Guidelines for Accompaniment on the Journey to Racial Justice
By Janjay Innis | Photos by Yvonne Agduyeng
Janjay Innis is a Global Mission Fellow and serves as a social justice advocate for Tacoma Community House. Innis offers some insights for those wishing to be allies in the movement for a more just world.
I, like every black person in America, am angry.
I am angry at the non-indictment of Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of unarmed, black teenager Michael Brown and I am angry at the consequent non-indictment of Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the strangling death of Eric Garner. I am angry that these two highly publicized cases are a microcosm of what happens to black people around this country every 28 hours at the hands of law enforcement. I am angry at the way that black lives continue to be disregarded based on the propaganda that the skin we are in is threatening to white existence, and so when I was asked to write a piece that “humanizes both sides”, I refused.
My rage is not born out of some trivial pet peeve that can be resolved by agreeing to disagree on this matter. My rage seeks to overturn the status quo and is looking to partner with others who want to channel their anger into systemic and lasting change. I am here to work with those who realize that silence in the face of racism is acceptance and choose to no longer follow such a path.
My vocation calls me to make sense of everything through the lens of faith. Therefore, I declare that God grieves at the grave sin that is racism but God is also in the chaos and will bring us to a new reality.
Allies, I admire your commitment in bringing about a better world and for this reason, I offer these guidelines on your journey of solidarity with us.
1. Check your privilege
It is my hope that all white allies who choose to join in the fight against racism know about and recognize white privilege; advantages afforded to white people (whether they are conscious of it or not) that allow them to speak as they please, act as they please, and go where they please without scrutiny because they are white.
In the wake of this national movement to expose police brutality, I’ve read countless stories on social media outlets of white people who have been with black people on the front lines of die-ins and protests all over America. While most of them know that their place is to walk alongside black people, there have been a few who have chosen to go above and beyond, such as angrily yelling at and cursing out police officers during peaceful protests.
While this seems to be a noble display of passion for the right cause, it is white privilege in action and a blatant disrespect to black people who are labeled as thugs or shot at and killed for their justified anger. White people, black people don’t need you to validate their pain for it to be pain. Thus, to check your privilege is to be fully aware of the way your actions can be detrimental to the very cause you claim to care about.
2. Remember, black people are not the problem, racism is.
While studying at Boston University School of Theology, the student group Association for Black Seminarians (ABS) became my lifeline. There, I bonded with other students of color in a way that helped to ease my anxiety at being in a predominately white institution.
Thus, when rumors sprung from the student body that our sitting together in the lunch room was not welcoming to well-meaning white students who wanted to collaborate with us, I could do nothing but dismiss the assumption that black people are setting themselves back by gathering with their own kind. Segregation was an institutional means by which America kept blacks from upward mobility in all aspects of their lives. Thus, something that is for “blacks only” will never be problematic as things that are for “whites only”.
Working together should be intentional and organic. Focusing on integrating black people into your circles and pointing fingers at them if they choose not to, is a distraction from the real issue at hand, racism. When we are exclusive, it’s not for the purpose of shutting you out, but rather for the purpose of lifting ourselves up.
To truly be about the task of dismantling racism through collaboration, ask for permission to be part of spaces that are intentionally all black. Listen and learn from them. State your intentions and wait to be invited.
3. Let black people lead.
The events of late have sparked many conversations about race in America and out of the many conversations I’ve attended in my city, only one of them have been led by black people. I affirm white people’s desire to examine their biases and seek authentic ways of being in relationship, but, while white people have the luxury of discussing race for a season, black people must live the reality of microaggressions, overt and covert racism, daily. For these reasons, it’s best to let black people set up and lead conversations and strategic actions against racism. This is in no way a dismissal of white people’s efforts to have honest conversation about race, this is rather a call to be intentional about the way you talk about race.
If you do plan a public conversation on race (and you should), do your best to have a representation of people of color. You may do your best to follow these guidelines and your invitation might be rejected because not every black person is an expert on race relations. Some people don’t know how to talk about the ways they’ve been wounded, yet their stories must be told. Allies have been doing this, but need to do more of it.
My call is that you make every effort to reach out to, or better yet, join those who have been speaking loudly about race long before it was on your radar.
4. Teach other white people.
I shouldn’t have to explain to you why my life matters. It is exhausting and yet, I tell it because it is literally a matter of life and death. I tell it because I can’t face the powers that be and demand change by myself. In working with allies on their respective journeys to find their place in this movement, the question often asked is, “What can a white person, who will never fully understand the plight of black people, do?”
My response to this question has and will always be, “Teach other white people.” There are many roads that lead to combating racism and dialogue that exposes people to what they have been conditioned to ignore, is powerful. Our stories of how we’ve overcome our greatest challenges are our most powerful weapon. White people who honestly confront their privilege, wrestle with it, and teach others to do the same, build strong bridges of rapport on the road to racial justice.
5. Learn to Live in Tension.
We all would like to believe our passion for social justice, equality, and equity makes us good people. It is good to call ourselves good, but the danger in claiming to be good is that it sometimes makes it difficult to hear or see how we can be better. It’s necessary that we examine the bold claims we make about ourselves, lest we fall short of them. In order to live into those claims all of our lives, we must be people who live in tension.
To live in tension is to accept other people’s pathologies even if it makes us uncomfortable. To live in tension is to always strive to be a better version of ourselves. To live in tension is to know that there is more required of us than what we have accomplished. To live in tension is to stand in the liminal space between tragedy and triumph and declare that triumph will prevail. God is in the tension loving us, healing us and leading us to a more excellent way.