Photo of Michael Baran, Ph.D.

THE CONTEXT

With the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, Black Lives Matter protests have grown across the country and around the world, and white people seem moved and motivated to be allies in a new way.

THE FOCUS

Some allies are stepping up at protests. Others are donating time and money. How can white people also be allies in long-term, everyday personal interactions to support Black people? Use the energy of now to create long-term change in yourself and the world.

Over the years, I’ve seen white people largely silent on race issues.

I know there are many reasons for that silence, and I suspect that at least one reason for the silence has been fear of messing up, of saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing. One of the ways that this particular moment in history is feeling different is that I see white people not being as silent, which is great. And as they test out their voices on these issues, white people are trying to figure out how to best be supportive. That’s a good thing. We all need to stop trying to get it perfectly “right” and instead commit to fumbling and stumbling and regrouping through it together. Sometimes what we try is going to be effective; sometimes it’s not. What seems to work with one person may not work for another person. Humans are complicated. What’s important is the real commitment and the real engagement and all of us working together to humanize the effort.

In that spirit, here are some loose suggestions about ways we can be better allies to Black people right now and long-term.

And to be clear, these are not ideas that just magically came to me. They came from listening – listening to my Black colleagues and friends, listening to Black writers and thought leaders, and it’s important to read their words directly too. Links to just a few of those pieces follow the list below, but please seek out more.

HOW WE CAN DO BETTER

[1] Listen. That sounds so simple, and yet it is not simple at all. In fact, when it comes to race, it’s really hard for all of us to truly, empathetically, actively listen – to listen without the counterarguments popping up in our heads, to listen without filtering someone else’s experience through our own ways of seeing the world, to listen without giving our own experience in return, to listen without feeling the need to take action. Just two days ago, we had an internal inQUEST meeting to try to figure out how to respond to requests we’re getting right now to facilitate listening sessions, and we ended up coming to the conclusion that even before the “listening” session, we need a “Learning HOW to Listen About Race” session. That’s the only way for people to jump in without potentially causing more harm for people who have tried speaking up and being vulnerable only to have their voices ignored or shot down or disputed or toyed with by someone playing “devil’s advocate.” Don’t play “devil’s advocate” with this topic.

[2] Show support without asking for anything. Recognize that some Black people may be feeling overwhelmed, tired, taxed, furious, and just downright frazzled right now. The cumulative effect of a lifetime of being treated unfairly cannot be underestimated. The trauma of seeing video and images of people like you being murdered cannot be underestimated. And top it all off with a global pandemic disproportionately killing people like you and here you are having to risk your life by going out to protest the fact that your life even matters. Support from everyone is needed. But instead of asking Black people “how are you?” you could try starting out by saying, “I see you. I care about you.” Try to avoid reaching out in a way that puts more work on others by asking for a response. Don’t make them have to take care of you. Ace Callwood explains this point so well – his article is linked down below.

[3] Do the work. Try not to burden Black people by asking them to explain things to you (but if they are explaining things to you, allow that too). There are mountains of resources out there that can explain the current situation – books, movies, articles, blog posts. What has happened and is happening cannot be understood quickly and easily. It takes work. Recognize you are on a journey of understanding (we all are; it’s lifelong!) and settle in for the long haul. And try to recognize that all that information is still not the same as people’s lived experiential knowledge. In the short term, you can get answers to immediate questions by googling them. Seriously, type in a complex question about race and some pretty good resources usually show up in less than a second. It’s never been easier. And if you need more, reach out to me or be attentive to moments when a Black person is willing and eager to answer questions or help.

[4] Take feedback graciously. When you mess up, and you will, just hear the feedback and take it in graciously. Most of us are trying hard to be good people. When someone speaks up to you about something you said that might not be appropriate or might be offensive, they are risking their own comfort to help you and to build a trusting relationship. Take it as the gift that it is, and use the opportunity to grow as a person. There’s a video going around where Robin DiAngelo tells about a time she asked a Black person what it would feel like if a white person would just take feedback graciously and work to do things better. The Black person tells her, “It would be revolutionary.” That shows the extent of the defensiveness that people have encountered. Understand the impact your words or actions had on the other person rather than defending your intentions.

[5] Respect where people are, emotionally. Video conference platforms like Zoom have been really useful to visually connect with people during this time of physical distancing. But don’t push people to be on video if you get the sense that they are not feeling it. People are going through a lot and they sure might not feel like putting on their video and forcing a smile. Of course, we don’t want to assume that we know where people are emotionally. You could start work meetings by holding a space where people can share what they are experiencing if they want. During our biweekly leadership meetings, we have been having check-ins like that ever since the lockdown started. Sometimes the check-in takes almost the whole meeting. And it is not a waste of time; it has built trust, created even more inclusion, and made our team stronger during this time.

[6] Speak up, even when it’s uncomfortable. When someone on your Facebook group says “all lives matter” or when someone starts focusing on the “looting” instead of the core issues, it’s important to not let it slide, even if feels hard or awkward to speak up (a newsletter on how to respond to some of these things will be coming soon). Allyship is not supposed to be easy and it’s not supposed to be performative. It takes work, and we have to do it as much as we can so that others who are more directly affected don’t always have to. When you do speak up, there are some good best practices for doing it in a way that is more productive rather than adversarial. See some of those guidelines in a previous newsletter here. And critically, it’s important to speak up even if there are no Black people around. It’s not just about protecting feelings. It’s about all of us working for culture change.

[7] You don’t have to have all the answers. When someone says something biased or a subtle act of exclusion, you might not know what to say. That’s ok. You can interrupt the subtle act of exclusion anyway by saying something like, “I’m not exactly sure why this feels bad to me, but it does. Can we explore this together?” If you wait until you know the perfect thing to say, you will likely end up not saying anything. And get comfortable with the fact that you will never have all the answers. No one ever does! It’s messy, it’s imperfect, and imperative to try.

We can do better at supporting Black people, and the way we do it will help us learn how to better support all people. 

A few more resources:

“The Burden of (Finally) Being Seen” by Ace Callwood
“Dear White People, This is What We Want You to Do” by Kandise Le Blanc
“Welcome to the Anti-Racism Movement: Here’s What You’ve Missed”by Ijeoma Oluo
“Healing Diversity: Why pre-pandemic inclusion strategies won’t work anymore” by Tiffany Jana
“How you can be an ally in the fight for racial justice” by Deray Mckesson


The We Can Do Better newsletter is written by Dr. Michael D. Baran, Senior Partner and Digital Solutions Lead at inQUEST. With this newsletter, Michael explores thorny DEI issues and provides some concrete and practical tips for how we can all do better—at work and beyond.

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