4 Steps to Become an Ally of an Inner City Black Neighborhood (or anything, really)

This is part of the Hough series intro, like a small town, Mansfield Frazier’s response, history, crossing racial lines, A Place Worth Living, and interviewing Dee Jay Doc. If you’re new, I am Meagen Farrell writing about my experiences being a white person living in the 97% African-American Hough neighborhood in Cleveland. You can connect with me on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or my website.

So you are aware that having racially-segregated, poor communities in our post-industrial cities is a bad idea. And you want to do something about it!

The good news is that you don’t have to be white or a resident to be an ally of an inner black neighborhood. You can of any ethnicity, religion, culture or nation and still support the improvement of this community.

What is an ally?

Being an ally means you are not part of an oppressed/minority/marginalized community, but you are conscious of their situation and support efforts to make it better. The steps here can work for being any kind of ally. You can be a Chinese ally for a poor, white trailer park. You can be a straight ally of the LGBTQ community, or a German church with a sister parish in a Salvadoran mountain village. I am just using my personal experience of being a white ally in an inner city black neighborhood. I’m far from perfect at it, but here’s what I have tried that has worked so far:

  1. General cultural competence.

What are the hallmarks of general black culture? It helps to have a sense of how African American subcultures are generally packaged as “blackness.” BET, Jet, Ebony, Call & Post and sometimes Oprah will help you out there. Subscribe to get acquainted, but don’t take it all at face value. These media outlets can help you see trends, but don’t assume every individual black person aspires to live up to the cultural ideals in the media.

The most important first step is to realize that it is not someone else’s responsibility to explain to you what’s going on. It’s YOUR responsibility to educate yourself…all the time. Go ahead and ask respectful questions, but it’s not Tyrone Smith walking down Hough Avenue’s job to be your personal cultural ambassador. Find a professor to chat with or do some reading and research. Or just show up in the neighborhood and people watch.

At the beginning of my intentional learning, I started by finding three black mentors. I did not approach them because they fulfilled any media-fueled vision of “blackness,” but because they were proactive in offering resources to educate myself. They were open to both answering and asking challenging questions about race, equity, and justice. Sometimes they were angry, cynical or paranoid, but most of the time it’s because they are prophets like Jeremiah who had “fire in my bones and could not be silent.” It is a good workout for your brain and emotions.

It can be challenging to be observant of cultural differences without passing judgment, but I find the more I understand about history, the more I understand inner city black culture. Thankfully I took African-American studies courses that helped me deepen my understanding of what happened during the triangle slave trade, segregation in the South, the Great Migration, Civil Rights and race riots, the epidemics of crack and HIV, etc. Learning this history from a black perspective gave me insight into the systems that have impacted the way many of my neighbors live and think.

Learn something new every day. You will be an amateur forever.

  1. Critical Consciousness

Before getting into specific issues of race and class, first it helps to understand the concepts of identity and social defaults.

IDENTITY

Race, poverty, and location are a few aspects of how people understand who they are and where they belong. Some people are very conscious of their race, income, and where they live. Being a poor black person from the ghetto is their central story of who they are and where they came from. Some people embrace that identity, while others strive to be something else.

I’ve come to realize that most people in my neighborhood (or in most places) don’t really think about their “identity.” The neighborhood is just where their family happens to live, and they were born with more or less melanin…so what? For many people, their career or religion or music is a much bigger part of their identity. Some black people really embrace their African (or Native American or Irish or Caribbean) ancestry, while others think it has nothing to do with who they are now.

Being an ally means becoming sensitive to how people identify themselves. You allow people to choose their own identity, and don’t impose it on them. This is an important step beyond just general cultural competence.

What’s the difference? In step one, I noticed that Memorial Day BBQs are a really big deal. In step two, I respect that while lots of people grill out and invite all their family and co-workers, another neighbor might be a non-violent vegetarian that spends the day planting a community garden to halt the obesity epidemic and protest a militaristic holiday.

People don’t fit in neat checkboxes. Let people tell you who they are and where they come from; don’t assume you have the right to decide who is “black” or “woman” or “ghetto” or whatever.

DEFAULTS

Another aspect of critical identity consciousness is realizing that communities and institutions have a default setting. This is often called privilege, hegemony, or power, but I prefer the word “default” because it highlights that this is something all people are programmed to do unconsciously.

For example, when the transportation department planned the Euclid Avenue corridor, it intentionally privileged the public transit Health Line and created a bike lane. Traffic for cars is slower there. But when they renovated Superior Avenue, despite the equal prevalence of biking and public transportation, there are no such spaces created especially for busses or bikes. Despite being a central vein of a neighborhood with high percentages of small children and limited-income seniors, “car” is treated as the default mode of transportation. That makes it harder to opt for a cheaper alternative.

