Four Approaches to Opening the Hard Conversations About Racism, Antiracism, Advocacy, and Allyship

By: Hillary Sobel

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The summer of 2020 will be remembered for many things, but most notably for the resurgence of the nation’s discussion of race, racism — personal and systemic — and the voices of those raised up on behalf of those whose voices police-sponsored violence silenced: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and far too many others.

On the final day of Ellevate Network’s Mobilize Women Summit in late August, women gathered and spoke, listened and learned, at the final panel: “Equal for All: Allies, Advocates, & Accomplices.” Kenosha cops had recently shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back, while his children looked on. And we lamented, what will it take for this to end? And so, the topic of the panel.

As we talked and listened, I wondered how best to initiate the hard conversations we must have individually and collectively.

[Related: Eight Ways You Can Support Racially Diverse Colleagues at Your Workplace]

Children and teachers prepare to resume school, and I recalled a way of teaching, of telling stories of our past to understand our present and change our future: the story of Passover. The Passover Seder is a dinner much like other big family gatherings. It centers around answering questions of the youngest seated at the table about the history of hatred and the exodus from home.

It is not a schoolroom lecture, but a story told in different ways to four children: one who is “wise,” one who is “wicked” (though here we will call the child “selfish”), one who is “simple,” and one “who does not even know how to ask a question.” And so it seems our conversation about race, antiracism, allyship, and advocacy can use this same framework.

Some rabbis also recognize a fifth child, one that is “absent” from the telling of the story. It is to this child, sometimes found in all of us and our desire to avoid the hard conversations, to whom this article is dedicated.

The wise child asks: What must we do to be antiracist, to ensure that “liberty and justice for all,” truly means all, including Black lives?

And to the wise child your answer shall begin at the beginning and tell of the founding of the nation on the labor of those stolen from their homes centuries ago, of the hardships they endured treated as chattel and not as human. You shall explain that this history pre-dates the Civil War but has continued in bold and insidious ways to this day, limiting wealth and opportunity.

For this child you explain personal racism and systemic racism in healthcare and in housing, in education and (in)equality of the law. And you shall exhort the wise child to vote and to bear witness, to speak and to defend, not white supremacy, but justice. For though Lady Justice wears a blindfold, she does not wear a gag. Those who benefit from this unequal system are tasked with dismantling it. And the wise child must begin.

[Related: Be the Change: A Multi-Part Framework]

The selfish child asks: Why do you do these things to be antiracist when they do not affect you?

And to this selfish child, who excludes themselves from the need to do the work to improve Black lives and the world they and we live in, you shall say: I do these things because I have long benefited from a world designed to oppress others. I speak, I vote, and I protest and try to change myself and the inequities in the system. We are not free so long as people in the Black community are not free. And this is why I strive to be antiracist.

As Benjamin Franklin said:

Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.

The simple child asks: What does Black Lives Matter mean?

And you shall explain simply: Though civil rights have been an ongoing fight, in recent years the Black community has again demanded to be heard, demanded that their lives matter as much as those of a White person. Black lives should not be limited because of wealth inequality and access to good education and good healthcare. And so, with a simple phrase, Black Lives Matter, we are tasked to learn how to ensure that they do, so Black lives can thrive at home and at work, and live in peace and prosperity.

Finally, for the child who does not even know how to ask a question, you shall begin: People look different, have different skin colors, but we do not judge them on that basis. We have different histories and ancestors that have given shape to whom we have become. Some people have used that to hurt and limit others. That is wrong and we must fix it. It will take daily effort, but it will be worth it.

These answers are not the conversations themselves, only their start. Our conversations must continue, every day. They will be hard, and we will stumble. We must learn. We must listen. And we must act to ensure that all are free, or none of us are free.

[Related: The Skills You Need to Succeed in 2020 and Beyond]

Hillary Sobel is a donor, volunteer, lawyer, feminist, and leader. She sits on the Board of Directors of Hollaback! a non-profit organization on a mission to end harassment in all of its forms: in the street, online, at work, wherever people gather.

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