How can I help? Advice for White journalists
The Cohort is Poynter's bi-monthly newsletter about women kicking ass in digital media.
Last week, I was in South Africa training smart journalists alongside the incomparable Butch Ward.
We started teaching on Monday, July 4. Throughout the day it seemed nearly everyone we met — journalists, hotel staff, taxi drivers, restaurant servers — cheerfully wished us a happy Independence Day. Spirits were high. I was proud to represent our country overseas.
By Thursday, that feeling shifted. Two more Black men, Alton Sterling from Louisiana and Philando Castile of Minnesota, had been shot and killed by police. Spurred by the news, our class talked about race and online comments and how important, yet incredibly difficult, it is to foster respectful dialogue among readers. “I can’t imagine living in your country,” one of the journalists told me between breaks. “This seems to happen so often.” Her words echoed in my head the rest of the day.
I woke up on the final day of teaching, July 8, to news that four — later five — police officers had been killed in Dallas. The standoff was still taking place as we began the opening session. I fumbled to find the right words as I gave a familiar presentation. On my way out of the building, I glanced in an open office. A young Black man was watching footage from Dallas on his computer screen. What must he think of us?
Now that I’m back in the States, I’ve been trying to process everything. It’s difficult to know how to respond as a White person right now. What do you say? What if you say the wrong thing? How can you help? How do you properly tell your Black colleagues, neighbors and friends that you are hurting alongside them? Does that even matter right now?
To put it bluntly: How can I be supportive (without making this about me)?
If I’ve learned anything over time, it’s knowing when to admit that you don’t have the answers and to look to others for guidance. So I asked some Black friends and colleagues for their perspectives. Their answers have been edited for space.
“I understand why some White people might be nervous about saying the wrong thing, but saying nothing can come off as detached and uncaring,” said one friend, who asked to remain anonymous. That kind of real talk is so helpful.
I’m switching up the format of today’s newsletter and letting these smart ladies take it from here:
Kari Cobham, Cox Media Group
As a Trinidadian immigrant, I’m sometimes hesitant to speak about issues in the U.S. because I’m not American and I didn’t grow up here. But I am Black in America, I have a mixed race daughter, and this has become our struggle, too. It should be everyone’s fight.
I don’t have a handbook for this. We’re all asking what now, what next? What I do have are some thoughts on what has helped. It’s a start.
- Reach out to Black friends and family. They’re hurting right now. Checking in, acknowledging that pain, and supporting means more than you will ever know. Even talking about it at work helps. The silence hurts more than any awkwardness you might be worried about. (As you empathize, remember this is not your lived experience. Don’t make it about you.)
- Consume everything you can. Every news article, every think piece, every op-ed, every word. Step outside the bubble that is the Facebook filter if you need to. Get a fuller understanding of what has been happening systemically and its impact on the Black community. It’s not their job to educate you on or defend their pain while they’re hurting; it’s your job to educate yourself. And others.
- Speak up. If you’re not OK with what you’ve been reading, seeing and hearing, speak out against it. Use your privilege for change. Your privilege is a platform. Say something when you sense racist undertones and help others recognize different perspectives. Voicing your concerns, support and sharing links on social media is good. But you can also take an extra step toward action and write your city council, state senator, state representative, police chief, mayor, governor and officials. Participate in marches if you’re so moved.
- Explore your own prejudices. Acknowledging your own biases makes you uncomfortable, but lean into them. This is a great piece by John Metta, delivered to an all-White audience at the Bethel Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington.
Tracie Powell, All Digitocracy
What I need White allies to understand is that this violence isn't just happening to "Black people." This is happening to ALL of us. This isn't just a Ferguson thing. It's not just a suburb in Minnesota thing. This isn't just a Cleveland or Baltimore thing. Martin Luther King said an "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." So please know this is ALL of our problem, not just something that happens to "those people." Your son may not be Black like my nephew, but today they come for me; tomorrow it very well may be you.
Know that #blacklivesmatter is not anti-White nor is it anti-policing. If all lives mattered, we wouldn't even be talking about #blacklivesmatter. Black citizens in the U.S. understand the complicated nature of policing: We both distrust and need the police to protect and serve. We just don't want their boots on our necks for no reason. Or worse, their bullets in our guts. Just like White people know fear, so do Black and brown people. But we've got to overcome that fear in order for one to understand the other. Fight through it, and take the necessary steps to get to know people outside of your lily-white personal and professional relationships. Most Black and brown people have to interact with people from other racial and ethnic backgrounds. Many Whites don't necessarily have to, if they don't want to. That's a problem that's easily fixed.
I also need White allies to understand that they just can't sit home and shake their heads in silent shame. They need to lock arms with protesters and march side-by-side with them across this country. Instead of impatiently blowing your horns at protesters who block major thoroughfares and waylay your trips to the mall or to work, park your car instead. Get out and demand reforms to policing and gun laws. Demand an end to systemic racism.
Tasha Stewart, WCPO
If you want to say something, but don’t know exactly what, just say that. Simply acknowledging that Black people’s history and experience with law enforcement is troubled, to say the least, simply recognizing that it is an issue, and that there is work to be done — that all helps.
Be a safe space. Right now, there aren’t a lot, whether physically safe or emotionally safe. Listen to us. Show empathy. Connect to our humanity if possible. We may not know victims personally, but a lot of us have painful personal experiences of our own. And these stories make us remember them.
Speak up if you’re comfortable. During conversations, I welcome allies and welcome when mine is not the only voice representing the African-American perspective. I love folks who show support publicly AND privately.
If you disagree, please do so respectfully. But always keep listening and seeking to learn more.
Be kind to each other.
I’m looking for more badass women to profile here! Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on Twitter with #digitalwomenleaders.
The Cohort is part of Poynter's Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media. Props to the thoughtful Kristen Hare for her newsletter edits and insight.