Obstacles Are the Ally’s Path: White America Knows What to Do
“Desperation, despair, fear, powerlessness – these reactions are functions of our perceptions. You must realize: Nothing makes us feel this way; we choose to give into such feelings. Or, choose not to.” – Ryan Holiday
There are sayings that change us. Mantras we try to live by. Many of us use them to keep ourselves honest, fuel our fire, or remind us of the paths we wish to travel.
For me, no phrase has done more to redirect my anxiety – done more to change who I am – than “the obstacle is the way.” The beauty of this phrase is that it transcends culture, transcends history. It was uttered by the most powerful man in the Western world while simultaneous having been uttered by Buddhist monks in the East.
Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperors of the ancient Roman Empire, wrote to himself in his journal, which would become known as The Meditations, the following:
Our actions may be impeded…but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.
Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle Is the Way, very beautifully describes what Marcus was writing – he was reminding himself of one of the core tenets of stoicism, the philosophy to which he dedicated his life. “What it is prescribing,” Holiday writes, “is essentially this: in any and every situation—no matter how bad or seemingly undesirable it is—we have the opportunity to practice a virtue.”
The Zen Buddhist phrase, “the obstacle is the path,” also prescribes this notion. Obstacles aren’t to be avoided. When we apply the right antidotes, they are the path itself. Leo Babauta writes:
You are struggling with writing, and procrastinate. Procrastination is the symptom, but it also illuminates the path you should take: you are dreading something about the writing, you are shying away from discomfort, you are afraid of the writing or what will happen when you publish the writing. So work with that dread, the discomfort, and the fear. You’ll be stronger for having done that.
In my last blog post, I described how I was anxious to discuss race and the Black experience with anyone. That silence isn’t uncommon, unfortunately, and it has collectively, among whites in America, lead to a lot of pain and suffering for our Black brothers and sisters.
The obstacle is my anxiety. The obstacle is my fear. The obstacle is losing my comfort. It’s long past time I turn these into my paths. But which virtue am I supposed to tackle? Where am I supposed to grow? The main four Stoic virtues are:
Courage: To stand up. To charge ahead. To not be afraid or timid in life.
Moderation: To know balance. To be in control of oneself. To avoid excess or extremes.
Justice: To do the right thing. To care for others. To do your duty.
Wisdom: To learn. To study. To keep an open mind.
Looking inside, I think it’s time I focus on addressing all of them. Only by going down this path of anxiety, fear, and uncomfortableness can anyone expect to be a true ally to the Black Community. All four of these virtues are needed to turn the tide and destroy racism in America.
It’s been over two weeks since George Floyd was murdered in the streets of Minneapolis. Our nation just witnessed a massive uprising unlike any since at least the 1960s. People all over the world joined in, as millions demonstrated against racism and police brutality.
Hindsight is always 20/20. Initially, I wrote I didn’t know what to do. Turns out, I did know what to do. Every single person who thinks they don’t know – they know. Knowing what to do is easier than white people give it credit. Don’t use not knowing as the same old tired excuse. Look inside yourself and think. We know. The hard part is acting on the things we know.
Acting will take courage, moderation, justice, and wisdom – as well as A LOT of humility. Ego is the enemy.
Talk to your black friends, colleagues, employees. When I went to the office last week, I intentionally reached out to my black coworkers. I asked them how they were holding up. I didn’t say much, but listened to their stories:
One coworker told me the story of how his family was standing in line to talk to a salesman. They were clearly next in line, and the salesman walked right past them to assist the white people behind them instead.
Another told me how a contractor was getting ready to do work in the family’s home. When the contractor found out the house was owned by a black family, he packed up his tools and left. He thought the house was too nice, and he didn’t know where they were getting their money. Drugs, most likely, was his belief.
Multiple, who live in mostly white neighborhoods, told me about how they get stared at as they try to take a leisurely stroll around the block.
One coworker told me that she cried while watching the rioting over the weekend of May 29-31st. She saw on the news a shot of her old neighborhood and a restaurant she used to go to, which was destroyed. She was devastated that she’d never get to bring her grandchildren there to build new memories in their lives.
