I've been thinking about how to write this piece since Saturday. I've started and restarted it 3 times. I finally got a frame when I read Chez Pazienza's fine piece about a young man who took his own life, Carlos Vigil. Carlos committed suicide because he was bullied, called fat, made fun of because he had acne and because he was gay. A tragedy played out every day.
Chez's work made me reflect on the bullying I suffered as a child, and suddenly I knew how I could write about being an ally to African Americans, Women, Gay people and any other minorities.
Being a white male in America is a pretty good gig, and it's hard to articulate where and how I was able to learn how to be an ally. For me, being an ally has been molded by several things, childhood bullying, growing up poor, good parents and working as a social worker.
As a child I was mercilessly teased and bullied by my peers. I was fat. I had a Fat Albert lunch box. To this day I remember being made fun of by the lunch lady, an adult. All the kids joined in. It was 40 years ago. As I got older, because I wasn't a fighter, I got spit on, my ears flicked, books grabbed away and hidden. I was mocked as Fat Pat forever.
We also grew up poor. While the other kids had Levis and Nikes I had Sears Huskys and Trax from KMart. These differences were again a source of constant mocking and teasing.
Things improved slightly in High School, because I played football and I turned my anger inward and made myself the first person in the history of my high school to get a 4.0 GPA.
The bullying gave me a profound respect for others who have traditionally been considered "other". People who have been demeaned and downtrodden for no other reason than they are black or female or gay. I just can't stand injustice to anyone, but especially to those folks who look different or have different sexual orientations than what is considered "normal".
My parents raised us to be nice people. Not just nice to people who looked like us or acted like us. Nice to everybody. My mom was the nicest person I ever met. My dad is a crazy old dude, but he's unfailing the nicest guy in any room he enters.
When a mixed race couple moved into our neighborhood in the early 80's mom and dad put the skids to a group of neighbors who were essentially pointing and staring. Both mom and dad had friends and colleagues at work who were African American and Hispanic, even a few Vietnamese refuges. So we had good roll modeling regarding different races and cultures.
I went to college and wanted to be a physicist. I found out the psych majors had more fun and switched majors. Through a series of coincidences and good fortune, I ended up being a child abuse investigator for the last 20 years.
As a social worker, I have learned that the most important skill I have in most situations is listening. Just listening. Not offering a solution all the time, not telling people how they ought to do it. Listen. Be present for people.
I used this skill a lot these last few days after the Zimmerman verdict. All of the African American friends I've made on social media were to some extent angered and saddened. I notice several white people who should know better trying to tell my black friends how they should be. That's not being an ally, that's being privileged.
It's not okay to point out to your black friends that "not all of us (whites)" are like that. Your black friends know. Just shut up and let them vent unless they specifically ask you for advice. That's good advice for a lot of situations.
If you truly want to be an ally for minorities, it isn't hard. Be nice, don't condescend, don't look at those relationships for what you can get out of them. Listen. Learn. Support. Don't be afraid to stand up for your friends, but don't do it to be a glory hound.
Be an ally because it's right.