What Happens If We Do Something Different?
Showing up for Black lives – A guide for all non-Black individuals
This is an application of The Active-Ally Model in response to the uprisings happening in Minneapolis, across the US, and the protests around the world. The focus is on race, and specifically Black lives. The Active-Ally Model offers a grounding, guiding and holding process to move through our individual and collective resistance to understanding our role in the cycle of complacency of upholding white supremacy – and breaking it – in order to change the system. This guide offers many questions and considerations on how we do anti-racist work. I invite and challenge you to spend time with the questions posed in this guide and consider the emotions you experience. Use this is as a resource to keep coming back to.
We’re in a system that always needs someone on the bottom – or it collapses. And our system has forcefully placed Black people and Black lives on that bottom. White supremacy has worked systematically, over generations, to develop the rest of us, to implicitly agree, support, and maintain anti-Black racism. And the system has adapted as needed to maintain itself as it was originally designed, by any means necessary.
We can change this. We are out of time to continue as we are, in a system that should never have been. Black lives have been out of time for generations. There is no greater moment than right now to live into a world that doesn’t kill and destroy beings simply for existing. We do not have to continue our agreement to complacency. It is a choice we make. As history shows, the more of us the stronger we are, and together it is possible to change the system.
If you’re reading this, most likely, you want to learn, grow, and create change. The question is how can you show up for Black lives and change the system? A system that harms so many but systematically harms Black lives most. Anti-Black racism and white supremacy work because those of us who benefit agree to the rules and levels of complacency. We agree to not step too far beyond the rules, or only so far. With honesty, we must ask ourselves, what role do we play in contributing to the ongoing violence against Black people, lives, and culture?
THE CYCLE OF COMPLACENCY
Right now, in this moment, we are fired up.
We are outraged, we say “no more”, and we say “Black Lives Matter!” We make memes and share articles and we demand change! Some of us watch the protests and some of us join the protests. At the same time, most of us continue to go to work and take kids to school and attend classes or have lunch with friends, and so on. And then some time passes – and finally, maybe, a cop or neighborhood watch guy, or a son and a father may be arrested or fired for their part in killing another Black person. Usually due to the uproar of and demand by the Black community. Yet rarely are there prosecutions or repercussions for murdering another Black person. The root causes of the violence are not addressed. So, we critique fellow liberals for not having done enough, for making the wrong choice, we critique those within our demographics, same race as us, class, ability, and we say that our group must do more. Articles are written, commentary is shared, and actions are suggested. Mostly it adds up to silence and inaction and we move on. And more Black lives are lost – especially Black women – trans and cis, Black queers, and Black sex workers, and they go unreported. Until another Black man is murdered at the hands of the state or your neighbor and it’s caught on camera and Black suffering goes viral, again. And the Black community rises again, so we begin again and put out a call to action…again, “We must do better! My fellow _____ what are we going to do now? The time has come! Here’s 1,000 million resources and suggestions on how to do this.” And then time passes, we move on, and the cycle of complacency continues and there is no change to the system.
If all of us who posted and called out anti-Black racism actually did the things on the lists, committed to them and engaged in our life-long work, we would see a shift in the cycle of violence against Black people. But what happens when our attention is moved on? When the excitement and anger fades? When the system takes us back to before? When it’s time to keep showing up as the comfort of complacency draws nearer?
Use the resources, and then…
BREAK THE CYCLE
Awareness in The Cycle of Complacency
We maintain this cycle of complacency because we don’t pause to be in our self-awareness. We don’t pause to consider who we are in these moments and how we are part of the full system we are posting about in anger and protesting against.
Within the Active-Ally model we always begin in *awareness*. Two important pieces to remember about awareness that can sometimes be lost: 1) awareness is about both yourself and the system, 2) awareness is a beginning. Awareness may seem obvious because we talk about it all time, because there are concerts and hashtags, with an expectation of systemic change. But we are still where we are in 2020, because we’re stuck in awareness that doesn’t challenge our core selves. Because we’ve accepted awareness without honesty.
