Becoming Allies: What Our History Teaches Us
I don’t know about you, but I am struggling with how best to commemorate Pride this year. With no vaccine in site, sheltering in place became the only real line of defense against this invisible enemy. The mandating of social distance means business as usual is out of the question and has forced the cancellation of large gatherings including Pride parades.
Even after we have adapted to a new normal of using Zoom to mark milestone events like graduation, it is hard to wrap my head around what a virtual Pride festival would look like. Also, the public anguish on display across the world following the unjustified killing of George Floyd makes me wonder if this is a time for celebration.
Some Pride organizers decided to pivot and mark the occasion by marching in support of the Black Lives Matter movement as protests grew across the world drawing attention to police brutality and the systemic racism facing the black community. Unfortunately, the LGBTQ community is not immune to unfair treatment by the police, especially those who are transgender people of color. In fact, a black transgender man, Tony McDade, was shot and killed by police in Florida two days after Floyd’s death.
While there are some parallels between the struggle for LGBTQ and racial equality, I will never truly know what it is like to walk in the shoes of George Floyd or Tony McDade. The same goes for our friends and loved ones who despite their best efforts cannot understand what it feels like to be denied a job or be subjected to discrimination because of our sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.
Because many are aware of my work helping organizations achieve diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces, it is not uncommon for others to reach out to me when events like this occur. They want to be part of the solution and ask questions like “Can you help me understand why people are so upset about what happened?” or “What should I say or do to be helpful?”
However, becoming an effective ally takes more than just posting support of Black Lives Matter on Facebook. It requires a deeper and a true understanding of the root cause of racism and the subsequent oppression African-Americans face every day. Over the years I have intentionally developed relationships with people different than me, getting to know who they were, what we had in common, and what challenges they faced just because of their skin color.
I recall one story in particular as a wake-up call that there is so much more for me to learn about racial issues. A friend who is white had married an African-American man and they lived in a DC suburb. She shared that it was not uncommon for her husband to get stopped by the police on weekends when driving alone at night to his DJ job because he was a black man driving a decade old car, something that had never happened to me.
Last week it happened again during a Zoom call with an African-American colleague. Our conversation soon focused on the protests erupting all across the world but in particular the clashes with police in DC. I could see she was visibly upset and I asked if she wanted to talk about it. The word she used to describe her mental state was despondent.
As the mother of a 21-year-old son she had always feared his safety was at risk every time he left the house, but now she was petrified. The graphic video footage of George Floyd’s arrest and subsequent death was an overwhelming reminder that her son would likely face the same inhumane treatment at some point in his life. I did my best to provide a supportive ear but felt helpless because nothing I could say would change this devastating fact.
If there was ever a time to take a stand against injustice it is now. My advice to those wanting to make a difference is to do your own research on racial issues instead of asking an African-American friend or colleague to fill your knowledge gaps. A simple Google search will provide you with scores of resources to make you smarter. More importantly, reach out and ask what they need from you at this time. ##
Wesley Combs, a CAMP Rehoboth Board member, is a diversity and inclusion expert, executive coach, and a passionate social justice advocate. He is the founding principal of Combs Advisory Services where he works with clients who share his values of enabling equity, equality, and opportunity in the workplace and the community.