Wednesday, September 24, 2014

With Friends Like These...

So remember the movie "The Help"?  There's a running joke all through the movie.  The event that the ladies' group was putting on was raising funds to help the 'poor little starving colored children in Africa'- the joke of course being that they were busy throughout the movie, mightily oppressing the 'poor little starving colored children in America' and their parents.

Why do I bring up the situation proposed in that movie?  I often feel stuck in the same kind of scene.  The people in the position to render me a good turn, are often the same people I need to lend the most forbearance.  I call them 'allies'.  I define allies as 'those who do not self-identify as a person of color, but who demonstrate commitment to communities of color and decreasing health disparities within them.'  Notice I use the term 'demonstrate' and not 'talk a good game'.  This is a touchy subject but I feel driven to write about it.  There are days when my 'allies' tax me more than anyone under the sun. Too many allies credit themselves with too much knowledge about my culture, my community, my cause, etc.  Often, very often, they don't know nearly as much as they think they do. 

I'm not saying allies aren't good people, but if they don't maintain humility and a learner's heart, they become quite burdensome to me and to the goals I'm trying to accomplish.  There can be a long learning curve for systemic racism and white privilege.  It can't be assimilated and understood overnight.  Especially since it becomes so intertwined in how we view the world.  It can take a really long time to unpack all that privilege.  In the meantime, you just have to trust me when I ask you to stand down. 

Allies often confuse 'helping' with 'leading'.  I witness this confusion on a daily basis.  Dominant culture women are just not used to following women of color.  It doesn't fit well and feels ackward.  It's one thing to use your privilege to uplift and illuminate a woman of color and her works.  Its quite another to stand down and walk behind her, and support her in that way.  Often allies think their task is 'to come alongside'.  It is not.  Your task is to follow in a supportive role until such time you are invited to 'come alongside'.  You may never be asked to 'come alongside' and if that is the case, you must be content to follow.  "But I'm only trying to help!" is often the distressed cry I receive when I point this out.  "No," I state patiently, "You are only trying to lead- which is what you have been taught to do."

How do allies rid themselves of the 'Saviour Complex' they are enculturated to embrace?  It will take some work.  Recently at Uzazi Village, I did a little social experiment during an event being held at our facility.  Prior to serving the food, I announced that our special guests of honor would go through the buffet first.  I then announced that those special guests were the women of color in attendance.  The dominant culture women stepped aside as the women of color made their way through the food line.  Later in the evening, I invited the dominant culture women to recall another time when they had to 'give way' to a woman of color, because she was a woman of color.  I invite those reading this blog to reflect upon that question as well and share their thoughts.

Why am I bringing this up?  Because my allies are only helpful in proportion to their awareness and humility.  I need my allies to step up and stop being oblivious to their own privilege.  I don't need you to 'come alongside', I need you to be willing to follow.  And please don't come to 'save me'.  I am saving myself.  I might need your help, but I don't need you to take over.  I know this is difficult to hear, because it is difficult to say, but it needs to be said.  I cannot work with so-called allies who do not understand these truths.  You cannot lead in my community- even if no one else has stepped forward to do the work; even if you have looked and can't find woman of color leaders; even if there are no people of color who are qualified (in your opinion); even if, even if, even if.  You cannot lead in my community; you don't know enough, to know what you do not know.

Disparities pimping is a wide spread practice.  Our communities are already preyed upon by well meaning do gooders who support their middle class lifestyles by drawing a paycheck off 'serving' the poor including folks of color.  The poor never get less 'poorer' but the workers manage to maintain their middle class lifestyles. When the grants are dried up, those people and their programs are gone as well.  There is a grave lack of trust of those who encroach on our communities in the name of 'fixing' us.  Please allies be aware and beware.

The fight for health equity needs soldiers, but the general slots are already spoken for.


  1. Powerful and brave post Sherry Payne - thanks for the reminder to keep unpacking <3