How do I, a non-Black person, show up for Black lives?
Systemic Awareness: What are the rules, traditions, and beliefs in this context?
- How do I benefit from these rules, traditions, and beliefs, because of anti-Blackness?
- What access does anti-Blackness give me?
Self-Awareness: In this moment of wanting to stand against racial injustice, who am I in this context and what do I bring – what privileges do I have? (For those unsure of your privileges… if you can name marginalized groups you can name your privilege. Marginalization exists where there is a center group who hold and control the power and resources, knowingly and unknowingly, for their own benefit or privilege. If you are not part of a marginalized group, you are part of the center, thus there are your privileges. You can be either in the center or on the margins, and sometimes both.) What biases do I carry? Self-awareness is also an awareness of behavior – how do I engage outside of myself? Who am I in my being, in life, in this moment?
We can see how getting caught in awareness of others and not going into self-awareness can be a trap. Or another trap is getting caught in self-awareness and not looking out into the system, not being able to place ourselves in the system. What we want is to find a conversation between the two.
Sometimes answering these questions and feeling these questions can be hard. The Five Tenets ground, guide, and hold us in this process and in this work.
The Five Tenets
Honesty – Grace – Vulnerability – Witness – and Commitment
Honesty – Grace – Vulnerability – Witness – and Commitment
The part of you that most definitely wants to show up and do something needs to confront the part of you that doesn’t – that part that was trained to respond just as you are/have responded. It’s not about shame – it’s about honesty.
Do I want to show up for Black lives? Why, why not? How many of us have asked ourselves this honestly? Was your response, “yes, but”? Most of us carry some deep bias that keeps us from honestly wanting to show up. From honestly wanting to change the system. We must face this if we want to end the violence and systemic injustices toward Black people.
What is honest about my privileges, beliefs, and biases? And for non-Black people of color – when do the privileges I receive for not being Black support me in my marginalized identity?
In what ways do I use my privileges to only do so much in my support and showing up? As in, “The system helps me out and it’s a relief not being on the bottom.” Also, “It’s hard. And I don’t know what to do. ”
Dig into that depth of honesty. What stops you from showing up for Black lives? What are your barriers? What comforts must you give up? What are your moments of “I’ll do everything else except this one thing, or except if it interferes with this other thing,” or “…but I want my kids to go to a good school?” What happens when you challenge those moments?
What happens in your body? What do you feel? What is honest about what you’re feeling? Our bodies can help us begin unpacking and understanding how we feel and relate. The sensations and where we feel them can offer information on the why and pattern of a behavior.
Grace is where we let go of ego and open up room to grow. We can only be where we are, and we can only move forward from where we are.
Most of us don’t want to believe we harbor harmful ways of being and thinking. Most of us, especially if you’re reading this (or writing this), want to believe that at our core we are good unbiased humans. Grace allows us to not be perfect. Grace holds us in the moments when we are honest about our part in anti-Black racism. Grace allows the judgement of honesty to be set down. It allows judgement to be set down.
What happens when I…
… meet myself where I am?
…meet myself in honesty?
…am in the honesty of where I am without judgment: good or bad?
…hold myself where I am?
…hold myself in all the feelings that are coming up?
To live in honesty and allow for grace we must do so from a place of vulnerability.
To challenge white supremacy and dismantle anti-Black racism we must be willing to be vulnerable. Vulnerability whilst often hard and scary, is also simple. It’s about stepping and being in the discomfort of exposing ourselves. It’s just a step. To do this work well we need to grow our willingness to expose ourselves and see what’s there. We need to challenge the belief that vulnerability is weakness. Rather, it is where we can find honesty, growth, and healing. Vulnerability offers us a way to be in and learn from the subtleties of change.
