How POCs Can Be Better Black Lives Matter Allies
YR Media teamed up with Latino USA to explore the concept of allyship, especially in the movement against anti-Blackness within many Latinx communities. We put together a discussion with four young adults from a range of racial backgrounds to talk what it means to be an effective ally to the Black community during a critical time of racial reckoning in our country, the role young people are playing in this new wave of activism and the importance of “unlearning” long-held perspectives rooted in our communities.
To follow the conversation, led by YR Media’s Emiliano Villa, listen via the player above or read the transcript below, which has been edited for clarity and length.
Emiliano Villa: Today’s conversation is about non-Black allies, our privileges and what we need to be doing to support and uplift Black people. We put together a panel of young activists, reporters and social media makers … [First], we’re joined by 21-year-old Ajani Torres. Ajani, could you introduce yourself?
Ajai Torres: Yes. Hi, I live in Oakland, California and was raised in Oakland. I’m currently transferring to UC Davis this fall as a plant biology major. I identify as she/her and Mexican-Indigenous. Thanks for having me.
EV: Thank you, Ajani. We’re also joined by 17-year-old Primo Lagaso Goldberg. So, Primo, could you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Primo Lagaso Goldberg: Yeah, for sure. I am a senior at Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco, California. I grew up in Olowalu, Hawaii. I identify as Black, Filipino, Irish and Jewish. Lots of different things mixed in there. I’m also queer and non-binary. I use he/him/they/them pronouns. I’m just very happy to be here with all of you today.
EV: Thank you. Ajani and Primo are both contributors to YR Media. And we also have 19-year-old Nadia Brooks. Nadia, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you identify?
Nadia Brooks: Sure. So my name is Nadia Brooks. My pronouns are she/her/hers. Currently, I’m organizing in my community again, which is Oakland — born and raised. I’m currently a student at UCLA. I’ll be entering my third year this fall majoring in public affairs and minoring in environmental systems and society. I identify as African-American, Puerto Rican and Mexican.
Emiliano: Thank you. So, as you can tell, this group that we have on our panel today is very diverse and we all have our own experiences. We’re going to get into that today with our discussion. So I’ll just get on with my first question. This one goes out to Ajani and Primo, because I know you guys have been out protesting, right? What were your interactions like with the people in the crowd?
Ajani: Everybody there was really positive. Like, you just feel good about seeing all those people there and just knowing that people still care about what’s going on in this country. There are a lot of people that are coming out that are, you know, doing a lot of bad things. So it’s really nice, just kind of being reassured. You can look to the person next to you and just know that they’re just as passionate about the movement as you. I think our generation is just so tired of what’s been going on that we have a lot more passion about it. We’re so young that we have the energy to be like, ‘We can’t let our lives be like this forever.’
Primo: I really agree with Ajani. Depending on where it is and what the circumstances are, protests can really feel really safe and empowering. Sometimes it can feel almost the opposite of what it’s supposed to.
Emiliano: It kind of reminds me of this subject that’s been on my radar recently that has to do with non-Black folks using this Black Lives Matter attention to shift attention to other issues. Have you guys been keeping up with that?
Ajani: That is a very good topic to bring up, because as someone that’s Latinx/Mexican-Indigenous, that is a very huge problem, specifically in the community that I come from. I have family in Stockton, California, and they really don’t believe that Black lives matter. Like, they really believe everything Trump is telling them. They believe the media. Basically, they don’t really have their own thought to think for themselves. And so I’ve kinda had these conversations with them, like other families have had these conversations. A lot of it is misinformation. I think in times like this, we have to remember who’s being affected right now. And right now, Black lives are being lost at a high rate. And so even though other lives are affected in other ways, Latinos need to be educated on the ways that they oppress Black people themselves.
Emiliano: And sadly, anti-Blackness is very ingrained in a lot of our cultures. So I think as allies, we have to tackle it and address it. So, Primo and Nadia, how do you guys address anti-Blackness in your families or social groups?
