Unconditional Ally or Unintentional Accomplice?
Updated: Aug 23, 2020
I've been wanting to co-author something with Mark for some time now. He is not only my soulmate in every sense of the word, but I respect him immensely, and his thoughts and actions challenge me in the best of ways. As a 33 year old Black woman dating a 54 year old White man, there needed to be a bit of calibration as we merged two different perspectives, a generation apart. We often talk about how we grew up, move about in the world, and what we feel our challenges are as Americans.
While we've always been open, it was one of our first conversations about race that still sticks out to me to this very day. I asked Mark why, if he was Portuguese, couldn't he dance? (Yes, I KNOW it's wrong to assume he should know how to dance....I never said I was perfect!) And he said, "I dunno, I'm just a white dude." Wait, WHAT?! Portuguese people are white?! No. Absolutely not. So I said, "What box do you check for race?"
I don't need to even say it, do I?
I felt like he was hiding behind privilege. Moreover, I was upset that he had an advantage that I could never posses... whiteness. It's that whiteness that protected him and his children from discrimination. Whiteness that allowed him to soar from humble beginnings into an executive role at General Electric. The very same whiteness that would afford him the comfort of moving about the world without the visceral generational fear that people who look like me have suffered for hundreds of years.
I know there are countless biracial couples trying to reconcile their way through this, undoubtedly with family and friends offering their own perspectives, and sometimes heavily clouded in bias. The thing that keeps us going is our curiosity for truth and dedication to being our best selves, even when it costs us questioning everything we've been told for our entire lives. Whether you're reading this from the lens of being one half of a brilliant biracial couple, or you're "just a white dude (person)" coming to terms with who you are and how that plays into the larger whole, I hope you'll find hope in the awakening and in "the work". No, we don't get it right 100% of the time... we're human. But you bet your ass we try. We give it all we've got. Because it's the least we can do.
It wasn't until the experience that he writes about below, that he began to understand the implications of his own "whiteness". For Mark, this is where his work began. I hope you enjoy.
Horror, Anger, Pain and…utter mortification. Those were the feelings that consumed me as I left the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History on that gray November morning. The visit itself is one I would recommend to anyone, the building is truly an under-represented marvel documenting the history and culture of African American life - celebrating stories of incredible resilience, but also digging into the atrocities that most of us only know from afar.
For me, pain ultimately came with a single figure:
Not only was Portugal the catalyst for the international slave trade, but they were also responsible for shipping more innocent souls across the Atlantic than any other country on the planet; 42% of the entire slave trade overall or, 4,650,000 human lives.
The words that spilled across that display provided a script that rewrote my entire narrative on the birthplace of my ancestors and, more urgently, the state of my role as an ally. How could a people known for their passion, empathy and grit be responsible for starting one of the longest lasting and most egregious violations of humanity? And how could I have not known? How could I have allowed myself to be so ignorant?
Until that moment, the only culpability I thought I had with respect to racism was the privilege I was born with as a white male. I took pride in being progressive, open and inclusive. I wasn't like the obvious “racists” that still existed in our society. Or at least that's what my ego allowed me to believe.
In that moment, every element of self respect was washed away in a downpour of emotion, rage and tears. I let myself down, I let my fellow humans down and … the most painful realization of all, I let my partner down. I was not an ally, I was an enabler… no, actually an accomplice. I felt that this beautiful black woman standing in front of me, who lifts me up every single day of my life, was in a relationship with a fraud. Open and inclusive was actually closed minded and naive. This one learning removed a hardened shell that covered layers of rationalizations that took years to build up and one single day to tear down.
Once I shaved away all of the layers and uncovered the core, the truth was apparent... By submitting to my own rhetoric, I stripped away my objectivity and failed to see what was truly around me all along: systemic racism, oppression and white supremacy were still alive and well. And not just in the overt, undeniable ways that we are exposed to in the media, but in more widespread, sometimes subtle and deeply institutionalized ways. From that day forward, I committed to myself and to my partner to do the work. To research, test, learn, educate and ultimately act as a better ally.
Observing what has happened over the past few months leaves me both despondent and simultaneously hopeful. Covid-19 highlighted once again, how our culture has consistently setup a breeding ground for BIPOC communities to fail. As a simple case in point, consider that, of the 13,000+ confirmed Covid cases in Boston, 38% were Black residents. On its own, that data may not seem shocking until you realize that only 22% of the population is Black compared to 44% being white (representing only 25% of the total Covid cases). While a virus can obviously apply no conscious bias to the host that it infects, it can and will capitalize on the conditions within which that host resides. Conditions that the collective behaviors of our society have enabled for far too long. Conditions that allow a man to be killed, in public, by those who are sworn to protect us…
As we unpack the ugly realities that ensued, and allow ourselves to assess our own place and culpability within them, we must look beyond the obvious examples of police brutality, authoritarian leadership and convenient/ self-serving interpretations of our constitution to find the core of the issue. The unequivocal truth that allows for the underlying threads of inequality, unconscious bias and oppression to continue weaving new swatches in the fabric of our society is created by a simple fact … WE ALLOW IT and what we allow is what we teach... to our children, to our fellow citizens, to our leaders, to the rest of the world and, frankly, to ourselves.
We allow it when we fail to do our OWN research and default only to talk tracks being fed by partisan voices.
We allow it when we give more space to our own fears than to our values - what we don't say can be even more destructive.... not speaking up, as a leader, as a parent, as a peer, as a friend as a fellow human being SCREAMS volumes about what really matters and how committed we each are to influence our collective future.
We allow it when we create space for our ego to rationalize our own actions under the guise of being an ally vs creating space for the actual ugly truth to emerge.
We allow it when we observe injustices in our communities, workplace, and governments, and assume that those in positions of leadership will fix it.
We allow it when don't hold those same leaders accountable for their lack of condemnation when obviously divisive and conspiratorial theories are spun in support of personal gain or maintaining their base.
We allow it when we fail to call out friends, family members and acquaintances when they say or do things which are racist (worse case) or tone-deaf (best case).
We allow it when we give into the belief that supportive tweets, posts or donations are enough.
We allow it when we fail to vote, especially for local leaders where adjustments in approach or policy can have more immediate and tangible impacts.
We allow it when we fail to have conversations with our children about race beyond the idealistic, well-meaning, but unintentionally destructive ones like “we don't see color”.
We allow it when we fail to empty our stained, whitewashed cup, and refill it with the voices of Black leaders, educators and friends.
Here is what gives me hope though... SO very many people are making a choice to NOT allow this anymore. So many people are choosing courage over complacency. So many people are doing the hard internal work toward introspection and true understanding. And so many people are fighting for and amplifying voices that have been quelled for too long.
As the world attempts to navigate its way into the post-Covid phase of our society, the hope is that the anger, the introspection, the momentum and the fight will not cease. We can't allow it to. My call to action is: dig deeper. Cultivate stamina, vote, read, march, donate, and elevate those voices that need to be heard. The opportunity has never been greater.