Grace Wong

When Being An Ally Means Being Silent

I was asked to speak at an event celebrating black lives. Here’s why I didn’t.

On the walk over to the Portland Art Museum on the afternoon of August 9th, I was nervous. A few weeks earlier I’d chickened out of joining a Black Lives Matter (BLM) march in D.C. I’d reasoned that, as a young Asian-American woman who was alone and 1,000 miles from home, I needed to be sensible rather than courageous. I had watched the horrors of the Dallas BLM event just days before and had decided to prioritize keeping myself safe over speaking up.

Growing up, I was always aware of the color of my skin. I attend a college prep school in Portland, Oregon, that touts its progressiveness but still has a primarily white student body and teaching staff. There, I’ve found a voice for myself as an Asian-American through affinity groups, community discussions, and connecting with the greater Portland community. I’ve gone to national conferences for diversity and inclusion and engaged in community projects to bring all sides of my city together.

But I know this isn’t enough. I see so many reports of countless incidents of police brutality, the failures of our justice system, and the minority-specific issues that are prevalent despite our living in a supposed "era of colorblindness." Yet I have been hesitant to personally participate with BLM — worried it wasn't my place to speak up.

August 9th, however, was the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death. I decided that on that day, in my town — the whitest major city in the U.S. — I needed to attend Don’t Shoot PDX’s Social Justice Community Art Project. The event celebrated #BlackAugust, #BlackIsBeautiful, and the city’s black and brown artists and social commentators.

As I approached the art museum, I heard loud music. The volume intensified as I got closer until I found myself surrounded by it: I was standing in the museum’s plaza, mesmerized by a young black man rapping his heart out. His lyrics reflected the challenging times for young black and brown men and took a critical lens to the larger social structures that have created these challenges. The music was deafening, but I looked around and saw the people around me swaying to the beat, most with their eyes closed, appreciative of and moved by the thoughtfulness of the performance. Rap culture and black culture are so intertwined, but so much of mainstream rap plays into the (mostly unflattering) racial stereotypes that contribute to a single and destructive cultural narrative about black Americans. But in that moment, a man whose name most will never know took back rap and made it his own.

Grace Wong

I was so enthralled by the music that I was surprised when it ended and nearly missed the opportunity to talk to the organizer and leader of Don’t Shoot PDX, Teressa Raiford. Back in February, concerned with the injustices of our criminal justice system and the role of police and minorities in the city, a couple of my friends had invited stakeholders from around the city to sit on a panel regarding police use of force. The organizers from WANT News for Teens had asked me to write a piece on my perceptions of the police leading up to the event, and I live-tweeted and SnapChatted the panel itself. The event was wildly successful due to the honesty of the speakers and the depth of the questions asked. On the panel, Teressa sat between a teenage black boy and a Portland police officer, and I vividly remembered how she both spoke openly about her “tricky” experiences with the Portland police and also called for increased dialogue to cultivate trusting relationships between law enforcement and communities of color. She owned that moment, exuding grace and confidence.

My own grace and confidence were lacking as I approached her, but she immediately put me at ease. "Look at this event," she said to me. "On the second anniversary of Michael Brown, the one-year anniversary of my own arrest, we are here. We are peaceful and we are doing it beautifully."

Then, to my astonishment, she asked if I wanted to get on the podium and speak, in the same place the mesmerizing rapper had just performed and where a woman was now discussing the connections between the PLO and BLM. Maybe Teressa knew about my previous involvement with similar events, or my ability to speak on issues of race in Portland given my background of community activism. But mostly I think she wanted to make sure that the movement she leads is inclusive and highlights all the voices that want to be heard.

Instinctively, I agreed. I thought of all the gratitude I could share with the event’s attendees, my own story as a woman of color, and my belief in and appreciation of the hard work of fighting for civil rights. But then I paused, looking out at the mostly-black crowd surrounding me at their joy in celebrating their shared identity and struggle. I turned back to Teressa and said, "Actually, I’m going to pass on this one. But thank you so much for the offer."

As much as I believe in the movement, I knew it wasn’t my place to stand at a podium and pretend that I had experienced the same struggles or that I personally understand the weight of the tragedies this community has faced throughout history and continues to face today. While I don’t think I would have been criticized for speaking, and that I would likely have been generously received, as an ally, I believe it’s important to remember one’s place. This is an especially hard line to walk for other minorities — those of us who are also familiar with marginalization and discrimination based on our race. But I often ask myself: Where can I be the most effective change-maker right now? At that moment, I decided that it was by simply appreciating the event, showing my support by being there.

Afterward, as I walked home through the park, I knew I’d made the right decision. Voicing my support and appreciating the art at the event as well as the peaceful will for change promoted by its attendees had been more important than making things about my own story.

The racial issues our country faces cannot be solved by one person or one movement. We must have opinions. We must voice those opinions. We must show up. But we also must be aware of our own history and how we fit into the narrative of this moment. Only once we carefully determine where and how each of us can do the most good and have the most impact — only then can we use our collective strength to achieve true racial equality.

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