Opinion: Being an Ally Is More Than Just Friendship

Note: The following essay was crafted by Eric Mansfield, executive director of university media relations in Kent State's University Communications and Marketing department and an adjunct public relations instructor with the College of Communication and Information. 

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I went for an early morning walk this week in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The 3-mile trail I traversed is relatively secluded and away from roads, which is part of the reason I enjoy using it as the sun comes up. For the 50 minutes I was out there, I saw only one group of four women jog by, but that was it. The rest of the time I was alone with my thoughts.

I didn’t worry once about my safety. Even though I was alone, I didn’t worry that I might come upon a group of people who would do me harm because of the color of my skin nor did I give a second thought that someone would jump out from behind a tree and either steal my wallet or sexually assault me in the woods.

My comfort level during my journey is not the product of anything I’ve earned or deserved.

It's White male privilege.

I benefit from that privilege every day, and I will admit, it’s both easy to ignore and to take for granted. That needs to change. More specifically, I need to change.

Having grown up in the inner city and having spent 20 years in the military, I have always had close Black friends, including those whose lives were put in my hands and mine in theirs. However, our life experiences were not the same, and I should have recognized that sooner in my life.

Too often, I have failed to distinguish between being a friend and being an ally. The latter means so much more and takes much more intentional effort. It’s also what is necessary and what I’m called to do as a Christian. 

I have always wished my Black friends Merry Christmas and happy birthday, but too many times I have not reached out to them during tough times in America. These are events that I viewed quickly by flipping the channels while not paying attention to how heavy these events are on the hearts of others. They have lost sleep and endured fear and stress while I have slept soundly, not fully recognizing how their lives are at times terrorized and their dreams interrupted by fear.

That needs to change. I need to change.

As an ally, I need to do more to lift them up and to stand with them against racism, discrimination and a system that makes advancement so much more difficult for Black America than it needs to be. I need to take action and be part of the solution. I publicly vow to do just that.

I am helping to start a group of university men of all races to meet weekly over coffee in an open dialogue about racism in our community and how to open our eyes and ears to needed change. I know there are quite a few colleagues from across campus who live near me, so I’m hoping this group can come together quickly and that similar groups will be created across the entire campus community. I’m hoping that I can learn by listening more than I talk and by taking the lessons I learn and putting them into my daily practice.

My summer reading is beginning with “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” by Robin DiAngelo as I continue to educate myself on how to be a better ally. I’m committed to reading more, learning more and making new, genuine connections with people who don’t look like me. 

I have been so proud of my students, especially recent graduates, whose social posts show they are on the front lines standing up to discrimination and making their voices heard. They are making a difference, and they are standing up for what is right, at times in the face of real danger.

As an adjunct instructor, I would often introduce racism and sexism into the discussion, but I question now if I should have spent more time on the topics and really given my Black students more support in creating that safe space in class where they could share what was on their hearts.

When I was 16, my 17-year-old brother was shot and killed just a few blocks away from the recent murder of Na’kia Crawford in Akron. Brian was in the wrong place at the wrong time in a moment that changed my life forever. The police officer at the scene told me that my family was actually lucky because the man who killed him was immediately arrested and we knew the circumstances surrounding his death.  

Lucky? How could this tragedy have been in any way lucky for my family and me? 

As I grew older, I realized that what the officer meant was that there are many families who don’t know what happened to their loved ones or worse yet, know that the person who killed them has not been held accountable and continues to walk free. We are seeing that now in the cases of Breonna Taylor and others. How devastating this must be for their families while my family at least was able to grieve and find peace. This too must change in America.

My great-grandfather was a faithful U.S. Marine serving in World War I, yet as proud as I am of his service, I view his generation through a lens of criticism because Black servicemen and women were prevented from serving side by side with White troops. How is this possible? How shortsighted could our country have been? I fail to understand how our country accepted this.

A century later, I fear that someday my grandchildren will look at me and my generation the same way for how we have treated Black men and women in America and think How is this possible? How shortsighted are you?  Has my generation learned nothing from the past?

Finally, I hope that others in White America will join me in a simple pledge: Black Lives Matter.

Stop debating whether it’s the most effective slogan from a PR perspective or arguing that by embracing this mantra that it somehow means that other lives don’t matter. They do. They always have. 

If I can just stop for a moment and realize the pain of the people who are crying out for help to stay alive – the voices of my Black brothers and sisters – then I can get to the deeper message of what Black Lives Matter means and I can be part of the healing and support that my White privilege allows me to give freely. As an ally, I owe others nothing less than my full support.

I need to do more, and I need to do it now.

POSTED: Wednesday, June 24, 2020 - 2:23pm
UPDATED: Friday, June 26, 2020 - 3:07pm
WRITTEN BY:
Eric Mansfield