Primo: It’s definitely difficult, obviously. But I think that it’s difficult because a lot of the ways in which anti-Blackness manifests are, like, really subtle, at least in my experience. And one of the things that I don’t necessarily really support about our generation is how often memes that go viral are made humorous at the expense of a Black person in that meme. The way that someone might be talking, the things they might be saying, the way they’re walking, the way they’re dressing — all of that is rooted in really deep traditions of racism in the media going down to the Jim Crow era. People who I know in my school who are sending around these memes and laughing, that’s been a really big issue at my high school. Even just non-Black people saying the N-word. Those are little things that people do regularly and often that are anti-Black and are really racist, but [people] might not necessarily treat them with the same severity as they do something like George Floyd.
Nadia: Yeah. So, when we talk about anti-Blackness, especially in the Latinx community, as someone who does benefit from light-skin privilege, I feel like it’s important for me to be very vocal on colorism. It’s ingrained from just funny names to call people to all these different little phrases and things that people don’t really think twice about saying before they see them, but they can be very harmful. I’ve had to have multiple … just a plethora of conversations with family members about “think before you speak.”
Emiliano: This movement has been very intersectional and it’s fighting for the people who are the most vulnerable. So I just want to hear a little bit about what you guys think about intersectionality and how you see it in the movement around you.
Primo: I can jump on this one first. In my experience, I’ve seen a lot of Pride celebrations that have been toned down during Black Lives Matter, because the queer community knows what it’s like for our people to be killed. We know what it’s like for violence to take place against us from the police. And so we know that we can empathize with the Black community, even if we aren’t Black and give the Black Lives Matter movement that space. That’s one really beautiful and really positive aspect of intersectionality. Especially me, being able to reconcile. Like, I can be queer and Black because both of those communities and identities can relate to this aspect of police brutality on the more negative side. The challenging side is that when you do have an identity that is intersectional, oftentimes society forces you to prioritize one or the other. Like, you can only be Black or you can only be queer and you can only represent that identity and fight for one of those things at a time. It’s one at a time. But I think you have to remember that intersectionality is being able to be all of it at once. You can be who you are and who you are can be many, many different things.
Emiliano: I completely agree with you. Nadia, do you have something to add about intersectionality and your movement?
Nadia: It’s necessary when we’re about to go out and try and organize and tackle these issues, that we look at them through an intersectional lens. I can’t stress it any more than that. Black trans voices have been silenced for so long. And that’s something that we incorporate into our discussions as organizers every day because it’s necessary. Know when to step back, especially when you have a lot of people that, you know, want to do good and want to create positive social change in their communities. You can sometimes get lost in the sauce, as far as making sure that certain people’s voices are heard.
Emiliano: You mentioned the idea of step up, step back, which is something that I really agree with and it’s something that I implement into my activism and my life. Another topic that I want to go in on, is unlearning things. We talked about the anti-Blackness in our own communities and our own cultures. That’s something that I’ve had to unlearn myself, and it’s something that is a lot of work. You don’t ever finish learning because the world around us is very racist and anti-Black. So I wanted to hear a little bit about what you guys do to unlearn things in your environment and examples of things that you’ve had to unlearn.
Nadia: Yeah, I definitely feel like when it comes to learning, there’s a certain mindset I feel like you need to have when it comes to unlearning things. I think that mindset is you have to be willing to accept that on this journey, you’re not going to be happy. You’re going to find out things that are going to go completely against some things you’ve known your whole life. And so you have to be really willing to kind of detach yourself from basically everything you’ve known and be able to look at the perspectives that those external topics have. You really have to kind of just forget that you have an opinion and … just listen.
Primo: This one kind of hits home for me, because I grew up here in Hawaii. I don’t know how much people in general know about the people in Hawaii, but there are not a lot of Black people here at all. There’s more now, I guess, but when I was growing up and when my parents were growing up, there were not a lot of Black people here. The Black people that are here are military, so they’re not here very long. So growing up, the idea of Blackness, or, “What does it mean to be Black?’ was very foreign for me. It wasn’t something that I thought about at all. I was, like, the only Black kid in a lot of situations. Then I moved to San Francisco. Obviously a very different place from Hawaii. A lot more Black people. I realized that the way that I talk, the words that I used, the accent that I had — I sort of had to unlearn this idea that to be Black and to identify as Black, I had to talk a certain way or dress a certain way because that’s what I was seeing around me. I had to sort of realize that Blackness can’t be pinned down by how you speak, how you wear your clothes or where you live. Blackness can be whatever you want. I guess that’s a different side of unlearning that I had to do, just about my own identity.
