Here's how white people can advance racial justice in Washtenaw County

When white people look for examples of what it means to be an ally to people of color, Krystle DuPree suggests being more like the White Panthers and less like the Weathermen.

 

DuPree is an Ann Arbor resident, social worker, community activist, and local contact for Black Lives Matter Ann Arbor. Her example of the White Panthers and the Weathermen came up on her "Dope, Sex, and Politicking" podcast during a segment about allyship. She says the Weathermen, a radical leftist group that split off from the Students for a Democratic Society, were probably well-intentioned, but their tactics were "violent and poorly thought out." The group was responsible for a string of bombings, riots, and jailbreaks in the late '60s and early '70s.

 

In contrast, DuPree notes that the White Panthers (founded in Ann Arbor) took their cues from Black leadership, forming the group and naming it after a call to action by the Black Panthers' Huey Newton.
 

Krystle DuPree.

"Look at the blueprint. You can't be doing things you already know don't work," DuPree says. "Don't do things that we [as Black people] will feel the brunt of. If you're screaming and hollering at the police and you know that we disproportionately experience police violence, it's highly likely we will experience the leftovers of something you've done."

 

We spoke to several local activists about how they're approaching allyship work in the fight for racial equity.

 

What makes an ally?

 

Sara Saylor is a Pittsfield Township resident who works at the University of Michigan (U-M) Ginsberg Center. She's also participated in the Allies Academy, a leadership development program run by Ann Arbor nonprofit Nonprofit Enterprise at Work (NEW) that trains participants to lead equity initiatives in their organizations. Saylor says those who wish to be allies can't just read a couple of books on racism and think they're all set. She says it's important to unlearn harmful cultural messages about race and let newly absorbed information about anti-racism inform all areas of life.

 

"With my kids, it means making sure to read books that present diverse perspectives, and talking about history with them at a really early age," she says. "It's about where you're going to eat and what businesses your money is going to."
 

Sara Saylor.

Tom Crawford, interim city administrator for the city of Ann Arbor, has also been through the Allies Academy. He says components of allyship include understanding that people of color will have different lived experiences and being an advocate for anti-racism.

 

"To be an ally for [people of color], you have to be willing to be honest and challenge yourself, take the time to really understand racism better, and listen," he says. "And most importantly, an ally must ensure that the optimism and momentum for change in this moment is sustained after the national headlines move on to another topic. To be a better ally, we must recognize the journey is long and work with intentionality with leaders of color to change things."
 

Tom Crawford.

The label "ally" itself has been called into question in recent months, particularly since many new white faces joined the nationwide racial justice movement following George Floyd's death.

 

"I don't like the idea of a white person saying, 'I want to be a better ally.' I don't think that is a label white people can just scoop up and claim," says Truly Render, an Ann Arbor resident who serves as marketing and communications director for the U-M Stamps School of Art and Design.
 

Truly Render.

Render participated in the Allies Academy. She says it's up to people of color whether they want to label a white person as an ally, and the designation is not "up for grabs."

 

DuPree notes that poet and social justice advocate Tawana Petty has identified different levels when it comes to challenging racism, moving from simple solidarity to to allyship to accomplice to the deepest level, co-liberationist.

 

"No, I'm not an ally just because I show up at this protest. Primarily, allyship is an action, and it's about sustained action," DuPree says. "People need to get more comfortable saying, 'I'm in solidarity with you and your issues, but I still need to take time to learn to be an ally.'"

 

As a result of discussions around the term "ally,", the Allies Academy, which debuted last year, recently changed its name to White Leaders. Yodit Mesfin Johnson, NEW president and CEO, emails that the old name evoked a sense of white participants "helping" Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), "rather than committing to their own work of untethering from Whiteness and white supremacy." She says the program is "about shared healing and a deep commitment to unlearning racism."
 

Yodit Mesfin Johnson.

"That healing is rooted in co-liberation, embodied practice, and active anti-racism; essentials for realizing racial justice," she says. "It's not just books, content, or 'training' – it really is about the will to shift our hearts, minds, and responses away from the harm of white supremacy we've all experienced, and towards a liberated path and future where we all get to live into our life's purpose."

 

Follow the lead of those most affected

 

DuPree notes that a theory in social science says that when addressing oppressed groups, it's important to let the people most impacted take the lead.

 

That is a message that resonates with Su Hansen, a community activist from Ann Arbor who is active with the Washtenaw County chapter of the Poor People's Campaign, the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, and Michigan Peace Team.

 

"The role of the white ally is to be supportive of the affected people and to amplify their voices," she says. "We live in a white-centered society, and often BIPOC voices do not get heard. We talk over them. This is one of the things I've found powerful in the Poor People's Campaign. We lift up those voices, make space for them, and tell people to listen to them and believe them."
 

Su Hanson.

Render says there is "no shortage of Black genius" and that those seeking to be allies can start by making sure they consume writing, music, art, podcasts, and other media made by people of color. She also recommends picking up a book about anti-racism like "Me and White Supremacy" and working through it with other white people.

 

"You need to have white people around you who won't validate your blind spots, who value racial justice over your personal comfort," she says, noting that it's important to avoid unnecessarily traumatizing or burdening people of color when trying to process information or gather feedback.

 

Most importantly, Render says, it's important to build relationships with intention and "center your networks around racial justice." She advises would-be allies to seek out leaders of color in Washtenaw County, go to their events, listen to their talks, read their books, and invite people to share these experiences.

 

Saylor says white allies' role in racial justice work should usually be in the background.

 

"If there needs to be an event, can you make sure the pizza is there and there are activities for kids to do?" she says. "Those are ways in which white people can use some of their privilege and support to be able to lift up the folks that are doing the work, so that's one less thing they have to focus on. But I don't need to be the one leading the meeting."

 

Using privilege for the greater good

 

Another pivotal action for potential allies is to use white privilege in daily life to promote equity.

 

"One way to use your white privilege is to go to various places and bring the realities we have heard to the council meetings, to the board of education, to our children's schools," Hansen says. "When we see a person of color being stopped by police, we need to be there not just to observe but to speak. When we see police brutality, we need to say, 'Stop, we don't want you to do this for us. I don't feel this is going to make us safer, and even if we are, it's not worth it to us if your brothers and sisters aren't safe.'"

 

Saylor says the Allies Academy provided many opportunities to reflect on practical action items when it comes to promoting racial justice and combating implicit bias in workplace cultures.

 

"How does this show up in your hiring practices, recruitment, and ongoing training and support?" she says. "Where are you posting jobs, or is it through word of mouth? Because that tends to attract the same types of people, and so you're not getting the word out to diversify who even gets to hear about a job to begin with."

 

DuPree says becoming an anti-racism ally is "a learning process."

 

"Give yourself time and grace to learn," she says.

 

She says it's okay to make mistakes but you also need to "realize you might have criticism coming your way."

 

"You have to own it. Impact over intent. You have to listen to that person tell you this is how what you did made me feel, and don't logic it to death," she says. "If you're attempting to be an ally, you need to ask, 'What can I do to not make that mistake again?' When you step on somebody's foot, you don't say, 'Your foot was in the way.' You say, 'I'm sorry. I didn't see.'"
 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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