A few weeks ago, a friend gave a speech about her Guilford family. She mentioned that her friends have always been there for her in her social justice work, but she also addressed two of the white women in the audience, thanking them for holding her up, for stepping in when she needed a break and stepping back when she wanted to speak out as a woman of color.
When I first became an active ally to my friends of color, I thought it was all about letting them lead, about stepping back enough that I could still support them, but not be in the limelight. In doing this work at Guilford, I learned that it isn't always the case.
Yes, it is important to allow people of color room to speak any time they want to step in, but it is not up to them to teach white people about racism. We as white people have a history of oppression, and we participate in oppression just by virtue of having privilege.
As a white person with an understanding about race, it is important for me to step forward and teach other white people how to be allies. For a person of color, it can be exhausting and often traumatic to have to relive experiences of race to a disbelieving white person time and time again.
As someone that does not have to relive the pain of white oppression, I can be an ally by talking to those white people about race from an ally's perspective. It is not up to people of color to educate others.
Being an ally cannot come from a place of guilt. Yes, "horrible" does not begin to describe what white people have done to people of color, but guilt is not going to liberate anyone.
More than anything, you as an ally need to see people of color as your friends, as someone who's liberation is bound with their's, as Native American activist Lilla Watson once said.
It is important to note that my experiences are my own, and that different people will need different things. Be patient with with friends of color who ask you to step forward when you feel the need to step back and ask you to step back when you are ready to step forward. It is not about you.
As an ally, you will mess up. The system is racist and designed for us to fail, and that is okay. People will call you out on the problematic things you do, and that is okay. Learn from them. Accept that you are not perfect and continue to do this important work.