I’ve been called divisive many times, but at some point I’ve decided that it’s not worth it to stay silent, even though I may personally feel more comfortable.
In the summer of 2013, Kirsten Purpura left her Indiana home to volunteer for a homeless shelter located in what is considered the “worst” zip code in Atlanta. Before then, Kirsten’s perception of poverty and homelessness had grown from her suburban middle-class upbringing and environment. She knew very little about how complex these social issues can be – how issues like poverty are intertwined with much larger topics, like systemic oppression and racism. Before that summer, Kirsten believed herself to be a good Christian girl, a nice person with black friends, and definitely not racist.
During her summer in Atlanta, her entire world-view and perspective on society’s “least of these” started to change. She came face to face with people she had been told were “lazy,” and she learned about the cycles and systems that for decades held them in bad and unfair situations. For the first time, she was taken out of her comfort zone and forced to investigate the biases she held in her heart.
Since then, Kirsten has been extremely passionate about raising awareness of social injustices, particularly issues of racial justice. She has done amazing work in Indianapolis, learning from and uplifting her community by serving with Americorps Public Allies. She also started a fitness program called Hosanna’s Heart that seeks to bring a means of health and wellness to low-income neighbors around her community, addressing the growing disparity between income level and preventable disease.
Although this is something Kirsten feels she is still growing in and learning about, we asked Kirsten for some tips on how to be an ally to people of color.
On why being an ally is important:
“Racism is an issue that’s woven its way into every facet of life – where you buy groceries, where you go to church, where you can get a job, your likelihood of getting pulled over, the healthcare system believing you’re in pain, whether people believe your story or not. And it takes intentionality to discern the underpinnings of racism in how things are the way they are today.
Typically when people hear the word “racism” they associate it with really obvious, explicit things, like saying the n-word or KKK lynchings in history. White people like to think and truly believe racism is an old and solved issue. I hear things like, ‘my family didn’t own slaves’ or ‘but I haven’t personally done anything.’ And I get where that is coming from. I hear you, I was there too… But the resistance to the word “racism” today comes from not fully understanding racism and oppression; failing to recognize how symptoms and systems of slavery and segregation are still present today and have taken different, more obscure forms – like government-subsidized housing, mass incarceration, and drug arrests of people of color compared to arrests of white people.
Part of the responsibility of being an ally is continual learning, dispelling myths, sharing resources and helping other white people on their journey of learning.
That revelation has stirred something deep within me; I can’t not move to action. It’s like that saying, when you know better, do better. And, after all I’ve learned, I can’t just ignore it and mindlessly go about my life – and if I did, that would be an exercise of my privilege.”
On why having conversations with other white people in your community is important:
“Being an ally isn’t about being a “good” white person… It’s not about making myself feel good for being woke. That mentality is not only a waste of time, but also incredibly selfish and white-centric. Being an ally starts with us owning our story, our mistakes- both collectively and individually.
Revelation is what we all need. Especially if you’re unsure if racism is still a thing – because we’re all benefiting from the systems that keeps black and brown people down. Here we are, 152 years after slavery was officially abolished, only 53 years after the Civil Rights Act was passed, and we still have growing and active white supremacy and KKK groups across the country.
It is so crucial to talk to our white friends, family, brothers, and sisters. We have access to hearts and minds that people of color never will. People of color have enough work to do and they’re tired of trying to educate people who won’t listen.
I heard a quote by William Matthews, a black artist formerly with Bethel Music, on a podcast by the Liturgists about racism. He was talking about this same thing – people of color shouldn’t have to bear the burden of explaining racism. He said, ‘You can’t expect all black people to explain how your boot feels on the back of their neck.’
Think about that for a minute. We are the issue, our ignorance is perpetuating the issues of racism, and we need to join, support, and bolster the efforts of our brothers and sisters of color who have been fighting for racial justice for a long time.”
How to speak up:
“Being unafraid to say something when another white person is saying something hurtful is definitely the hardest, but most practically helpful thing you can do. Conversation and questioning view points is helpful in causing others to look deeper into what they said and why they said it. Being bold to address harmful words and beliefs is super important. And I fail at this almost every day.
