If you're planning on asking a Black friend or colleague how to help with BLM movement, don't!

Through all the trauma of this summer, including being made aware of the alarming ways and rates at which Black Americans have been treated by the police as well as institutions and systems that surround us (not to mention a global health pandemic), it is clear that there is a shift. The revolution for racial equity for Black Americans has been hauntingly slow and only responsive to clear and dramatic offenses: after finally admitting that Black people are NOT property, then granting a FULL vote to each person, regardless of their race, to making unlawful some types of discrimination on the basis of race that was the result of the Civil Rights Movement, it is possible to see our current struggle as the next step in a very long process.

The generation that is filling up the #BlackLivesMatter movement is one that has always enjoyed the right to own property, to vote, to have basic protections under the law. While those steps ARE progress, the revolution unfolding today is against a more insidious kind of racism. As Ibram X. Kendi notes in his work, this battle for the soul of our nation cannot be won by allowing people to be neutral; one must actively be anti-racist.

As a professor of Critical Race Theory and a woman of color (with significant privilege), I am frequently asked “what can I do to help?” by well-meaning individuals. Because I am exhausted in my body, mind, heart and soul, I write now to explain to you that many people who are on the front lines of #BLM simply don’t have the energy to tell you, however well-meaning you are, how to help. So, social justice warriors, I am here to help.

 Here are some tips and advice if you want to be a part of the movement, but are not quite sure where to start:

  1. Don’t ask your Black friends how you can help, or what you can do. They may be kind and generous, but when you ask them to create an assignment for you, you are taking a part of your burden and putting it on them. Instead, think of ways that you can support them – and the best way to do that is to know them. (Relationships are everything. We’ll come back to this theme.)
  1. Fight the instinct to be defensive. I get it, I’m defensive too. The narratives we craft about our society, our groups and ourselves are incredibly powerful. I’d like to think that I get to be a law professor because of my intelligence and hard work, and so when I admit that I’ve gotten here because of access to high-quality education, support systems, and host of other systemic foundations completely outside of my control, it makes me feel a little less smart. It’s human nature to be defensive, but you can combat that instinct by thinking about all the people who are equally (or more, in my case) intelligent, and incredibly hard working who, nonetheless, did not gain access to the same opportunities that you did. A little perspective goes a long way.  Instead of focusing on what it feels like you are losing in your own narrative, focus on being the kind of person who will contribute to a world where people can have more equal access to opportunities to shape their own narratives. It’ll still sting a bit, but it helps.
  1. You don’t need to ask what you can do to help. YOU can figure it out yourself!
    • Step 1: Understand the Premise. Chances are if you’ve made it this far, you are on board with the concept that there is structural racism in our law and collective actions. If not, there are plenty of resources to help you understand the ways in which anti-Blackness is a part of American history and how it hurts each and every single American. For law students, you can start with Derrick Bell, Patricia Williams. James Baldwin, Bell Hooks, Ibram X. Kendi, Kimberle Crenshaw – that’s more than enough to give you a running start. You may just find that these authors speak to your soul, too. 
    • Step 2: Introspection. How you can help to shift a paradigm is intensely personal, so you will need to do some introspection. Start with thinking about where your passions are.  What do you love? What do you know a lot about? What skills come easily to you? This should be the step that is the most fun, but it requires a lot of self-reflection. Just this one time, be self-focused and figure out what drives you. When you have free time, what is the thing you gravitate towards? What moves you? Art? Music? Food? Climate Change? Video games? Watching re-runs of Friends? Got it? Ok, then you’re ready for the next step.
    • Step 3: When you’ve figured out what gets under your skin and motivates you, then think about the ways that systemic racism plays a role in that area. Be deliberate and thoughtful about how. Don’t think it’s there? Take a closer look. It is. I’m a tax lawyer by training, and have been told countless times that tax, accounting and finance are all numbers based, so there’s NO WAY systemic racism creeps in. WRONG. Our collective biases and values are embedded all over the tax code, and even in the way we reflect value. If I can find ways that numbers contribute to structural racism, you can figure out how your video game is racist (it’s way more clear). Don’t even get me started on Friends
    • Step 4: Now you’re ready to do something about it! Since there are so many different paths to go down and these problems are so personal, you will have to get creative in how you address these issues. One place to start, however, is talking about them. Find people in your community of common interest and start talking about the injustices woven into your worlds. Be kind, be vulnerable, and listen to where people are coming from. Connecting and discovering new things (even if you think you know everything) may be something that even brings you joy while doing this work. Especially in this time of social distance, it is more important than ever to find ways to make human connections. Why not be productive while doing it?
  1. Talk to everyone. Well, here it is again, relationships are everything. In law school, in the practice of law, but most importantly in our daily interactions. Start talking to people. Make sure you connect with people that are like you AND people that are NOT like you. If you don’t know anyone who’s not like you, start small and work your way up. There are people in our world all around us. Do you go to the same spot for lunch? Start by asking about the day of the person who serves you every day. Not only do these “low-stakes interactions” improve our mental health and wellness, but they also strengthen the fabric of society. I have gone to the same grocery store for years and almost never spoke to the people that work behind the deli counter until I was visibly pregnant at the same time as the woman who worked behind the counter. I wasn’t eating deli meat at the time, but we stopped and chatted about how we were feeling, showed one another our swollen ankles and now my children and I sometimes just pop in the grocery store to say hello and see some pictures of her son. She sent him back to live with her parents in Morocco after he was done nursing because with “some of the stuff going on” in the country, she felt it was safer. I won’t betray her confidence, but when I stopped and listened, a whole unexpected world opened up, and now I feel connected and I care. Maybe I’ve even made her care about some surprising things, too. This brings me to my next step:
  1. Listen to people’s stories and share your own. These are the connections that will sustain us, and in this moment, they will save us. Really listen, be thoughtful, connect. Be kind, and generous, and when a mother whose son is half a world away wants to pinch the cheek of your child that is exactly his age, let her. Be compassionate, be kind. Gandhi (one of my lawyer heroes) once said: “In a gentle way, we can shake the world” – I think this is what he meant.

Whether you came to law school to become a tax lawyer, a real estate attorney or have demands on your life that require something other than a full career commitment to Civil Rights, there’s a place for you. Sometimes just having people committed to anti-racist ideas and policies in positions of power is the best you can do. Serving as a model and a mentor for those that have yet to enter the profession can be incredibly inspiring.

In the meantime, whether or not they are discussed, issues relating to race and power dynamics are present in your classroom. In the large enrollment courses that I have taught (Property, Contracts, Wills Estates & Trusts and Personal Income Tax), there are latent issues of race and culture everywhere.  Think critically about who the parties are, what kinds of standards are at stake, and be sure to ask thoughtful questions of your professor. It could turn out to be a growth experience for everyone. In doing so, though, remember that law school is still predominately white, so make sure you are being mindful about how your comments may fall on different students sitting in your classroom. If you feel unsure – then ASK!


 

Professor Natasha Varyani teaches at New England Law | Boston in the areas of Property Law, Contracts, Tax, and Critical Theory, and serves as Co-Director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Enrichment Program.

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