What do you need to move through, to stay engaged in turning privilege into change? What aspects of yourself do you need to look at? What aspects of yourself will you expose? Where can you practice? Who can you practice with? How will you hold yourself in honesty? What happens in your body when you think about vulnerability? What happens when you step into vulnerability?
How can your responses to these questions help you to challenge and dismantle anti-Black racism?
This isn’t the time to stay hidden in your support for Black lives. Whatever fears you carry about being witnessed or witnessing others in this work must be set down. There is no more time to stay quiet. We must be willing to make mistakes, learn, make new mistakes, learn, do better, learn, and on and on. It’s not about you. It’s about changing a system. And we cannot change the system in silos. We must come out and allow ourselves to be seen.
What comes up for you when you imagine being witnessed, being seen in your support of and for Black lives? What shows up in your body? What is honest about what shows up in your body and how you feel and think about being witnessed?
How do I engage in this work while ensuring its sustainability? How do I commit to this work so that I do not go back to willful ignorance and/or awareness without allyship?
The word ‘ally’ has become wrought with negative connotation. This is because commitment often seems to be conditional. As in, when challenged or uncelebrated, allies withdraw their allyship. Or resistance to being told by those on the frontlines how to best support, means some never step up. “Allies” have claimed the title of ally and then continued to cause harm and deny it. Over and over and over.
We have no more time for conditional commitment. The time is now – the setting is prime. We must commit to do things differently.
When it gets hard and frustrating – how will I support myself to remember and live into my commitment to do this work and turn privilege into change? Am I committed to addressing my biases and doing the work, whatever that may look like for me? Am I ready to listen to the communities directly impacted and honor them through following their leadership and standing in unity with them?
Am I showing up to protests, or posting articles and commentary because I know it looks good? Because I want to be seen as an ally? How might this be a place of comfort? What does it feel like in your body? This is complacency.
The system is maintained through the fear of loss. How might you live in the honesty of why you’re comfortable posting and talking about being outraged but not acting on that outrage? What happens if you find honesty in your commitment? And find grace for where you are? What happens if you step into vulnerability and own where you are? What happens if you allow yourself to be witnessed in this process?
What happens if we do things differently?
These are the questions we need to explore. Not answering these questions can lead to the complacency which is often what stops us from continuing and is a correlation to why Black people are still being forced to the bottom of the system. It is a direct correlation to why the system continues to exist as it does. How can you find support and support others in this process?
Becoming an anti-racist, this work, is a commitment. We are trying to change a system that has existed so long it is ingrained in our core. And we commit to that journey. We can commit to it as an ally, as a co-conspirator, in solidarity, and as a comrade. Whichever way you commit – commit.
When we see ourselves as we are in relation to how we can and want to be, and there is a disconnect, this is our moment of honesty. This is the moment, the space, and the feeling we find grace for. This is our vulnerability. And this is where transformation and change happen.
An example from a white person working to embody The Five Tenets:
Honesty – I want Black women to like me and be friends with me because it means I’m a “good” white person. But honestly, I don’t take Black women, and especially darker Black women, seriously.
Grace – The system taught me to think/feel this way. I did not ask to harbor these views. I can recognize this in myself and know it is possible to interrupt this/change.
Vulnerability – This whole process I’m currently sharing is vulnerable for me.
Witness – I’m scared to be witnessed and admit to my internalized biases because I feel disgusted with myself.
Commitment: Right now, I can commit to spend more time considering these biases and why they exist and how I can challenge them in internal and external ways. I commit to going to a SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) group to further unpack this and other biases.
While you’re doing this work with the Five Tenets and awareness you are also in *Action*. Now is the time. We must change the system. To change the system we must engage actions. Our awareness and embodiment of the Five Tenets informs the actions we can and will take.
Often what can happen with allies is they forget or don’t know to spend time in and with awareness while engaging an action.
