I live in a middle-class neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, ostensibly one of the most progressive cities in the country (if you’re willing to overlook our breathtakingly racist history of redlining, exclusion, and gentrification). It seems as though every third house I pass on my daily walks has a yard or a window sign proclaiming that Black Lives Matter or that Refugees are Welcome or informing passersby what it means to live in our welcoming America. Look how much we care.
I can’t help but notice that the overwhelming majority of people who walk out of these houses (approximately 80%, based on my empirical observations over the last 13 months) do so without wearing a mask, despite the fact that the Black members of our community are three times more likely to catch COVID than they are. Black lives matter so much to us, right up until the point where we have to alter our behavior, inconvenience ourselves, or do something that makes us slightly uncomfortable.
As an equity consultant for Fortune 500 companies as well as small nonprofits, I witness this pattern repeating over and over: white folks want the gold allyship star, we want the pat on the back, we want the peacock display of how woke we are, but we don’t want to put in the effort required to make meaningful change.
I can’t stop thinking about one afternoon, years ago, when I attended a lecture at the local medical school. At these types of events, it’s not uncommon for a faculty member on stage to ask the physicians in the audience to stand and re-take the Hippocratic Oath. My friend sitting next to me, who had been a doctor for a few years at that point, didn’t stand to recite the oath. When I later asked him why he said, “It’s more important to practice it than it is to say it in an auditorium full of people.
It is more important to do something privately than it is to publicly shout our intention to maybe, hopefully do that thing in the future.
It is more important to do something privately than it is to publicly shout our intention to maybe, hopefully do that thing in the future. I want to etch this on the back of every Black Lives Matter sign. Are lawn signs and social media posts a great way of building momentum and recognition for a movement? Yes. Is it helpful if someone places a sign in their window or posts something on their timeline and thinks that’s all they have to do? Not really.
My next-door neighbors (three young, entitled, white Bernie bros) made a hand-written sign to hang on their fence that says, “End Police Brutality.” One night, in the thick of state-wide lockdown, they had a large party that woke me in the middle of the night. I left them a note telling them that the noise was a problem. One of them showed up drunk at my front door, calling me a Karen. He told me that they didn’t want to deal with noise issues, so instead of bringing my concerns to them directly, the next time they had a party that violated noise ordinances, I should just call the cops. By this he meant the Portland cops, who arrest Black Portlanders at a rate 4.3 times higher than white Portlanders (making the department, by this metric, the fifth worst in the country) and who kill Black people 3.9 times more than their white counterparts. It bears mentioning that some of their friends at the party were Black.
Let that sink in. My neighbors were inviting their Black friends to superspreader events, in violation of a state mandate, and goading neighbors to weaponize law enforcement against them, all the while driving around in cars plastered with progressive bumper stickers. That’s allyship in America for you.
I understand that we’ve all become conditioned to care more about the appearance of righteousness than the practice of it (see: the well-meaning folks who posted black squares on Instagram tagged with #blacklivesmatter, making the messages of Black activists harder to find and thereby defeating the entire purpose of the idea). I also understand that the political left (of which I am a proud part) places an enormous amount of pressure on its adherents to behave in a certain way and to espouse certain opinions at the top of their voice. But this isn’t a contest. And it’s not a sprint. There’s no such destination as “wokeness.” For white people who care about equity, this is a lifelong commitment that we have to fumble our way through, focusing as much on holding ourselves accountable for our own mistakes as we do on bringing awareness to the systemic problems that need tackling. Let me be the first to say: it’s far better to do something quietly than to do nothing loudly.