The same is true of how we create social, economic, civic, religious, and other cultural organizations. When institutions are created and managed exclusively by rich white people, they tend to assume and build a system that works for people who internalize “white” culture as their identity. If you are outside that default, you just have to work around…or don’t participate, as is frequently the case. Just like a cyclist struggles for safety on Superior Avenue built for cars, being a black person in most of our white-led society means it’s harder to navigate those spaces. You are more likely to be honked at or run over.

Once you get versed in this language of identity and hegemony, you can pose as a graduate of a private liberal arts college. There, I just saved you $35,000 a year. You’re welcome.

READING LIST:

One way to overcome your own default setting is to intentionally become conscious of it. Hence the title: critical consciousness. Here are a handful of authors who are particularly talented at awakening this kind of critical social analysis.

Local author: Mansfield Frazier’s From Behind the Wall: Commentary on Crime, Punishment, Race and the Underclass by a Prison Inmate

Local author: Margaret Bernstein’s The Bond: Three Young Men Learn to Forgive and Reconnect with Their Fathers

Black Girl Dangerous “On Rape, Cages, and the Steubenville Verdict”

bell hooks Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism

Online presentation: Race, Allyship & Intersectionality

Meadow Braun’s blog: White Girl, Black Face

Every episode of Everybody Hates Chris, or lots of stand up by Chris Rock

  1. Make interpersonal connections

Create a personal and professional network that includes people outside your “default” friends and family setting. This might mean you go out of your way to intentionally make connections in specific communities. One example of how to do this well is the Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites.

Warning: Don’t make friends with individual people just because they are black or from Hough. Here’s the trick: in social setting where it’s appropriate to meet new people, you should intentionally interact with people who look and dress and talk differently than you. But always reach out with the initial intention of finding out what you have in common, not highlighting your difference.

Don’t force it. You need to develop a strong bond in a common identity as the motivation to work through your differences. I think this is good advice for any relationship, actually.

Example: in college when I was considering converting to Catholicism, some friends took me to St Agnes + Our Lady of Fatima Church where they have a mass with a gospel choir. When I moved to Cleveland, I chose that as my church home. Now that I’m a member, I know people by name, have their emails and phone numbers, and we’re Facebook friends. A couple years after moving to Cleveland, I got married and bought a house within a mile of the church in the Hough neighborhood. That’s part of the story of how I came to live in this neighborhood.

Living here is an indirect result of years of creating a diverse personal and professional network. These friendships have grown (or not) based on common interests.

Some relationships don’t work out. That’s okay.

I do my best to be comfortable and respectful, but have to accept that at times it is uncomfortable and awkward. I don’t think it’s the end of the world to be offended or to offend other people. I just try to pay attention, reflect, and be willing to change my actions or attitude when appropriate. With practice, I have learned how to be comfortable in my own skin and respectful of others’ differences at the same time, but I still stumble.

  1. Support black-led organizations and black leaders working in black communities.

This is probably the most important part of sustaining a lifelong commitment to being an ally: fighting the savior complex. No one needs you to swoop in and create one more damn project and think you’re saving the world. It just creates more systems with your default, instead of you learning to adapt to the default of other ways of being in the world.

If you want to invest in the neighborhood, then invest in the people who are already doing good work here. Give them money, press, resources, and access to your networks.

As an entrepreneurial woman who gets frustrated with injustice, I sometimes find it difficult to have the humility and patience to let someone else lead and genuinely support their efforts. Lending expertise or offering constructive criticism should be offered with permission on the other person’s terms. For example, once I made the mistake of trying to help a neighbor’s son catch up on his homework when it wasn’t wanted, and it was embarrassing for both of us.

If I were to recommend some Hough Leaders for RustWire readers to support, here are some of my top picks. This is far from an exhaustive list of great people and organizations serving inner city black neighborhoods, so please respond with your own “nominees”.

All the Hough Leaders on my list have well established and effective organizations. Please check out their projects, sign up for their newsletters, send them lots of money, contact them to volunteer or get a tour, and talk about it with everyone you know.

Lila Mills, Editor of the Neighborhood Voice

Mansfield Frazier, Founder of Chateau Hough

John Anoliefo, Executive Director of FAMICOS

Charity Hall, Outreach Director of NEON Health

LaJean Ray, Director of the Fatima Family Center

Mittie Imani Jordan, Chair of The National Institute for Restorative Justice

Janice Chambers at Mary’s House

I’d love to hear your comments on black-led urban organizations worth more support and attention. How are you taking action to become an ally?