Lastly, one coworker told me she has always been known as a “strong” woman. People would remark that nothing fazes her. She called her niece to see how she was doing as they watched the looting and rioting on live TV. Immediately, when her niece answered the phone, she broke down. They both broke down as they watched the rioting and looting together and lamented what was going on.
If you have a forum, use it. Blog, write letters to the editor, post to social media, engage in healthy, constructive dialogue. For a while I didn’t post “controversial” items to my social media site. I believed it was a waste of time because “no one’s mind is changed by reading social media posts.” I no longer believe that because MY mind has been changed many times by engaging in respectful dialogue online.
Read, read, read.
Do not wait for others to teach you, especially Black Americans. That’s not their job. It is the job of every… single… white American to educate themselves. Education is like armor. You’ll need that armor before you go into the battlefield. Where to start? Google…
By now, you’ve seen post after post touting White Fragility and How to Be an Antiracist. If you haven’t please look into them because there’s a reason almost everyone is recommending them. I ordered mine last week, and I can’t wait to dig in. You don’t have to wait, however. A simple Google search reveals wonders. These are some of the articles I’ve read:
Your Difficult Questions About Race in America, Answered
Here’s What White Privilege Actually Means, and How You Can Use Yours To Help Others
#BLACKBLOGSMATTER – WEEK 9 – WHAT’S IN AN ALLY?
5 ways to start being a better ally for your black coworkers
10 Steps to Non-Optical Allyship
5 Reads: How to be Anti-Racist, 11 Things to Do Besides Say “This Has to Stop”, How to Make this Moment a Turning Point and More
Opportunities for White People in the Fight for Racial Justice
How Are You Showing Up, (White) Leaders?
The Research On White Privilege Blindness
75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice
Anti-racism resources for white people
Also, DO NOT STOP AT ADULTS! White Americans MUST talk about this with their children. Racism isn’t born in folks. People learn hatred, and they act upon what they pick up. This guide is a great start:
Raising Little Allies-To-Be: A Guide for Caregivers
While you’re at it, learn about the Unwritten Rules of being a Black man in America today. If you’re a white male, read this list, and tell me there is not such thing as privilege.
Don’t put your hands in your pockets.
Don’t put your hoodie on.
Don’t be outside with no shirt on.
Don’t touch anything you’re not buying.
Never leave the store without a receipt or a bag, even if it’s just a pack of gum.
Never make it look like there’s an altercation between you and someone else.
Never leave the house without your ID.
Don’t drive with a wifebeater on.
Don’t drive with a du-rag on.
Don’t go out in public in either.
Don’t ride with the music too loud.
Don’t stare at a Caucasian woman.
Lastly, read up on qualified immunity, Rise of the Warrior Cop, by Radley Balko, and Resist Not Evil by Clarence Darrow. These will explains a lot about how we got to the state we’re in.
Act on what is right.
Be kind. Use your emotions to develop your reason and discussion points. Don’t let your emotions control the situation. It’s already a volatile situation. No one was ever convinced by being yelled at, made to feel stupid, mocked, or attacked.
Voting? I’m not sure I’m the right person to address this, but just remember to do research. Local elections matter more than national ones.
STOP generically telling us to VOTE in response to all of the police brutality we have right now. Yes we should vote. But we have to be VERY specific. Democrats, from top to bottom, are running the cities with the worst police brutality in America right now. We voted for them. — Shaun King (@shaunking) June 5, 2020
Prepare for tough times ahead.
After all is said and done, I am preparing myself to lose friends. I am preparing myself to strain relationships with my family. Doing the right thing is sometimes the most difficult thing to do. Ultimately, I hope those preparations are for naught. I’d consider myself a much more successful ally to the Black community if I convinced my white friends and family to become allies, too. In 5 years, 10 years, 50 years, I want to look back and say I did something – that I stood for something and helped bring about meaningful, lasting change for Black Americans. If you don’t stand for something, you fall for nothing.
I cannot allow that to happen. I’m going to be anxious. I’m going to be afraid. I’m going to be uncomfortable. Every white American doing the right thing will feel these things, and must feel those things.
People tend to default to the path of least resistance. There are no obstacles on a path with no resistance. There is also no progress, no growth, no justice, no wisdom, no courage, nothing worthy.
White Americans, our obstacles must become our path.