Image courtesy of Gherdai Hassell.

I AM AN ALLY IN PROGRESS

Open Letters by Black Individuals

Each of our letters may resonate with people at varying stages of allyship. We write not only for those striving to be allies, but for those in the Black community as well, as some of us, too, are more seriously reckoning with the dangerous legacy of racism and anti-Blackness for the first time. As each of you take the time to gain a deeper understanding of what anti-racism may look like in its countless forms, we encourage you to reflect on your personal journeys up until this point and the direction in which you plan to take hereafter. This is just the beginning.

Zawadi Rowe

Black lives matter. Without the phrase, many of us knew this far before the year 2020. Now that a critical mass has acknowledged it, long needed discussions and actions (including performative ones) are underway by organizations and individuals who just six years ago did not see color and refused to acknowledge systemic racism, among other things.

American or not, if you live within state borders and find yourself wondering how we got here, you owe it to yourself and this society that you are a part of to gain a fuller understanding of where exactly you are. Make the time to learn the history and realize the history you will become a part of. There is no pass on willful ignorance or being neutral (how do you do the latter, by the way?).

I have friends who want to know more now. Though they’ve been here for years, they never truly understood the racist underpinnings that laid the groundwork for where we are today. And yes, some of these people are Black: whether born here, from East Africa, from the Caribbean, etc. And that’s okay. We each tread on a unique path, walk in different circles, and interact in spaces and places differently. Their time is now.

Image courtesy of Gherdai Hassell.

I know that there’s a lot to learn and unlearn. As a first generation American, I did not inherit much family history to guide me in my understanding of these United States. My parents had only experienced about 15 more years of this country than myself, which is not insignificant, but does provide context to the amount of lived and learned experience that was passed down. Compare that to those who had been here for generations and didn’t rely on the selective American history that the formal education system taught and it’s clear that I had a lot to learn (and unlearn). And I did learn. And I keep learning. It’s never really over: there are always more details.

For those in a similar position to my friends today, I recommend reading The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson to start. Please don’t be intimidated by the size of the book. Even if you aren’t in a similar position, I recommend reading it anyway: it’s my favorite book and, like I said, there are always more details. While your typical news and social media sources may provide some helpful context on the history of racial inequality in America and its social implications today, you must go beyond the soundbites and quick reads if you truly care to understand. Black or ally in progress, I encourage you to invite others to read, learn, and discuss alongside you.

It is the resolve of everyday people like you that will better our society.

Once you have a strong foundation underneath you, continue to enlighten those who were once in your position. Deep education is a form of action that should not be overlooked, is continuous, and is by no means the only form of action that you should engage in. It will become clear that your concerted efforts with other Black people and allies in progress are integral to progress, which should never be mistaken as inevitable. It will become clear that while we are tackling a nationwide issue, your localized community involvement impacts the country. It will become clear that your daily, individual choices make a difference. It is the resolve of everyday people like you that will better our society.

Kyra Williams

At the beginning of June 2020, there was a range of responses to the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Tony McDade. There was a lot of rightful rage, anger and disappointment in the murders that occurred in this beginning half of the year. There were countless outcries of support and numerous calls to action for how we can move forward from this. There were beautiful marches and protests, for all people to participate in and cry out for the need for justice. There were doodles drawn and graphics posted, and pictures of multi-colored linked arms, and quotes, and beautiful paintings of those who are no longer with us. And, from some people, there was no action whatsoever.

This letter is not intended to speak on behalf of Black family members, friends, and colleagues because obviously no Black experience is the same. But these really are emotional, exhausting and traumatic occurrences — they always have been, and they always will be. Some family, friends and colleagues have been at a complete loss for words from the pain these occurrences have evoked, and rightfully so.

To be BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) in this country is to consistently and constantly endure discrimination and prejudice. To be a BIPOC is to feel unsafe, to feel threatened, to feel unprotected, to feel anxious, to feel unheard, and to feel unloved. As author James Baldwin once said:

To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time — and in one’s work. And part of the rage is this: It isn’t only what is happening to you. But it’s what’s happening all around you and all of the time in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference, indifference of most white people in this country, and their ignorance.

