But What if I Cry?: Lessons on Allyship & Emotional Labor at the End of BHM
Two years ago, an esteemed colleague and I co-wrote a cross-racial collaborative piece for Ms. Magazine: “6 Simple Ways White Women Can Be Feminist Allies for Black History Month (and Always).”
I re-posted recently, since the piece talks about Black History Month (BHM) and Valentine’s Day. But on this last day of February, I got an important question from a friend, a White woman and a mother who does cross-cultural parent organizing especially with immigrant families, about the piece. She wrote, genuinely curious and from a place of care, related to the following excerpt from the original piece:
1. Listen First
Simple. White women, if you are going to start speaking, pause—do not take center stage immediately. Listen for the stories, struggles, suggestions and triumphs of Black women, and let the first reaction from your lips be one of support, not of questioning their truth. White women, before you talk about how you’re an ally, about all the Peggy McIntosh you know, how you’re been to the White Privilege Conference every year, just hold on. Ask questions that are open and honest; ask towards understanding, not to challenge. Don’t add your opinion of the truth that is shared; sit with the uncomfortability and don’t cry. Black women don’t want to see your tears. We want to see your solidarity.
HER FOLLOW-UP QUESTION:
“I remember appreciating this last year! I do have a question for you, though. If a friend, regardless of race, is struggling through something or has experienced a great trauma, there’s a good chance I’ll cry when I hear it. If they cry there’s an even better chance I will, too. That’s me.
Is this just something I need to continue to work on? Thoughts?”
HERE WAS MY RESPONSE:
“Thanks for being so thoughtful on this! Sounds like you have a good instinct on how sharing emotions within close friendships is an important way to connect, especially if it is mutual sharing. Main point with the “crying” section of the piece relates to power and how it is allocated/ exchanged in relationships. The focus is to highlight that folks in superordinate (meaning privileged, or having power) identity categories ought to do their own work unpacking & unlearning that, and not to put the pressure/ expectation on people in marginalized communities to take care of that learning or the emotional processing that accompanies examining difficult realities of ones’ own identity. Also, it’s important for those in superordinate groups to acknowledge the processing work as actual time and labor, and to pay/compensate a trainer, teacher, or therapist to work on it with them or do that work within their own communities. That is, as a White person, it’s my job to do my own work & learning related to my Whiteness and how it functions/harms/relates in the world, and to not expect people of color, even friends, to have to listen to me process or give me resources, especially not for free. Here are two examples of White allyship groups that are utilizing an intentional model like this: European Dissent Seattle & Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites – CARW. This also goes for other identity categories and power ex)men not expecting women to educate them/ listen to them process sexism, but doing that work in their own communities or compensating when women do that work or emotional labor. See pro-feminist Men’s Movement: http://nomas.org/ (National Organization for Men Against Sexism).”
This was over social media, and she and I talked & decided it would be good as a blog post for more general reading and discussion. If we are guided by a spirit of care, curiosity, and genuine will to do better and bridge divisions, we can continue to dismantle oppression, heal, and keep moving, together. Thanks.