Who are your real allies, and what do you do when they do you wrong?
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam was elected with Black voter support. When a photo (allegedly) of him in blackface with a buddy dressed as KKK was published, it was a scandal. The Governor claims it was not him, but also admits to dressing as Michael Jackson while in college. In any case, the scandal hit the Governor as a call to close the huge hole in his knowledge about Black people in his state.
Black leadership, once they knew the Governor would not resign, seized the opportunity to put before the Governor ways to do right by the Black people in Virginia.
Actions allies take that support a real apology
Black voters interviewed for this article say that their votes should have won them a seat at the table. It hurts that the seat was fully offered only after the scandal. Yet, Black elected officials got access to the Governor to address racism in ways that they did not have before the scandal.
If the Governor was simply covering his political behind, these actions would not have happened. However, Governor Northam showed himself to be a man of good intention. He intended to use his position as governor to affect real positive change for the people in his state.
It has become a joke line that white people deal with racism by joining a book club. However, reading is a safe and sometimes effective way to expand awareness. Governor Northam was a good student, and he became a student of history for the first time. This expanded his understanding of how, throughout the history of Virginia, government has worked against the needs of Black people there. This led to significant changes in Virginia, during the term of Governor Northam.
What leaders do is keep their eye on the goal
Black leaders saw an opportunity to work with a governor who wanted to grow past his upbringing (when wearing blackface was funny). They could have stayed mad, but they instead focused on what Governor Northam could do to make Virginia a more equitable state to live in for Black people.
This time, it worked. Why? Because Governor Northam was a true public servant who wanted to effect positive change in his state. The scandal forced him to step outside his upbringing. Once he understood how prison and the death penalty were affecting the Black community, he used his power as governor to do what he could. The timing was good; he had legislative support. He made the changes that benefited the Black community.
Lesson for working with allies
Identify signs of good intention.
Look for more than words that show that someone is trying to be an ally. In this story, Governor Northam said, “What can I do for you?”, along with his apology.
People don’t know what they don’t know.
Children grow up thinking that what their family does is “normal.” Then they go to school and learn about their friend’s families. They also learn history. Social studies and history books are white-centered, so children learn little about the history of people who are not white from a western European background. People who go through college on a science track are not exposed to much social science and history.
Black people are not responsible to teach white people about race issues, but those Black people can identify a real ally by their behavior. When Black people show a white person what they didn’t know, if the white person tries to find out more, they are acting as an ally. If they persist on defending their white-only position, they have more to learn and are not ready to be a good ally.
Black people who encourage white people to learn about what they don’t know can test the mettle of their allies. If they are willing to learn and grow, Black people can be kind to see past ignorance as past. This is not always easy, depending on how egregious the previous action was. Those who can be kind in that way may find a strong ally who has grown from a white person who was once ignorant.
Take pride in supporting an ally. Don’t take responsibility for their actions.
Your job is to lead an ally to the resources they need to be a better ally. You cannot make them live up to their stated principles. When you succeed, you helped. When they fail, it is on them.