Not always at the same time, but at certain moments during certain instances, and more often than our white counterparts. In the good moments — like in the safety of your home, at your favorite artist’s concert, while watching the all-time funniest episode of your favorite show, or while embracing your significant other — you may feel none of that. And in the bad moments, you may feel all of that, perhaps even all at once — maybe when getting pulled over by the police, while accidentally bumping into a drunk white counterpart at the bar, unintentionally catching the gaze of a white counterpart while standing in line at a Starbucks, while exercising, while “looking suspicious” as you walk in your neighborhood, or when you’re the only one in your friend group — or your class — or your school — or community.

Image courtesy of Gherdai Hassell.

As we all see what is currently happening on the news throughout our country, I hope we can collectively remember that what BIPOC are experiencing is nothing new. A handful of modern day lynchings, just now caught on camera. Ironically, law enforcement in America protects and upholds laws that were intentionally designed to keep BIPOC from advancing or accessing the same opportunities that have been afforded to our white counterparts. There is no even playing field in this country: there never was.

Nothing in this country is equitable. Access to financial capital, education, affordable housing, jobs, voting and healthcare are all rooted in historically discriminatory and deeply entrenched racist government policies and systems. This is skin deep, but it gets so much deeper! As we see the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are bearing witness to how these systems have resulted in disproportionate care and attention, or lack thereof, to BIPOC lives.

In regards to the responses of civil unrest, I want to make sure the words of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are heard loud and clear here:

If you are calling for the end of unrest, then you better be calling for healthcare as a human right, accountability in our policing, supporting community review boards, supporting the end of housing discrimination, and standing up to for-profit real estate developers that are trying to evict people from their homes. If not, you are calling for the continuation of quiet oppression. If you’re calling for the end of unrest, you should be asking for measures that actually liberate people from the oppression of economic and social inequity.

For those that argue civil unrest is not the answer to a modern day lynching of a Black man by the police and a young Black woman shot in her sleep by the police while in the comfort of her home, consider looking at why these particular events are the circumstances in which racial injustice gains this much traction. However, the opportunity that is presented here must not be ignored. So, a call to action is proposed, but first please ask yourself the following questions:

1
Do you contribute to a damaging and hierarchical system that overtly or covertly oppresses BIPOC people and cultures i.e. in forms of colorism, racism, sexism, ableism?
2
Do you disengage and underutilize your privilege within your community, and the community of others?
3
Do you fail to acknowledge and uplift the stories of community members that are targets of marginalization and oppression?
4
Do you take up space or forget to listen without ego, walls, or barriers?
5
Are you unable to call out violence towards others that you may never experience personally?

If you answered “yes” or “maybe” to any of the questions, then please proceed to read and understand the following prompt.

Now that the initial “shell-shock” has died down, and the initial check-ins, outcry of support, messages of “how are you?” and “I love you,” have started to fade, what will you do next? Will you continuously strive to be an active ally for communities that have been historically under-tapped and underserved? Will you try to dismantle the systems of institutionalized oppression and racism? Will you actively fight and work towards a just society? As you reflect on your role in this movement and your legacy at this point in time, consider what you want to be remembered for.

While the amount of information is becoming a bit muddled for how one can specifically take action and fight for change, every reader should pay close attention because there are countless resources out there for how you can commit to being an anti-racist. There are books like How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, podcasts such as 1619 and CodeSwitch, documentaries like 13th and Chicagoland, Youtube videos of discussions by Angela Davis and Jane Elliott, songs by Gil Scott Heron and Kendrick Lamar, articles by Ta-Nehisi Coates, non-profit organizations such as The Bail Project and The Loveland Foundation and funds such as the Anti-Racism Fund, and these informative, virtual Anti-Racism guides by Jasmine Mitchell here and by Sarah Sophie Flicker and Alyssa Klein here all dedicated to your self-improvement and the improvement of those around you. If you really love your Black friends and swear you’re not a racist, taking action is the only way to prove it.

Thank you for checking in. We are not OK. We will not be OK until there is progress. It’s time to get to work.

“I had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to pull myself up. I was served lemons, but I made Lemonade.”

