Step Up, Step Back

By Associate Christine Holladay

Imagine … a room teeming with crisp suits, aftershave scents mingling together, baritone murmurs in every corner … order is called and, as the lone woman, your eyes widen at today’s meeting topic, “Why are women cold in the office?” Your mind whirls, “Because nylons aren’t insulating. I’m wearing half as much fabric right now as every man in this room. I don’t have a suit coat!” A litany of why's tumble through your head, but as you start to speak, you realize there’s a cacophony of resonating bass in the room—the men are already speaking. No one thought to ask the one woman in the room or to survey women in the office about their why. They just all started talking.

Now, maybe this scenario seems far-fetched to you, but it illustrates an all-too-frequent challenge for many people of color. Certain voices carrying more weight in the space isn’t intrinsically bad. However, important perspectives from the laity are lost when only the clergy are believed. When only those with seniority in a company are given leave to speak, the company loses valuable creativity and new ideas. When the din of the status quo drives out perspectives and truths from marginalized groups, we all lose.

I love to talk. I like verbalizing my ideas, telling stories, teaching others, and sharing my experiences. While others would hopefully consider this endearing, it’s become increasingly apparent to me in my decade-plus years of teaching and working in predominantly black communities that often the absolute best thing I can do to help achieve racial and cultural harmony, as a white person, is to listen.

Listen and believe.

White people don’t have a lot of experience just listening, because society is currently set up to center us at every step. The books we read in school as children are predominantly by and about white people. Everything from television shows to Facebook ads feature white faces and white stories. Pause for a moment and think about whether you have ever had a teacher of color or a non-white boss. Does your church reflect the diversity of creation? What voices are centered in the spaces you inhabit?

As a white person, one of the hardest but most important lessons you can learn is to step up as an ally by stepping back. When a person of color shares their truth with you, accept the grace of their lived experience. When it comes to organizing events or determining appropriate policies that impact people of color, get perspective. Be ready to hear how there is racial or cultural context at play that you don’t see. Accept that listening to and believing another person’s truth of racial discrimination or cultural animus doesn’t have to reflect your lived experience for it to be true.

If you want to work for racial and cultural justice as a white person, when critical conversations about race and culture are taking place, whether in person or online, with friends or in-laws or total strangers ...

Step back.