3 Ways White People Can Start Learning to Follow

Photo: Ira L. Black/Corbis/Getty Images

No matter what our political beliefs or income levels are, White people share the experience of being centered in American life. When we do protest, it’s often to protect systems that keep us there, whether we’re protesting anti-discrimination laws to correct unfair hiring practices or measures meant to protect public health.

Because of this, those eager to see a racially equitable society, myself included, have felt unsure about how to best support the Black Lives Matter movement. Do we post on social media or stay quiet to let other voices be heard? The better question to ask ourselves might be: How can I support the movement that’s already in place?

It’s a deceptively difficult question for many of us. Individualism is baked into the American psyche. From the frontier to the courtroom, we like our heroes independent. We even like our law enforcers to be law-breaking mavericks. In many ways, following is anathema to the White American ideal.

But we can and must learn how to center other voices and points of view and listen more than we speak. White people need to learn how to follow. Here’s how to start.

Get comfortable with discomfort

White people are not used to joining movements in which our needs are not at the center, so it follows that many don’t even know how to do it. Even the anticipation of feeling embarrassed or out of place — wondering “What if I do it wrong or my presence isn’t welcome?” — can be enough to deter people from joining a cause.

And yes, we might get it wrong, and we might feel uncomfortable. But we’re supposed to feel uncomfortable sometimes. That’s how we know we’re learning.

We might also feel uncomfortable with being passive. But following is not about surrendering your voice. Ira Chaleff, author of The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to and for Our Leaders, says good “followship” is a crucial part of any organization or cause, as integral as good leadership. He writes that “followers and leaders both orbit around the purpose.”

Know that action is almost always better than inaction

Could White people have joined the BLM cause earlier? Of course. As writers such as Ibram X. Kendi and Ijeoma Oluo have explained again and again, Black people have never had the luxury of ignoring the pain of racism.

By contrast, White Americans seem to pay attention en masse only when that pain is voiced so strongly that we can’t do otherwise. I was well into my thirties before I began to seriously consider my privilege and my forties before I began to fill in the broad gaps in my understanding.

How can White people overcome this? For one thing, we can start by acknowledging that this is not “someone else’s” cause. Racism affects every facet of our lives, every system, every institution. Of course, that shouldn’t be our only reason to support the effort to dismantle systems of racial injustice. The welfare of those people being directly disadvantaged, oppressed, and killed should itself be sufficient grounds. But we have to remind ourselves that the effects of racism go well beyond its intended victims.

As political strategist Heather McGhee put it in a 2019 TED Talk: “It costs us so much to remain divided. This zero-sum thinking, that what’s good for one group has to come at the expense of another, it’s what’s gotten us into this mess.”

Center action over skepticism

Thanks to the BLM movement, many people are just now learning how to communicate about systemic and historic American racism. Bethann Hardison, a diversity and inclusion consultant and advocate, advises looking at the big picture: “For brands, as soon as they start to do something right, they’re always going to have that guy who says, ‘Oh, now you’re doing it.’” This goes for individuals, too, of course. The important thing is to look beyond what might count as performance and challenge yourself to do actual work. The baby step has to be a first step.

Sure, someone might accuse you of jumping on a bandwagon. But the country and the world are on the threshold of profound and lasting change, closer than we’ve gotten in a generation to having the kind of impact on public policy we saw during the ’60s. We should all ask ourselves why now and interrogate our inaction, but we shouldn’t hesitate to speak out and get involved now.

Fortunately, there are countless ways to get involved. If you can do so safely, join a protest. Lend your voice and your body to the movement. Don’t just follow Black thought leaders on Twitter and Instagram. Help register Black voters. Get involved in your town council or school board and advocate for equal representation. Speak to your employer about their hiring practices. Embrace your discomfort. Decenter yourself. Have the courage to follow. I’ll see you out there.

Shya Scanlon is the author of Forecast and Guild of Saint Cooper. Follow him on Twitter @shyascanlon

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