Emiliano: So that ties kind of to the overall reason why we’re having this conversation today, which is allyship. So I identify as Indigenous, Latinx and Mexican. I keep up with protests and sign petitions. I do the work that I consider to make me a good ally. But that’s the thing, a lot of people don’t know what makes up a good ally. What do you consider a good ally and what are they doing right now? Primo, you can start?
Primo: Yeah, definitely. Because a lot of this movement started on social media and has also taken place on social media, it sort of changed what it means to be an ally or, like, what people think it means to be an ally. I guess a good example would be Blackout Tuesday. I think that a lot of people feel like, ‘Oh, I posted a Black square, I hashtag BlackLivesMatter, and I signed one petition. That makes me an ally.’ And so, like, that’s one person. Another person might say, like, ‘Oh my God. I’m attending all of the protests, I signed all the petitions and I’m posting everyday, 24/7, on my story. I am also an ally.’ I personally feel like you don’t have to be attending all the protests, posting 24/7 on your story or signing all these petitions if you are a person who I know that I can turn to and talk to. Everyone can see allyship differently, but for me, you don’t necessarily have to be amazingly, aggressively and overpoweringly outspoken about your support for the Black Lives Matter movement, if you are actually supporting Black people and Black individuals on a personal level. Allyship shouldn’t be performative. It shouldn’t be for other people. As long as we know that you are our ally and that you are supporting us, that’s all we need. We’re so chill. We’re good with that. Or, like, I am.
Emiliano: You said performative activism, which is something that I’ve been seeing everywhere, really. I want to dig deeper into that topic. I want to know, how have you guys tackled that? First, could you explain to me, Nadia, what performative activism means and how have you had to tackle it in your own friend group or when you come across it?
Nadia: When I think of performative allyship, I just think of that first word, performative: performing and performance. I feel like performative allyship does more damage than it does good. It’s just really important to listen at the end of the day. You know, an ally is someone who can listen and who can hold folks accountable. It’s so much more than social media, so I think that’s something that a lot of people are still trying to learn and understand. Cute graphics are dope and helpful in catching people’s attention and spreading info, but the root of it is that people tend to forget that Breonna Taylor is a person. It gets really uncomfortable to see people turn her into a meme like that. So I think that’s what it really comes down to. Are you really doing the work?
Ajani: What Nadia and Primo are saying, I completely agree with. Me specifically, as a non-Black person, I think being a good ally is listening — listening to what the community, the Black community, wants from me, because it’s not my job to tell them what I want to give them. They need to tell me what they want from me, because I’m an ally to them. Essentially, I think that’s what it means to be an ally. If you hear something being said around you, step in. If you have that privilege to check somebody, do it.
Emiliano: I know that I’ve been having a lot of conversations with older people and sometimes it can get a little confrontational. So I wanted to ask you guys, when you guys talk to older generations about what’s going on right now and the protests and how people are reacting, what kind of reactions do you get from them?
Nadia: I feel like I’ve been receiving a lot of love from my own familiar elders. My abuela was like, ‘Oh, I want to go marching with you.’ But, because of COVID-19, she’s been inside. On both sides of my family, on my mom’s side and my dad’s side. There’s this very long history of revolutionaries and folks who have been heavily involved in activism and movements like the United Farm Workers’ movement. There has been some disconnect from some of our parents’ generations. Folks were thinking, ‘Oh, you’re too radical. You guys are dreaming too big.’ This is the idea that we don’t know we’re talking about. The biggest conversation piece that I’ve always used with my elders has always been like, ‘What age were you when you were involved in these movements?’ So it’s just kind of reminding them that they were young too. They were out there being criticized, being told you can’t do things, too. So, just remember that. Yeah, that’s typically the angle that I like to take.
Emiliano: On that note, if any of you have any last words you’d like to say. Some parting words or messages?
Primo: The one thing that I want someone listening to this, specifically a non-Black person, to take away from, something Ajani, Nadia and I have all said at one point or another throughout this conversation, is that to be a good ally, if you do not do anything else, if you do nothing else, please, listen. Listen to what — not only Black people, but also queer people, people of color, and trans folks, and differently abled folks and immigrant folks — listen to what we need, because no one has listened to us for hundreds of years. So if you listen to us now, it is the bare minimum for what I feel I would want in an ally. Listen. Listen. Listen.