“What new is going on with you? I see you’re traveling, speaking and writing—living out your dream. How can I assist with this?” Robbyn, a white woman from Brooklyn specializing in working with and for gay and trans folks of color, said to me after a weekend long equity summit in our state’s capital.
She was working on a national project here in Texas for a super progressive organization. Very liberal herself, she had been on the front lines of many of the movements for communities with disparities in the last few decades. She was raised in a non-diverse small town in Pennsylvania by parents who believed in equality. Still, she was as close to the definition of an ally as you could come.
Overjoyed to be having this conversation, I responded, “It’s not as easy as it looks. There aren’t many chances I get. I’m at a place where I’m offered a place at the table now, but I still feel like I can’t always eat.”
Her face grew concerned. She began to acquire the face of the superhero I’ve seen her become for many Black men before, while thinking of an immediate plan intensely. “I wonder how we can get such an authentic voice in this experience exposure…”
Weirdly, these thoughts made me completely withdraw from the conversation. I started to wonder why it had to be a white woman to save me from my personal struggle for community advancement. It was as if I was once again looking for the white savior to come and heal my afflictions. I knew that it was probably unfair to her, but I had to, in this moment, be very honest with myself.
See, in my adulthood, I have done my best to separate myself from white communities completely. I have accepted that most of them don’t want my presence and, as a result, I don’t want to be in theirs. I know that like any other race or culture, being white is not a monolith, but I wasn’t in the business of sorting through the good and the bad—and I especially wasn’t even desiring an attempt to teach them how to support my people. I had no desire to depend on, lean on, need a white person for their approval.
I became emotional out of nowhere; my anxiety began to kick in. White folk make me so uncomfortable. I didn’t understand why it always felt like, in these spaces, I become claustrophobic. I let her know that I needed to step out and asked her politely to watch my luggage.
When I returned, she must’ve noticed my awkward disposition. Out of the unpleasant silence sitting in the hotel lobby she bravely asked me, “Have I made an impact on the way that you deal with white people?”
I was slightly taken back. She had known me from a quiet, docile but passionate mobilizer and had been a major catalyst in my successes thus far. I had not wanted her to observe the disdain I felt for white people. Still, I saw the vulnerability in her face when we talked about race. Race is one of those things that is easy to push upon someone to take ownership of the learning, but I knew from her asking that question she was interested in understanding some things.
Still, answering that question made me nervous. I didn’t know how to answer it. Answering that would make it as if all the things she has done to afford me some of my biggest opportunities for exposure was worthless. I could lie. I could keep myself from telling the truth, but that would be against my moral compass. If I answered it wrong, she could use the power that she had to surely get me out of some spaces; my mobilization efforts could be affected.
As if to be reading my mind, she began to express to me, “I’ll be transparent. Years ago, if I would’ve been walking down the street and saw you, before I could even think about it, I would want to cross the street. My body would rethink it before it happened, but I have to be honest and tell you that you would have scared me.”
Feeling like a weight had been lifted off my shoulder I proudly exclaimed with a bit of despair, “I don’t know if it’s ever easy for someone who looks like me to like white people. White people like you can be some of the most hurtful people in the world to someone who looks like me.”
She tried to smile to hide the hurt she was feeling with such harsh words, but before I could realize what I was saying was touching her negatively, I continued, “Honestly, I would have wanted you to cross the street. Just as much as you fear me, I fear you.”
I don’t know if she jumped in to shut me up or because the conversation was beginning to intrigue her, but she rapidly responded, “Wow! So, you fear white people? You fear me?”
“Look at me,” I said. “I am a Black man in Texas. I’m solid like a football player, tattoos, bearded. We are sitting in the lobby blocks away from where they are deciding on a stupid bathroom bill against trans folks. There is a myriad of different things you could use against me to get me in trouble. White folk are the power structure in America.”
“What do you mean?”
I ran through the truths in my mind.
I thought about how white folks viewed MLK when he was alive (63% had a negative view of him in 1966 despite how they feign praise for him now).
I thought about how many white people voted for Trump (58% of them supported a bigot, just 1% less than Romney got).
I thought about Emmett Till (falsely accused by a white woman, lynched, burned, a baby all of 14 years old).