Racism that we daily observe tends to be micro-aggressions instead of blatantly obvious attacks. So it can be difficult to discern when it’s necessary to speak up, especially in a way that will actually be heard. No one likes being called out, so you have to “call others in” – posing questions and pushing for reflection.
One helpful acronym that I’ve learned is NEED.
N- necessary. Is it necessary that I say something? Is what that person saying harmful, untrue, misinformed?
E– edifying. Is it going to be edifying? Is what you’re saying going to make them a better person for having heard it?
E– encouraging. How can you say something in a positive or uplifting way, to encourage them to be more kind, more aware?
D– dignity. Leave a person with their dignity. Don’t make them embarrassed in front of their group. If you do, what you have to say may not be as impactful to them or be seen in a positive light.
It’s all about building a bridge, not lighting a fire to any sort of relationship. You can use your proximity to people with toxic ways of thinking to engender a change in ways of thinking.
And although I’m huge on preserving relationships, don’t hear me wrong. If something outright racist and aggressive is being said, it’s definitely important to “call-out” in those cases.
And it’s not always going to work out the way you want it to. People might start to think differently about you, say things about you. I’ve been called divisive many times, but at some point I’ve decided that it’s not worth it to stay silent, even though I may personally feel more comfortable. It’s more important to me that I risk looking like a fool to others, than it is to be silent about oppression of others.
Honestly, I shrink back and get afraid of what other people will think more often than I want to admit. But the more you speak up, the easier it gets. Courage seems to have a snowball effect”
Some practical steps:
“If you don’t understand if and why white privilege, racism, and white supremacy is a thing, read about it. There’s so much research already out there. Read Tears We Cannot Stop, Waking up White, The New Jim Crow or Just Mercy. If you prefer to watch films, there’s a great documentary called 13 that’s available on Netflix. This is definitely not an exhaustive list, but they’re a good place to start.
Look for white ally trainings or educational experiences on racial justice in your area. I’ve personally attended a white ally training and joined a house meeting with a group called SURJ (Standing Up for Racial Justice). There are even Facebook groups for you to join. Be the Bridge is an amazing one. There’s like a three month period of required silence where you can’t like or post anything. I’ve been learning a lot from that, just actively listening and learning from people of color’s stories. Be the Bridge has files to read like “Whiteness 101” on what it means to be white, and how to be an ally.
Another tip would be to understand your neighborhood. Be a good neighbor. It’s important to understand where you live, possible race relations and gentrification. In my neighborhood, I’m very aware that (mainly white) people are buying up all these houses, driving up the prices, and forcing out people of color who have been here for years. So I try to be mindful; I make friends with our neighbors.
After a rally that my husband and I attended in Indy, after the incident in Charlottesville last year, we hung our Black Lives Matter sign in our window. I don’t know if it’s lame, but I’ve had a couple neighbors let me know that they appreciate it.
When I’m driving, I try to stop nearby if I see a black person being pulled over by the police, you know, given the stories in the news. I’ve never actually done anything. I’m just there so I can be a witness to things, should something go down. I try to let my presence be known. Accountability has the potential to go a long way.
**Kirsten wanted it to be known that she knows many great police officers and has respect for their line of work.
Also, with being a friend to your neighbor, you’re not doing it for the brownie points. It’s about letting your neighbors know you’re for them and you’re trying to learn.
Be involved with organizations and initiatives in your city that are working toward racial justice. I’ve attended panels where there was discussion between members from the local police department and black leaders of racial justice; it was informative to see how people are working throughout the city to learn and create transparency.
Support black business owners. Attend events put on by people of color in your area. Support personally and financially. There are a lot of great people of color-led organizations in every city that could greatly benefit from financial support. Put your money where your mouth is! Support the fearless people that are doing this work day-in and day-out.”
Kirsten is currently a strength and fitness coach at a gym in Indianapolis and continues to be a voice for social justice in her community.
Victoria Ward is co-founder and head writer for Release the Women. She has a passion for coffee, Lord of the Rings, and for empowering and sharing the stories of women and other marginalized groups. You can follow her journey on Instagram @toriamarieward.