When I was sixteen, I took the first steps of a lifelong journey to learn about the privilege I live in as a white, hetero, able-bodied cismale; and also the power that I have because of that privilege. All of that learning, then and since, has helped me realize one thing I’d like to share with you now:
Allyship is not about assumptions; it’s about asking.
This is a slightly fictionalized story to protect the involved persons and bring in more current and relevant terminology.
You might recognize a student of yours here. I hope you do.
I lived in a dorm at boarding school with two guys — let’s call them Kyle and Steve — who hated each other. Even though it was never said aloud (at least not that I heard), and even though Kyle was too stoic to tell us, there was definitely something racist going on. Steve was white, and his father was a politician from Kentucky; Kyle was black, and his mother was a public defender in The Bronx. Steve exuded WASPy pretentiousness, always playing with metaphor and innuendo, baiting people into ideological arguments.
Something made Kyle finally reach his breaking point, they wanted to fight each other, and it became increasingly apparent that I was the only one who could stop the impending melee. I was the closest thing to a mutual friend that they had, even though I didn’t feel close with either of them.
I played sports with Kyle, but I didn’t feel like he ever really let anyone in, not completely. Steve and I were Physics lab partners, so we got together to do work out of necessity, that was it.
“I think it might end in blows tonight,” one of my friends said after we returned in a large crowd from an off-campus trip.
“It should,” said another friend. “The kid’s dad is messing with voter I.D.s, and Steve said—”
And that’s when we heard the roar of voices from behind us. A bunch of people peeled back to get a better view of the quad we’d just left. I peered over their shoulders.
The masses were moving from the quad to the small field behind the library. Steve and Kyle headed toward the pine tree at the middle, a huge crowd forming a circle around them like a scene from a bad movie script.
Sly, I thought. That area would definitely be out of earshot of the faculty meeting taking place on the other side. I started walking toward the dorm again. It wasn’t my fight. It wasn’t my problem. Who was I to say that two guys couldn’t go toe-to-toe if that’s what they really wanted to do?
I was almost through the door when two of my best friends caught up with me.
“You have to stop this,” one said. “You’re the only one they’ll listen to.”
“Please,” said the other.
I thought about my dad in that moment. He taught me two rules about fighting: 1) Never start a fight. 2) Nobody wins in a fight.
Something on my friends’ faces convinced me to follow them back to the throng. They looked so concerned.
Steve and Kyle were pushing and shoving, cussing and spitting, fists beginning to rise. Their icy breaths creating a slight fog around their heads.
The crowd parted to let me through. Walking up to Steve and Kyle, I was fully committed to breaking them up. But then I saw their eyes: pure fire, crazed beyond anything I’d ever seen up until that point. I was convinced that stopping it then wouldn’t have stopped it forever. Not with the way they were looking at each other.
So instead of breaking up Kyle and Steve, I stayed on as a referee. I made them touch fists and swear to only throw punches like it was a real boxing match. Some twisted part of me believed that was the correct choice, like I was personally in control of the power struggle and had made things equal and “safe.”
I’m not sure if that means I broke rule #1. Rule #2 definitely came true. Those guys mangled each other that night, and I don’t think it solved anything.
Days later, Kyle gave me a fist-pound when I arrived at the bus stop. “What’s up?
“This is my first mandatory community service,” I said.
“I can’t believe the school is making you miss the game today. They didn’t even see the fight happen.”
“The school isn’t doing anything yet,” said Kyle. “They might, but I’d still be allowed to play while the investigation runs its course. It’s Coach Scannell, man. I missed practice because of disciplinary meetings, and you know what that dude says about missing practice.”
“Yeah, I wish.”
Kyle bit his lip, like he was having an argument in his own mind. “You don’t get it do you?”
“Get what? That guy’s one of the worst coaches I’ve ever had. He doesn’t care about us. So, yeah, screw him!”
Kyle shook his head. “Don’t be so stupid and selfish. It’s not that easy for everyone. I can’t afford to take risks like you. Do you know that coaches from Oswego and Plattsburgh were planning to watch me at the game today? Those are New York state schools, man. Do you know how huge that would’ve been? I’m a couple of notches up on their list because I can get in-state tuition. I don’t cost as much to recruit. But now? I don’t know. Now I’m one of those guys.”
I tried to stay with him. “What guys?”
“Wake up. I’m a black hockey player from the City, and now I won’t be at the game because I fought some white kid? C’mon. Those coaches will probably just run for the hills now.”
“Hurley just got into Tufts.”
Kyle shook his head and paced around, muttering and mumbling before looking up. “You really need me to teach you this, too?”
I nodded. “I’m trying to understand.”
“Then it’s about time. You see, people meet Hurley, and they’re like, oh, yeah, this is one from that other set of black people, like the Obamas or something, not the normal black people who make this country a shit hole.”
“I’ve heard some of the comments he’s faced.”
“I would never try to speak to his experience, but the this or that is true. People meet Hurley and they see skin that’s a few shades lighter than the portrait of black in their minds. They hear a kid talking like he’s a reporter for NPR. They see the khakis and the polo shirts. They make up all sorts of stories to help them justify why he’s part of that good side of black people, no matter what else he is or isn’t.”
“There are a million types of black people, just like in every race.”
“No, there aren’t. Not to most people. There are two. There are the ones who get to live in the white world when the white people decide that’s okay, and then there’s everyone else. No white world. Ever. No gray area. Black and white. The binary is in full effect.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“You have to check your privilege and look around. I know you accept everyone. You’re not sexist, xenophobic, homophobic… You’re not racist. But that’s not enough. You have to be anti-racist. You have to listen. You have to be willing to give up the power of your privilege, in all its forms, if you ever want to truly understand. If you ever want to really put the power dynamic on the level for good. You think I really wanted to fight Steve? Man, I’ve been trying to avoid him and survive for a year, and then you make us touch fists and box. That was my one goal for the year, to not fight that kid. Remember when Ms. Armagh had us write letters to ourselves in class? That’s what I wrote. I told myself to make sure no one had an opportunity to see me as the angry black guy, no matter what. Even if someone hit me first. But here we are.” He held up his hand. “I can imagine what you must have thought. I can imagine your justifications and motives. But the only truth here is that you never asked me what I thought. You never asked me what I felt. Never once. Your assumptions about what I needed in that moment changed my existence here forever.”
I let out a deflated gasp, like I’d been the one punched in the gut.
He mock-laughed and shook his head. “Screw Coach Scannell? I wish.”
I stared blankly ahead for a long time, rooted in place, trying to keep myself from hyperventilating, Kyle and Steve’s landed punches echoing in my head over and over and over and over and over.
Finally, I held out my hands to hug Kyle.
“It’s something I need,” I said. “I know it’s selfish, but maybe you need it, too.”
We hugged each other and cried together at that bus stop.
I knew the balance of power would shift in my favor again the moment the bus arrived, and I still didn’t fully understand all of the forces that created that power, but I knew two things:
I wanted to.
I had to.
Peter Langella is a librarian at Champlain Valley Union High School, an English Instructor at Northern Vermont University, a library instructor at the University of Vermont, and a 2017 Rowland Fellow. He is currently reading Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal.