To put it plainly, there’s a lot going on right now, with protests, petitions and social media activism galore. If you’re not Black, it’s likely you may be having discussions about racism within your home or with your friends for the very first time. Pay close attention. How you support and show up for the Black community in this pivotal moment is crucial—that said, do not bother your Black friends. Like I said, there’s too much going on as is! Don’t make your guilt their problem; instead, support them appropriately and with your whole, sincere heart. It’s time for you to be the ally the Black Lives Matter movement deserves.
Not exactly sure how to do so? Let Charlene Wheeless walk you through it with a little tough love. Wheeless has a long list of accolades to her name, as the founder and CEO of a strategic communications and business consultancy, an author, a public speaker, a chair of the Page Society and a breast cancer survivor. Yeah, I know—I want to be her when I grow up, too. “I consider myself a trailblazer, as I have often been the only Black female executive at several corporations,” says Wheeless.
Of course, Wheeless is well aware that we are living through a moment of change that will be written into the history books. “It has been amazing to watch the situation unfold in the U.S. and around the world. This has become a human movement for our country for social justice,” she says. “People are beginning to realize that there hasn’t ever been a good time to Black in America. Not 400 years ago, not in 1968, and not today.”
In addition to getting involved, Wheeless stresses the importance of looking inward. When asked the number one thing non-Black Americans should do right now, her answer is simple: “A lot of self-reflection on how we got here and how we can make sure we don’t stay in this position,” says Wheeless. “Our country needs to come together.”
If you find yourself itching to contact your Black friends and co-workers and voice your vow to support them, Wheeless urges you to do so only when appropriate. “Don’t approach anyone Black if you can’t do it with authenticity, empathy and compassion,” she says. “Don’t put your white guilt onto a Black person. We don’t need to hear how sorry you are, we need to hear how you are going to use your white privilege to make a difference.”
If you’re still unsure about what is or isn’t appropriate communication, Wheeless has taken the time to break down exactly how non-Black people can proactively support their Black friends and the Black community at large. Read on and make sure you’re able to check off the majority of these items on this list.
1. Get Educated
“Educate yourselves on what is really happening in your communities and in our nation when it comes to race relations,” says Wheeless. “Don’t just ask your black friends. Try to understand the Black Lived Experience.” If you haven’t yet, now is a great time to read some anti-racism literature. Be sure to support a Black-owned bookstore when you order!
Make sure you aren’t just making a donation, posting on Instagram and then going about your day as usual. “Take the time for self-reflection to see how you might be part of the problem,” says Wheeless. “If you are that person that has the one black friend—you are part of the problem. Ask yourself why.”
Now is the time to open up a dialogue, even if doing so makes you nervous about saying the wrong things. “Talk to your colleagues about their experiences with empathy and compassion,” says Wheeless, adding one important caveat: “Listen more than you talk.”
“Say something—don’t stay silent or put your head in the sand because it’s unpleasant,” says Wheeless. “If it’s unpleasant to you, imagine what it must be like for Black people.” Oh, and this should go without saying, but this does not mean you should text every Black person you’ve ever met so you look supportive. Think about it this way: if you haven’t spoken since high school or you wouldn’t invite this person to your wedding, you don’t need to be all up in their DMs right now.
Instead, focus that energy on talking to people who might not understand the severity of racial injustice in America. Educate them as you educate yourself. “Today, silence is compliance and you are either racist or anti-racist. To just say ‘I’m not racist’ is no longer enough,” she insists. “Now that people know better, there is an expectation that they will do better.”
Allow me to shout this one from the rooftops: VOTE!!! If you paid any attention to the 2020 election, you know how important local and state representatives can be in the electoral process. “The sweeping change that needs to happen in our country is going to occur at the local level,” insists Wheeless. “Get to know your local representatives and what they stand for. Many of the policies that have held black people down are decided by people we vote into our local offices.”
“Recognize that your Black colleagues are hurting,” says Wheeless. “We know that Black people are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, we are dying at a higher rate, the economic downturn has hit us harder because we hold many of those essential front-line worker positions. I’ve been told stories of Black associates who have lost three relatives in one week.”
Not all injustice can be changed with words, but understanding and compassion are still necessities in the fight. “There is so much pain right now. Be compassionate. Do something. Don’t ask what you can do. Do something in solidarity with Black people and racial injustice,” sys Wheeless. “Help clean up after the protests and riots if you can do so safely, give to community organizations that support Blacks, buy from Black-owned businesses and refuse to buy from businesses who don’t embrace anti-racism.” To put it plainly? “Just give a damn,” she says.
In conclusion, when it comes to activism, don’t just talk about it—be about it. Focus your energy on creating real change and being a true ally, not on bugging your Black friends during these trying times. Show them you love them with your actions, not with a plethora of guilt-induced text messages. “The protests brought a lot of people together in solidarity. From a purely human perspective, I would like to see that continue,” says Wheeless. “I hope that the uncomfortable conversations that are going on right now will continue. We have to see changes in policies that hold back Black people and that protect white people.”
Overall, Wheeless is optimistic about this opportunity for change. “I don’t think our society is going to let this go after the headlines start to fade,” she insists. “This movement is gaining momentum, not losing it. This is about humanity and equality, and it’s about time.”