OpEd: Intersectional Allies Can Move the Social Justice Needle

Last week, Nabra Hassanen—a brown Muslim teenager—was brutally killed after leaving her Mosque with her peers. Days before, yet another police officer was acquitted in the killing of Philando Castile, a Black man who, with his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter in the car, had been told that he was pulled over for a broken brake light.

These stories have made national news, sparking outrage and prompting conversations around the racial implications for the victims' respective communities.

A few months ago, my older sister witnessed a man approach two women wearing hijabs who were stopped at a traffic light, call them the devil, and then leave. That same month, my youngest sister had a racial profiling experience while driving with two friends near their university. She said she deliberately followed the steps of the traditional “Talk” that Black parents give their kids about how to avoid violent confrontations when stopped by the sometimes hostile police.

These are not isolated encounters. Although more severe examples may draw media attention, these demonstrations of racial bias are literally all around us—around the corner, and at the next stop light.

As people of color, we may be the victims by direct experiences, or from the overwhelming collective trauma that hits each time we hear about yet another racist act against someone who looks like us. We deal with our own situations, but we must also be empathetic allies towards other communities of color facing challenges that we do not.

I can feel this intersection through personally unpacking the aforementioned examples. I identify as both a Black person and as a person of color. The categories clearly overlap, but they are not the same. As a Black woman, I am aware that some will consider me threatening based on my ethnic identity. However, I will likely not encounter the same type of targeting as a person color of Middle-Eastern descent.

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While I have always recognized the differences in experience between various people of color, I could never quite articulate them in clear terms until I was recently introduced to the concept of the “Three Pillars of White Supremacy.”

It suggests that three types of racism have evolved over time in the United States: (1) Anti-Blackness, originating from slavery; (2) Indigenous genocide, resulting from colonization; (3) and Orientalism, the fear of “others” attempting to infiltrate and threaten U.S. status quo.

These groupings allowed me to conceptualize my place in the world as both a Black person, and as a person of color. I have had discussions with friends and coworkers of color about our common experiences of isolation, negative assumptions, and overall “othering”—the constant hyperawareness of our minority status in various environments.

I feel a special sense of camaraderie with other people of color who are present in settings where I would otherwise feel uncomfortable and alone.

Activists Rally At Baltimore City Hall
People hold hands during a rally lead by faith leaders in front of city hall calling for justice in response to the death of Freddie Gray on May 3, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Andrew Burton / Getty Images

While people of color may connect through commonalities of our minority status, our experiences are not always the same. Referring back to those pillars, our specific racial identities determine the way others perceive and treat us.

My non-Black friends of color will likely not experience co-workers asking for permission to touch their hair; or being addressed with profuse Ebonics and hip-hop culture references; or going through the rite of passage of having "The Talk” about engaging with police officers. There is a unique cultural experience that comes with being Black in this country.

There are also unique experiences of nonblack people of color that I will never understand. No one has ever publicly yelled at me to go back to my country. My appearance has never warranted an immediate request for documents proving my right to be here. I have not been told that it is my responsibility to ensure that people of my faith not behave in a way that could be perceived as a terrorist threat. I do not know the disregard associated with celebrating Columbus Day, and its genocidal implications around my ancestry.

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Once we acknowledge other communities’ challenges, people of color can be allies against struggles that we are unlikely to endure with an enhanced sense of empathy. This objective should not be particular to people of color.

This is the general concept of allyship—standing behind marginalized communities in areas where one has privilege. I expect people of all races to strive to end discrimination, and I envision a time when everyone will demand equal opportunities for every human being. However, there can be a sense of shared understanding for this proposed “cross-minority allyship,” which includes a more heightened sense of awareness about racism’s effects—A more intense desire to ensure that no one is ever forced to feel similarly to these personal and painful experiences.

So what does this cross-minority allyship look like?

It looks like acknowledging that people of other races have unique experiences that we may never understand, though we can empathize with their challenges; It looks like providing emotional support in any way that we can; It means checking ourselves, and recognizing that we can sometimes inadvertently contribute to the problem; It means holding ourselves responsible for checking others when their behavior is disrespectful; And it means publicly taking a stand for our fellow human beings, and making it clear that racism, of any form, is unacceptable.

Every day, the need for allyship becomes more urgent.

Nabra and Philando are two examples of many who have died unjustly at the hands of prejudice and hate. If people over color commit to uniting against racism, we will have power to significantly move the needle towards the goal of true social justice.

After my sister witnessed that horrible act of hatred, she went to the Muslim ladies, asked if they were alright, and apologized for what had happened to them. It was a small gesture, but it demonstrated that she saw them, that she represented the many people who repudiated the behavior of that man in the other car, and that she was there for them.

At the end of the day, knowing that we matter and are cared about are some of the most basic human emotional requirements.

As a Black woman and a person of color, I know how it feels for that to be disregarded. If we can all commit to standing up to those who make others feel this way, imagine the progress that we will make.

Whitney Parnell is the CEO of Service Never Sleeps, a non-profit that mobilizes communities to exercise “Allyship,” an active way of life that utilizes bridge-building to ensure equality, opportunity, and inclusion for everyone.

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