“I could be your rapist. I could be a thief. I could be a thug. If you told someone, there would be no words, no conversation, I would be surprised if they didn’t walk in shooting before they arrested me. All you would have to say is one thing and I would be done for,” I retorted.
“When you say it like that it makes more sense. I didn’t know we both had that fear.”
In my mind, it was a bittersweet thought that we could be at this point in our conversation. After all, my biases were based upon fact, while hers were only based on her stereotype and racist narratives, as with most of what white folk think in conversations about race. Consider that in a Cooperative Congressional Election Study published by The Monkey Cage, upwards of 40% of White Americans describe Black men as violent. In a separate study in the same article, it shows that implicit bias by a pool of white responders showed that Black males elicit some of the most negative sentiments. It’s all preconceived notions of who I am without a thought of who I actually am.
I looked down out of sadness.
“I don’t want to fear you, though. Mrs. Robbyn, you’ve been good to me. And I’m nothing to fear myself. I have never been in trouble criminally and I am deathly afraid of the cops. Therefore, I have never had a white friend. I would rather not be connected to you than deal with being stereotyped. Why do you fear me?”
“It is just the stories we hear. It’s completely unfair. It has changed completely since I have worked with all of the talented people I have come across in the past few years.” She smiled and we grabbed our luggage to catch our Lyft to the airport. I thought to myself, “Too bad that isn’t the story of most white folk.”
As we got out of the car, neither of us was rushing to get to our airline. My mind was inundated with thoughts I expressed, “How could I trust that you have my best interest when time and again I have been stereotyped by the likes of you? How could we really make change on a macro level when we were only two people?”
I knew she wanted to help and I had the feeling that I would do much better with her as an ally, but I didn’t know where to start.
We looked in each other’s eyes as if I was her child leaving for college. I saw the glossiness in her eyes as she thought of words to assure me this was different. My voice went down into my stomach as I started to feel my anxiety creep back up. We held each other’s hands in the middle of the doorway to the airport and after a couple deep sighs, hugged each other and smiled. I felt like it was something more to be said, but all we had for moments was our embrace.
I started, “How can we leverage…”
“My privilege.” She already knew.
We both knew that was the answer, the question was: what was the process to get there? I started to talk as if my life depended on it. “Your kids have college education paid for in grade school while I’m paying on student loans with no formal degree. You don’t have to worry about your husband coming home from his 9-5 everyday while every day I check on my friends and family out of fear they could be the next person shot by police. Hell, your daughter could grow up and transition freely if she wanted to be a male with your guidance and would have an exponentially less likely chance of being murdered on the streets of her hometown like my acquaintance Chyna Gibson and so many more of her sisters.”
The mental health implications of experiencing racism. The exposure to poverty and pollution. The jokes, comments, being ignored, the first to see harm and the last to be believed, the sexual racism, the bodies treated as less than human. This monologue of sorts seemed to invigorate her. Her ideas began to flow just as rapidly as my statements were.
She started, “So, we need to put this conversation into mainstream. I don’t mind being the crux of the story because there is a lot we as white people need to learn. Then, we need to have brainstorming sessions on how to can create the infrastructure to support your platform; this will include conversations about what I need to go back to my communities and talk about in spaces where you may not be invited. It also includes ways that you can document your community’s experiences that will add to the resources we have.”
“That’s exactly what we need. We also need spaces where we can create conversations such as this on a larger scale. It won’t always be pretty, but we need it: like an ally training of some sort.”
“Yes!” she responded excitedly.
“We also have to realize beforehand that most Black people are going to come in feeling defensive and not a fan of communicating. We have tried to do this before. Most of them aren’t interested in explaining why allies shouldn’t have these biases.”
“That will be something that we must tackle,” she responded assuredly. “Also, we have to be honest about the fact that some of us white folk—even me—we just don’t know.”
“Well, this is how these things start. This is how we begin.”
And it has.
She had to be willing to listen without interrupting. She had to be willing to learn without overriding. She had to be willing to align without conditions. She knew her value was in unlearning, in convincing others, in standing between me and the casual hate that still lives. She knew she had privilege, and dared to wield it for people who look like me.
Since then, we have begun to work on a plan to bring this work onto a larger platform. This lady of whom I would have never been acquainted with—and neither her willingly with me—is becoming the perfect ally in my intersectional fight. We learn from each other and become better because of our connection—and it all started with an honest conversation.
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