An Open Letter to Marginalized Group Allies
Dear Marginalized Group Allies,
This open letter comes at a point in history where, in 2016, a man who expressed his positive relationship with “the blacks” in America has won the presidency and created yet another uproar similar to that which he has become too comfortable with igniting. I’m addressing the discussions that I have grown tired of overhearing following the election results, as I sat silently in circles that entertained and grappled with the potential consequences of having a man named “Trump” as our nation’s new leader. I sat trying my best to see through white tears and into the hearts of people who will never understand what it’s like to be black in America, no matter how hard they try. I sensed sincerity and love, commitment to a profession of social justice, and I heard a bit of helplessness in shaky voices that reiterated the concerns and reactions that students in Austin expressed in classrooms the day after Trump won.
All I heard at school was talk of the election. We began a meeting that had nothing to do with politics with sharing feelings about his win. I listened to my colleagues share their feelings and experiences, and I felt no pressure or obligation to share my thoughts because I knew that, although honest, they would be potentially offensive. I did not want to tell them that I was annoyed and prayerful, not angry, because no matter how much trouble President Trump may both create and reinforce for our country, God is still in control. I was not embarrassed about my faith, but in my annoyance with the conversation, I dropped the ball on even attempting to bring God into the picture. The sentiments that Trump has spewed throughout this election are things that I already knew that much of America agreed with, and although I did not vote for him, it came as no surprise that he won the presidency.
Sometimes being an ally means that you should allow time for processing before you decide to share your feelings. Just as those who will be most drastically affected need to process what is happening, you, as an ally, need to take the same time to consider that your presence, your feelings, and your opinions- though valid- are not necessarily appreciated immediately following the reception of such bad news.
And isn’t that the whole idea behind this election? For years, targeted groups of people have been silenced out of fear that their opinions would not matter, would be viewed as complaints, or even criticized simply for sharing their own truths. And my truth was not something that I wanted to share amongst this group for the very same reasons.
I also didn’t want to speak my truth because I was thinking about my own family and myself before I considered the students that I see during the week in Austin’s high schools. My truth is that I have always been wary of the ways of the world. I knew that racism was still alive and well in the United States. I knew that even though there were many stereotypes that I never fit, upon looking at me, many people have made negative assumptions and treated me accordingly. I moved to Texas knowing that it was a red state, and that as liberal as Austin may profess to be, the city is situated in a state that is mostly everything but. My skin color and heritage have made me a permanent target, and although I can understand the worry that my colleagues have for their students who are children and siblings of illegal immigrants to our “great” country, I mentally scoff at the fact that my colleagues, themselves, will never be able to fully understand the experience of being targeted the way that we members of marginalized groups are. I don’t compare my feelings to anyone else’s because I know that deep down in my heart, I believe that all feelings, perspectives, and interpretations matter to some degree. So I listen and understand feelings of helplessness when it comes to thinking about implications on education, women, black men, and children. I also understand that some feel that there is little more than emotional sympathy that can be expressed, and at no fault of their own. And even though I disagree and I feel like there is much more that can be done, I give them the respect that I could only hope to receive when I shared my sentiments.
I worry about the manifestation of those same implications for my own black brother, who is in a Ph.D. program in overwhelmingly white small town America. I also worry about my father, who is the one black professor in the humanities department at a private PWI in Boston. These are worries I had regardless of who became the next POTUS because I am black in America, and on the day I was born, I received a birthday card from society, welcoming me to the world and reminding me that I could attempt to ignore race, gender, and societal barriers, but they would be rubbed in my face every single day.
The fact that we are now having conversations as if Trump’s presidency will revive feelings of racism and sexism that were dead and gone is what worries me. The expressions of ignorance and feelings that things will become worse are what make me side eye those who make comments that express that NOW there’s suddenly a problem. I’m not annoyed with Trump. I’m annoyed with those who have ignored all of these things their entire lives, and feel that all of a sudden it is time to take action by wearing safety pins of “solidarity”.
Safety pins are temporary fixes for gaping holes in clothing that are meant to be permanently woven closed with a needle and strong thread. Safety pins hold folds to fit bodies that are too small to fill in gaps in waistlines. Wearing a safety pin does not symbolize solidarity. It symbolizes a solution that is temporary, a support that may suddenly come loose under too much pressure and offer little more than a painful poke in the side when it finally gives way. Your pins will not protect me, your students, or your friends from racism. This is not a cancer walk where you can throw on yoga pants and walk miles to raise money for a cure, then smile about your accomplishment in contributing to a feel-good way of making a difference. This is life that people are living, and yes, something needs to be done- or rather, something continues to need to be done, but the intersectionality of your feelings of “this isn’t fair” combined with your actions of “damn, that sucks” don’t help.
If you want to show your solidarity, take an actual stand against the privilege you have to overlook racism, sexism, and every societal phobia that plagues our country. When your closest friends, relatives, and strangers on the street are speaking against people who live lives plagued with judgment and silencing, speak up. I’m not asking you to take part in traditional protests because those are temporary acts of resistance, but I’m asking you to acknowledge and show true commitment to what you say you stand for through more than a tiny symbol that can very well be replacing a missing button.
People of color don’t need or want your sympathy. Sympathy accomplishes nothing. It is the tears that you cry during a sad movie- comforting to the crier, but pointless to the actors being affected in the scene. My feelings and direct connection to the oppressed are things that sympathy cannot assuage. I want empathy, which is why when I chose to speak through my blog on my feelings about what I’m hearing, I knew that it would be amongst a population of others who have the same concerns. I want to be in the company of people who not only have black friends, but also black brothers and sisters. I want to be surrounded by people who selfishly wanted Obama to serve a third term, but chose to vote for the lesser of two evils instead. I want to be hugged by someone who has always lived this life of knowing that racism exists because they personally experience it every day, and they choose to be silent in order to survive.
So allies, your feelings are valid, but beware that your privilege makes it necessary for me to remind you of that- to make you feel better about your expression of concern. Be concerned for your students and their families, but if you do nothing more than talk about it, think about it, then go home to your comfy houses at the end of the day and shake your heads at the news reports, your feelings are in vain, valid, yes, but doing nothing to help any cause.
Tiye Naeemah Cort