Learning to Be an Ally of My BIPOC Friends

Today my head’s all full of learning, because I attended the Texas Master Naturalist program’s latest in the Be the Change series, which is a part of our diversity and inclusion initiative. The things I learned completely dovetailed with some of the things I’ve been observing and thinking about in my time in South Carolina, so I’m just processing away.

Where I am not.

I’m one of those “well-meaning white people” who want to help create a more diverse world and be good allies (or co-agitators, as someone said today). I know that some of our good intentions do not go over well, though, so I’m in the learning stage (which today I discovered to be a good thing).

The speaker I listened to today was Alex Bailey, of San Antonio, who founded the Black Outside organization.

Black Outside, Inc has one simple mission: Reconnect Black/ African-American youth to the outdoors through culturally relevant outdoor experiences

Black Outside website

Bailey did a great job of coming across as friendly and funny, even when he was making points that could make listeners uncomfortable. One of my favorite things he reminded us was that, although many of today’s black youth have little camping or wilderness experience, that was not always the case. As he pointed out, Harriet Tubman just didn’t pile all those people into an SUV and drive them to safety. He also reminded us that rural black folks have a rich history of fishing, hunting, and living off the land.

Digression

This is where things I’ve observed in South Carolina at this snazzy resort come in. I’d say at least 50% of the people here are black, or other BIPOC folks. It makes sense, because Myrtle Beach is a quick drive away from some of the most affluent and well educated black folks in the US, those in the Atlanta metro area. There have been lots of black and mixed families and couples lounging around and in the pool, as well as out on the beach swimming and relaxing. Nothing controversial about that, unless you’re someone my age.

A variety of beach-goers of different skin tones.

You see, when I was a kid, black people didn’t go swimming. My mother was of the opinion that black people couldn’t swim, which didn’t make sense to me. When I was in high school, though, the conversation in PE class turned to why we didn’t have a pool at our school. The black girls made their happiness at that very clear. At least a few of them also thought black people couldn’t swim. Eventually, enough people who could swim were remembered, so we all decided there must be some reason none of them had learned.

We were teens, so what did we know. But, our guesses were that telling kids they couldn’t swim was an easy way to keep them safe and out of the water. And besides, there weren’t any pools in the black neighborhoods. (That has, of course changed.)

Everybody looks the same from up here. Plus a nice kite.

So, I have to say I was pleased to see people of every skin color happily enjoying the water here. Which takes me back to the talk I attended today.

Learnings from Black Outside

While Bailey talked to us about the importance of observing, learning, and reflecting (see graphic below for his actual words) before trying to bring the outdoors to young people of color, he gave us a lot of insights, including some about swimming. He pointed out that well meaning event organizers often include water activities without letting the families of the black participants know they are coming up. Why is this a problem?

This great graphic comes from work by Barbara J Love, so I figure I can borrow it, too.*

Hair. That’s the problem. In my day, that may have been an issue, too, because swimming, afros, and Afro-Sheen didn’t go together well, That’s nothing compared to some of the elaborate hair styles young black people have today. You know, those braids could be ruined under water. And if you do an activity that requires a helmet (in or outside water), well, some styles won’t fit, period. Young people might miss out on fun, just because they hadn’t prepared a water-friendly hair style. (And yes, a lot of black women where I am today are NOT dunking their heads.)

That’s just one example where pausing to learn about cultural differences can lead to better experiences. And that’s one reason why Bailey suggested that, rather than volunteer to teach black kids directly, allies can provide materials or training to black mentors who can then work with the kids, who really benefit from seeing people who look like them in positions of authority about nature and the outdoors. That makes a lot of sense to me!

For sure, this was a very helpful step in my journey toward being a good BIPOC ally, and it reminded me how much I still have to learn. I’m quite glad for that!


*After looking at the graphic Bailey shared, I looked up more about Barbara J. Love and her work on liberatory consciousness. Her website is fascinating! Here is her definition:

Developing a Liberatory Consciousness

Liberatory consciousness is a framework used to maintain an awareness of the dynamics of oppression characterizing society without giving in to despair and hopelessness about that condition and enabling  us practice intentionality about changing systems of oppression.

Well, I know what I’m going to be reading up on soon!

Author: Sue Ann (Suna) Kendall

The person behind The Hermits' Rest blog and many others. I'm a certified Texas Master Naturalist and love the nature of Milam County. I manage technical writers in Austin, help with Hearts Homes and Hands, a personal assistance service, in Cameron, and serve on three nonprofit boards. You may know me from La Leche League, knitting, iNaturalist, or Facebook. I'm interested in ALL of you!

4 thoughts on “Learning to Be an Ally of My BIPOC Friends”

  1. Good to know. Thx for writing about this. And, FYI, I often save your blogs for when I have more time to read. So, don’t count me out on reading.

    Liked by 1 person

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