Guest Contributor: Isobel Porteous
I recently revisited this photo that I took in Washington on January 21st, 2017, the day after Trump’s inauguration and the day of the Women’s March on Washington. In it are the Mothers of the Movement, the mothers of Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, Mohamed Bah, Trayvon Martin, and Dontre Hamilton. I vividly remember watching them onstage, my own mother and I crying as we chanted the names of these women’s sons. Their sons’ lives were taken at the hands of police, and they called for the crowd to chant so loudly we would be heard from heaven. When Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, spoke to the crowd, this is what she said:
“All our sons are in heaven, and we continue to fight for our children. We will not stop. We understand the movement. We understand what we have to do as women is to stand tall. And we will continue to stand tall. We are stronger together! So let me also say that it does not matter who the president is. We are going to continue to fight. We’ve come too far to turn back now. There’s no turning back. And lastly, I just want to say to all of you, continue to support. Continue to show up. Continue to participate. Continue to pray. And women’s rights are human rights!”
What struck me above all else was these mothers’ hopefulness. They had every right to be angry and bitter. They had to bury their children as a result of senseless, racist violence. They lived through unimaginable pain. But instead of anger, they spread hope. They expressed pride in their identities as Black people, women, and mothers. They put their hope in the hands of the ocean of protestors out in front of them. They put their hope in me.
Four years later, I struggle to see evidence of the progress that those mothers were calling for. Getting killed by police is still a leading cause of death for young Black American men. I am outraged by the murder of George Floyd. I am further horrified by the brutal response that protestors are facing in retaliation by police and political leaders. I am ashamed that I have tolerated the existence of racism, the real root cause of police brutality, the reason we need to explicitly declare that Black Lives Matter. I have been too passive in allowing racism to persist in my communities, within the walls of my classrooms and under the roof of my school. Thinking back to that day in Washington, I know that it is my job to make sure that the mothers’ hope was not in vain. They placed their hope in me, and I owe them my allyship.
To answer that call, I am vowing to use my own identity, that of a white woman, to tackle racial injustice.
Identity teaches empathy, a very powerful tool to inspire people for social change. Empathy is the reason the Black Lives Matter movement is made stronger by intersectionality. As a woman, I know personally how it feels to be underrepresented, undervalued, or tokenized. Living with these feelings is enough to know that they should not be allowed to continue for any person. This is not to say that I can ever truly understand Black experiences, for I know that Black men and women face much greater injustices than I do. I do believe though, that feelings of empathy highlight why I owe Black Lives Matter my support. I feel empathy for Black boys and girls who cannot see themselves represented in media, on magazine covers or at the Oscars. I feel frustrated on behalf of my Black, Latina, and Native American counterparts who will earn still less than I will against the white man’s dollar. I feel outraged on account of Black men who are treated more as threats than as human beings and live in fear of police brutality each day. Those feelings spur me to action. This is why the Mothers of the Movement brought their case to the Women’s March. They understood that when people who suffer discrimination support one another it paves the path to overarching change. As Gloria Steinem has said, “There can be no true democracy with racism or without feminism.”
I urge anyone who has ever felt bias used against them to use those feelings to fuel action and call for justice. To lend your voice to Black Lives Matter is to fight for democracy for all people.
Identity affords privilege. As a white person, I must acknowledge that I have benefitted from a broken system. Both directly in my life and indirectly through generations of family members, my path to success was made smoother by unfair, racially-biased systems. I have relatives in my family’s past who partook in the racist systems that plagued the Southern United States, specifically in Mississippi. I personally grew up in a graduating class with just three Black students, students whose school did not treat them with the same love that it gave me. I can tell you where I sat in my fourth-grade classroom when I first began to grasp this reality. I learned a humanities curriculum that admonished racism in the part of the world where my family members lived and worked, while I sat in a classroom where Black classmates were conspicuously absent. That knowledge did not feel good then, it does not now, and it shouldn’t. However, white people knowing the history of racism in America and how we fit into it is the first step towards checking privilege. I vow to never allow feelings of guilt or discomfort to lead to inaction. I will not allow myself to cling to a comfortable silence, but will acknowledge both privilege and responsibility where I see them in my life and my history.
In grappling with those feelings, another question surfaces, one that I am only lately learning to answer: what do I do with the privilege I know I have? What does allyship look like? First, I will make sure I am acting as an ally for the people in my life who I love. When I say that I love someone, I never mean it trivially. I am saying that I care profoundly about hearing and understanding them and their feelings. I am willing to go to bat for them as often as they need me. So when I say that I love a person of color, I will intend that as a promise to try my very hardest to be their ally for racial justice. Second, I will find concrete steps in my life that will make me a better ally. I will be a listener. As a white person, it is invaluable for me to listen to the lived experiences and hopes of people of color. I will make it clear that I want to hear their voices and not to drown them out. I can only understand how racism operates within my school and my communities by listening. I will then call out racism, both overt and systemic, whether or not a person of color is in the room to see it. I will urge all my white high school classmates, family members, and future communities to do the same. Finally, and most personally, I have come to see my Southern heritage as a calling to reassess the way the history of that region is told. I will use that facet of my identity to try to reshape the narrative told in and about the Mississippi Delta; I want to use it to champion Black history. To do this I will read, write, and work to turn the darker chapters of my familial and national history into a platform for equity. I will continually lend my voice, a privileged one, to demands for racial justice.
I want to recognize that I am not the first person to make these observations. More often than not, the burden to reflect upon race in America falls on people of color. Much of what I write here is an echo of what many brave and selfless Americans have been saying for years. My hope is that by adding my own voice to that call I can increase the volume.
Black Lives Matter, all the time. I will bring my whole self to the fight for racial justice and use what I know and what I learn to be the best ally I can be.
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