One Weird Trick for Being an Ally on the Internet
Last week it was a two-hour back-and-forth with a stranger in the comments section of a friend’s Facebook post, gently explaining to her why Jesse Williams’s speech was not reverse racism. Last night it was a marathon session with a different stranger in a different friend’s comments section, discussing how Alton Sterling’s arms flying up for balance as he is tackled is a reflex action that does not constitute resisting arrest.
This is what I do as an ally: I have these conversations with other white people, online and in person, trying to erode their defensiveness. As a white person, I may have a better chance of being seen as unbiased and getting through to them. And I know from my own experiences as a woman how important male support is, like when Jackson Katz reframes violence against women as a men’s issue, or when my favorite male authors refuse to attend conferences and conventions that don’t have an enforceable harassment policy. When my allies speak up, their voices can reach people who don’t want to listen to me, but who are willing to listen to someone more like themselves. And more than that, when my allies speak out, they make it clear that my issues matter to them, that I matter to them. I want to pass that on.
This morning, a white friend and I wearily compared notes: We have these Facebook conversations over and over, one by one. We assemble our facts, deflect the commenters’ barbs, use reflecting language to make them feel heard (“It sounds like you’re upset because…”). And when we finally break through and get the other person to acknowledge that black people have a different experience of living in America, they immediately turn around and demand, “So, how do we fix it?”
I hate this question. I don’t know how to explain in a brief Facebook comment how to fix racial inequality. At least, not in a way that I think a person will realistically go out and do if they’ve just said fifteen minutes ago that Jesse Williams’s white mother should be ashamed of him. When this person says, “How do we fix it?” what they’re really saying is, “I don’t like feeling uncomfortable. Tell me something quick I can do so I don’t have to feel uncomfortable.” And if they don’t get that easy answer, they go to where they do feel comfortable, which is right back where they started.
So I start where they are. I tell them that when incidents of police violence happen, they should watch the footage and make up their own minds, because I hope that seeing other people’s pain will wake them up to the fact that these are people, not talking points, and that these incidents happen far too often to people of color. I tell them to read WEB du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk, unfortunately still very relevant for race relations in America today. I tell them about Peggy McIntosh’s “Invisible Knapsack” and John Scalzi’s “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is,” which are very gentle ways of talking about privilege without making people defensive. I hope that by giving them something small, something doable, I can get them to take baby steps into empathy and a better awareness of the problems. I don’t know if they’ll get to a place where they’ll be open to more confronting works like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, or Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. But maybe they’ll think about attending a candlelight vigil or a protest when they see news of another senseless killing of a black person. Maybe it’ll change the way they talk to their friends about these issues. Maybe, the next time they go to the polls on election day, it’ll shift their feelings about a proposal or a candidate on the ballot.
And for myself, I take a deep breath and try defusing the next angry, defensive person.
I hope, I really hope, that that’s how we fix this.
How to cite this page
Feld, Lisa Batya. "One Weird Trick for Being an Ally on the Internet." 7 July 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 24, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/one-weird-trick-for-being-ally-on-internet>.