Thursday, July 18, 2013


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.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry this comment is so untimely, but I'm still new to the blogosphere and the terrific ReignOfApril hipped me to your writing just yesterday. Thanks for writing this. I'm a white guy as well, and the subject of being an ally is personal for me as it is for you. Sounds like our experiences growing up were somewhat different (for example, my old man was something of a monster who regularly used the N word), but a point of commonality seems to be that we were both outsiders. I was put through the wringer at home and, due to both that and some tweaked brain chemistry, developed a case of depression that kept me extremely isolated until I finally decided to get some help in my early 30's. As I struggled with it and finally began to bust out of it, it became more and more clear that I simply felt more at home, on average, with black folk than with white folk, that the folks who tended to see me as a person and not simply some oddball tended to be black. And, I think a lot of that was, and remains, a fortunate result of the outsider experience you write about. It will not get you or I blocked out of a job, or beaten or killed by some cracker or some cop, but it does help get a person started on the path to being able to simply listen, empathize, and realize that shit is not always about them. It also makes me (and, I'm guessing, you as well) extremely grateful. I mean, it is black folk who were and remain there for me, when history has given them so many reasons to not give a dude who looks like me a second look. A friend told me about a decade ago that I was likely treated much better at the predominantly black watering holes and jazz clubs I frequented at the time than a black man would be treated at predominantly white hangouts. Hell yeah he was right, as I wholeheartedly agreed at the time. Trying every day to be an ally ain't some matter of guilt. It's as personal as can be. I have been reluctant to write about this because I do not want to make it "about me," but at the same time, I think that the place where a person's desire to be an ally springs from is important. Again, thanks for writing this.