If you really love your Black friends and swear you’re not a racist, taking action is the only way to prove it.

An excerpt from Cleo Wade.

Silence is not the answer to your pain.

I used to think that silence would help the pain go away. That speaking up about pain might actually make it worse. But it took me a while to realize that silence doesn’t actually help us to realize the things that hurt us.

Silence, if anything, often makes them hurt more.

When I was growing up in Louisiana, my brother and I endured so much racism. We were often the only kids of color in all white spaces, especially during our high school years. I can’t tell you how many times people who were supposed to be our friends made racist comments, cruel jokes or said the n-word. I am often asked why I feel it is important to speak out and use my voice. My answer is always the same: I speak up because I know the pain of being silent. I remained silent in the face of these hurtful words during my girlhood. Because I didn’t have language, the tools or the courage to speak up. I lived in so much fear that the racist jokes or the name calling would be pointed at me, that I spent years hiding in my silence. Too often as children, teenagers or even as adults, if we feel outnumbered or that there is no one to hear us, we feel that speaking out is a privilege that we don’t have the ability to access. As I grew out of my girlhood, and into my womanhood, I knew I needed to develop a practice of cultivating the courage to express myself and speak up when I felt something was wrong. My first step in doing this was expressing myself more in spaces where I felt safe. This started with the circle of my girlfriends that I met when I moved to New York City. As I spoke up more around my friends, I began to feel less afraid to express myself in a meeting or a public place. I realized that the only way that I could heal the pain of years of being silent, was to be silent no more. I still get scared and nervous when I speak out, especially in front of large groups of people. But whenever I do, I close my eyes and repeat this mantra:

Silence is not the answer to your pain.

I believe that we make the world safer when we speak up. I believe that bravery is contagious and others speak up when we speak up. And perhaps most important, I feel that every time we speak up, we tell the world who we are, instead of telling the world who we should be.

My friend Maud once told me:

“There are times when we must speak. Not because you are going to change the other person, but because if you don’t speak, they have changed you.”

Silence doesn’t change the world. It changes us. It shrinks us. It takes our stories and feelings away from us and it buries us alive. Unearth what is buried within you. Free yourself.
- Cleo Wade

ABOUT THE WRITERS

I am Zawadi Rowe — a Human Geographer, UX Researcher/Designer, Content Writer and Editor. A multicultural first-generation American and member of the Black diaspora by way of the Americas, the Caribbean, and East Africa. Anti-racism is an active approach to creating equitable opportunities for all people in society. Because many longstanding and impactful efforts on the basis of race have intentionally sculpted an uneven playing field, systemic and individual anti-racism is integral for change. While not everyone may be well-positioned to practice systemic anti-racism, everyone can be anti-racist. I AM teaching. I AM learning. I AM (un)doing. You can reach me at linkedin.com/in/zawadirowe or zawadirowe@gmail.com.

My name is Kyra Williams and I am a research associate with the executive recruiting team at TIAA. My role is assisting in finding and placing top talent within our organization, while making sure we are representative in our hiring efforts to reflect the values, ideas and beliefs of our clients. TIAA is a retirement insurance company that works to help teachers save to and through retirement, and I am grateful to the opportunity to work for such a values based and mission driven company. I AM working diligently in and outside of my workplace, home and community to learn, teach and develop myself and those around me about how to be an advocate for those who are the least represented, heard and seen.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Gherdai Hassell graduated from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2013. Her mixed media artwork celebrates the Black female figure. Exploring ideas about representation, perception, identity creation, and childhood, her vibrant collages capture and collect the gaze. The eyes of her figures are an access for viewers and also a veil or protection, a safe space for the women to exist. Gherdai’s works included in the zine are part of her Artiffacts project, which explores the history of diasporic subjects and their relationship with time, power, and public memory. Her artwork is on permanent display in the Government Administration Building, Hamilton, Bermuda. In 2019, she was showcased in Tina Lawson’s Annual Wearable Art Gala, Los Angeles, CA. She has presented her work in solo and group exhibitions in Bermuda, USA and China. Gherdai is currently an MFA candidate at the China Academy of Art. Her works can be found at gherdaihassell.com and @hassell_free.