First question to ask yourself: what are my actual limitations? Knowing this allows you to focus on actions you can do and are able to do. This is important because it’s sustainable and builds our resilience. Understanding our limitations doesn’t mean we can’t show up and change the system. It doesn’t mean our limitations and abilities don’t or can’t shift. It means we show up in the best ways we’re able to with honesty and awareness.
The most important thing is there are many types of actions. In this instance of urgency it can feel as though actions must be big and full of movement. And yes, that is needed – but we are not all able to do those things. White supremacy and the system of anti-Black racism were not created and are not maintained in one way. So we must all push hard from where we are – indeed this is strategic – and as we are. This is how systems change – when we all engage together and work from where we are.
Action is a choice and that means you can choose to start now. Action is informed by our awareness and honesty. If we want action to change the system, then we must actually change. Systems don’t change if what holds the system doesn’t change. We have the power because we have the numbers and we hold the system.
Follow the bus drivers in Minneapolis and New York who refused to transport the arrested protestors for the cops. They just said no. You can just say no. We won’t. No more. In an anti-Black system all of us who are not Black have power to say no. We can, literally, stand with Black people and say no and topple the system. This is much easier if you can get organized and do this together with others.
You have to be willing to step into change. You have to be willing to see things differently. You have to be willing to imagine yourself in a different role, without institutional power, you have to be willing to raise your kids with this understanding, you have to be willing. And only you will know if you are honest. No matter what action or behavior you attempt, is it honest or is it just performance? Is the performance for you or for someone else? Both? This is an invitation and challenge to live in honesty. Together we can take that risk and live into what we want to imagine.
Expect to make mistakes. Listen when you do. Learn and grow from them. Attend to the Five Tenets – bring awareness back into the conversation. And say no to the system again. Take another action. Do something, again.
If you are someone who goes to protests and your body is white – gather other white folk and become a shield. If you are someone who has power over policy and decisions – make the decisions and change the policies. If you are in a position of power in a nonprofit or corporation – give it up and find a Black person to fill your roll – there is someone qualified. If you are an administrator in a school imagine yourself in a different role and replace yourself with a Black administrator. I guarantee there is someone qualified. In positions of institutional power this is especially important for white people to step down. The question is: are you willing to do the work?
The system maintains itself at all levels. Risk everything to change the way things are. We must risk everything. My everything will look different from your everything and that is important. Because the system does not work at one layer or level. We must work from where we are because the system must be dismantled from every level.
A note on donating as an action: if you have money – redistribute it, yes. Absolutely. AND, don’t just send your money somewhere. Do your work – where are you sending money, why are you sending money? What other work are you doing? Sending money and then sitting back on the cushions of your privilege does not create systemic change. It maintains the system through another flow created by the system: philanthropy. So, yes, donate, give your money away, and then what’s your next step?
Even in a capitalist system, money only does so much if institutional power is still skewed, or entirely directed, toward anti-Blackness.
There are so many actions we can each engage in – individually and collectively. From speaking up in public places when strangers or coworkers or friends or family members say something racist, to being out in the streets together. Stumble over your words, feel embarrassed, and say something, take risks. You will get better the more you practice. And there are, no doubt, many opportunities to practice. Move from where you are.
These are actions. This is your call-to-action, your call-to-awareness, your call-to-honesty. Use that fired up feeling, take it into your whole being and hold onto it until you are sure you can recall it. Because the next part of the cycle will come, when the fire burns lower and the excitement dwindles, and you will need to call on that feeling to remember why.
Kyle Sawyer (he/they) is an anti-oppression facilitator and educator specializing in working with individuals and organizations on how to turn privilege into change. He is a trans, queer, mixed-race, white-passing individual. With over a decade of experience Kyle founded Building Allies in 2013 and developed the term Active-Ally, someone who witnesses injustice and responds to it in any situation. Kyle has worked with teachers, nonprofit organizations, students, therapists, social workers, community members, family members, and many others on learning how to be Active-Allies through an intersectional lens.