How to be an ally to people of colour

By Zoya Patel

A few weeks ago, I drove into the car park of my local supermarket and saw an elderly gentleman struggling with his trolley. He couldn’t quite keep pushing it in a straight line, and he looked exhausted from trying. I walked over to him, smiling, and said, “Hi there! Would you like some help?”

In that moment, his entire demeanour changed – he pulled away from me, his face twisting into an expression of fear and disgust, his shoulders coming up in a defensive gesture.

My face fell, and I quickly walked away, embarrassed. Later, I told this story to a friend.

“I was at the supermarket today and this old guy was racist to me,” I said, feigning nonchalance. I described his reaction, and my friend shrugged.

“I don’t think he was being racist,” he said. “He was probably just a grumpy old man.”

I stared at him for a moment, but didn’t know how to respond. I was angry, but didn’t get into an argument. My friend had dismissed my experience of racism as simple antisocial behaviour, which filled me with defiance and frustration. This was just one more example of my experiences of racism being devalued by my white friends.

So often when I disclose an experience of racism to a white friend, it is dismissed, devalued, or trivialised. I’m told I’m overreacting, or that they’re “sure” it wasn’t racism but some other issue, or that maybe I could have responded differently.

I understand the impulse my white friends have to brush over incidences like these. They want to support me, and part of their dismissiveness comes from incredulity that this shit even happens. Combined with that is a sense of disbelief that other people could behave in a racist way when they themselves would never do that.

What they don’t understand, however, is how these seemingly small experiences of racism combine to make a crushing pressure that people of colour carry with them.

“What I want is to have allies support me in dealing with racism, and acknowledge that it’s an issue that the entire community needs to address together.”

From when I was a child, I can remember almost every time someone was racist to me, even though these experiences must number in the hundreds. Sometimes I will be struck by a memory of a racist incident – being followed through the playground by school children, calling me brown like poo; having a strange man yell incoherently at my mother in the street about being a “fucking Muslim bitch”; having patients at the doctor’s surgery I once worked at as a receptionist complain, that between me and the one Indian doctor on staff, it was turning into “an ethnic surgery”; having countless people ask me where I’m from, no, where am I really from, no, where are my parents from, no, where am I from originally?

It doesn’t matter how much time has passed from when the incident occurred, I still feel a hot rush of shame, anger and insecurity whenever I remember just how unwelcome some people can make me feel in Australia.

Having these experiences devalued by my well-meaning friends compounds this issue further for me – what I want is to have allies support me in dealing with racism, and acknowledge that it’s an issue that the entire community needs to address together.

What I don’t want is to be told that I’m overreacting, too sensitive, or worse, that I should have stood up for myself more or said something different. These latter expressions come from a place of solidarity and anger, but inevitably make me feel worse, like I’ve failed myself by not taking on the racist attacker with more strength and conviction. So often, when someone is racist to me, my impulse is to just walk away silently, my heart racing.

When I have had these conversations with my white friends, and tried to explain why their reactions upset me, the overwhelming response is that they don’t know what an appropriate response would be.

I understand it’s daunting and difficult for someone in an inherent position of privilege to know how to meaningfully and sensitively engage with an issue like racism. But not acknowledging it is far worse than dealing with that discomfort.

So, if your culturally-diverse friend tells you about a time when someone was racist to them, and you don’t know what to say, here’s a helpful guide on how to respond:

  1. Listen to them.
  2. Tell them you’re sorry they had to go through that.
  3. Ask them if there’s anything you can do.
  4. Keep listening.

Zoya Patel is a writer, editor, founder of Feminartsy, and a Right Now columnist. She tweets @zoyajpatel

Feature image: redhope/Flickr

This column has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.