a-Wear and Enyce, and Lauryn Hill was the great educator of youth culture. Los Angeles had already rioted after the acquittals in the Rodney King trial, O.J. and his white Bronco had seen their day in court and Colin Powell had led America to a perceived victory in Operation Desert Storm.
A new America was on the brink of exploding, led by a multi-racial, hip-hop centric generation, and I didn’t want to be left behind. So, whatever accent I picked up while growing up in New York and listening to Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys since the age of 6, was interpreted as “black” by my white family member.
I have always been inspired by the resilience of black people in America, through slavery, the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights movement, and ultimately to the present day’s failed “War on Drugs” resulting in the mass incarceration of a people. I learned at a young age that when you don’t grow up with this struggle you have many options.
One is to continue living in a bubble, not realizing how you are contributing to the suffering of other people. You rationalize your behavior by parading your “black friend” as the reason you could never be racist. Instead, I chose to recognize my white privilege and talk openly about it, without shame or fear of judgment, because it was the only way I could truly open myself up to becoming an ally to blacks fighting for justice.
Allies often carry a host of faulty assumptions. We think being an ally means we are “helping” black people. We think we are “needed” because no one will listen to black people. We imagine we have a better understanding of how things work, and therefore we should be included in important conversations. We think we set the rules of our allyship, like what time the protest starts or what color the flyer is going to be.
What I have learned over the years is that the best ally to the black community is one who accepts black leadership and follows their playbook in solving the critical issues of our time. This process of being an ally is something that is never a done deal, but instead is constantly in motion and ever-evolving. It’s the same when it comes to the Latino community, or the LGBTQ community, or the feminist movement.
If you’re white like me, you might ask the question, “Where do we, white people, find ourselves at the table of justice and human equality?” First, it’s best to receive an invitation. But even if you just show up, it’s best to put your head down and do the work. When you go to marches and rallies, fill in the gaps in the middle of the crowd. No need to grab the megaphone and lead the cheers. Engage in dialogue on social media with honesty and openness to being challenged about your privilege. Don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable. And when you go to sleep at night, realize that you have the freedom to fight for justice, but never have to worry about the system’s unjustness turning towards you.
The best ally commandments I’ve ever heard were articulated a few years back, during an early morning teaching on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show on MSNBC. During the show, Perry broke down the science:
Remember that often your place is at your own table, with your friends and family, who may not understand their own experience of privilege. They may even ask why “you talk like you’re black.” You might be the one to help them better appreciate that a struggle for justice and human equality has implications for all of us, because our future—as a nation, as a people—is intertwined.
Michael Skolnik is a civil rights activist and president of Global Grind.