“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor…”  — General Order No. 3 – Galveston, Texas, June 19, 1865

Happy Juneteenth!  Today (also known as Black Independence Day, Emancipation Day, or Jubilee Day) commemorates June 19, 1865 when the last group of enslaved people in America learned of their emancipation from Major General Gordon Granger in Galveston, TX.

Although Juneteenth has been celebrated (primarily by the Black community) for over 150 years, a study by The New York Times shows more than 60 percent of Americans know “nothing at all” or only “a little bit” about the holiday and only 31 percent of white respondents have any knowledge of it (a percentage which is likely higher than previous years due to the Black Lives Matter movement). Based on discussions with both Black and non-Black friends, it seems that most Americans are never taught about the holiday and its role in slavery abolition: one example of white supremacy sanitizing history.

A long-overdue law to establish Juneteenth as a national holiday was signed by President Biden on Thursday.  Just as it was not Abraham Lincoln, but the slaves and freedmen who fought courageously in the Civil War and formed underground resistance networks who are responsible for the abolishing of slavery in the U.S., this holiday has become nationally recognized not thanks to President Biden, but because of the commitment of the black community to continue to recognize and honor this day ever since General Granger delivered General Order No. 3 to the people of Texas 156 years ago.

In 2016, at 89 years old, lifelong activist Opal Lee, often known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth”, marched all the way from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to D.C. in an effort to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.  Having grown up during a period of history when violence against the black community such as the Tulsa Race Massacre (which occured in June of 1921) was frequent, Lee experienced her own trauma when white supremacists set her family home ablaze on Juneteenth in 1939.  Now a national figure, Lee truly embodies what The Marquis Jaylen Brown Foundation considers “Trauma to Triumph”.

Lee is one of several Black activists responsible for the passing of this law. In 1979, former Texas state representative Al Edwards headed legislation to make Texas the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday. Edwards believed that every generation needs to be reminded yearly “that this event triggered a series of events that one by one defines the challenges and responsibilities of successive generations”.

This year, Pittsburgh will be celebrating Juneteenth as an official holiday for the first time. Celebrations starting this weekend include the WPA Juneteenth Pittsburgh-Allegheny Co. Freedom Days and the Black Music Festival at Point State Point (June 18 – June 27).

Chadé Darby, a local activist, graciously offered her thoughts on Juneteenth.

Chadé: I’m speaking for myself, not the whole Black community of Pittsburgh. I’m just a Black girl from the Philly suburbs.

How can we commemorate Juneteenth and support the Black community here in Pittsburgh?

Chadé: I would task folks with three things: learn about the history of Juneteenth, give reparations, and continue the fight for racial equity. Juneteenth has been around for a while but it seems like now it’s just getting the nation’s attention. Folks should learn about the significance of the day: how it took 2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was published for 250,000 enslaved people in Texas to finally be freed. Reparations from non-black people can come in different forms. Give Black people, Black orgs, and Black businesses your money, time, and resources.  Juneteenth as a federal holiday is a great step but is purely symbolic if people do not continue to work towards Black liberation. That means people should be thinking about ways they can get involved to fight for racial justice.

Will making Juneteenth a federal holiday help bring awareness to Black history and impact studies of race in American schools?

Chadé: I hope that more people become aware about Juneteenth through it becoming a Federal holiday. I hope more history teachers talk about it in schools. I was never taught about Juneteenth in school. I learned about it from my dad. He is from Texas and his sister’s birthday is on Juneteenth. Every year, we would give my Aunt a call and my dad would remind me about the holiday.

What does Juneteenth and absolute equality mean to you?

Chadé: Juneteenth serves as a reminder of the trials and tribulations my ancestors faced to receive freedom. While slavery still exists through the prison industrial complex, I am hopeful that with more awareness about the history of our country and the systems that have oppressed my ancestors and other marginalized groups will lead to a better future for all.

Allyship refers to any white person who acknowledges racial issues in their life and works to deconstruct these issues in life and listens to those whose lives have been affected by racial discrimination. It is not an identity but rather an ongoing and multifaceted process.

When I first got involved in demonstrations across Pittsburgh, I often didn’t understand my role as a white ally and was often afraid to ask. Luckily, as I became more and more familiar with my role in and around the city, I began to understand the basics of being an ally. While I still have a long way to go in my role as an ally, here are some basic steps I learned in my journey that will hopefully get you on your own path to allyship.

Listen to Understand, not to Respond

The idea of listening to other populations as an ally can go a surprisingly long way. Of course, not only does it matter that we are listening, but it is also important to understand WHY we listen. Oftentimes I think it becomes the case that conversations about discrimination are looked at as a two-way conversation: one where both sides have an equal perspective on the same idea. I think this is true to an extent, but it should go without saying that allies never truly understand the experiences observed by populations who face systemic oppression. Because of this, we want to listen more for the sake of understanding others and less for the sake of responding to others. In this way, we also want to acknowledge that we don’t know everything and apologize when we get things wrong. While we don’t see these things the same way as our friends who face systemic oppression, any step in trying to understand discrimination is a step in the right direction.

Avoid Tokenism 

This is perhaps a more abstract concept, but it absolutely still has its place in allyship. Marginalized populations often act as our primary way of understanding the issues surrounding our communities today, but that doesn’t mean that they are here solely as a resource for our understanding. Look at it this way: if the conversations you have with your friends of color and LGBT+ friends only surround you asking them about issues they have on a daily basis, you’re not taking their comfort or respect into mind. While members of marginalized communities are often glad to have these conversations with you, this isn’t always the case, so you need to understand that they’re not here solely to enlighten you on these issues. You need to be able to see the value in them not just as members of these populations, but as individuals who have their own interests, opinions, and needs. By doing so, we indicate that we respect the individual and their own mental health and safety, and prove that we value them not just as the token member of their population but as coworkers, classmates, and friends.

Understand that it’s Not About You

As allies, we lack the experiences needed to truly understand the black experience, or the trans experience, or any other experience kept by marginalized populations. And that’s okay. What is more valuable is for you to act in solidarity with them and to take part in undoing systemic practices that disproportionately affect them. Your experiences are valuable, but ultimately, you come from at least some perspective of privilege. Therefore, you should approach conversations, demonstrations, and other related actions with the understanding that it’s not about you. It’s about helping those who are worse off. It’s about understanding others. And, most importantly, it’s about change. In this understanding, we help show that we are here for.

Pay Attention to the World Around You

This generally is just good advice to follow in day to day life, but it applies doubly as an ally. Every day, more and more things happen in our country, in our government, and in the world. Paying attention to these things as they happen and understanding how these things affect people is a great way to stay up-to-date on the problems affecting your community today.

To that end, I would also encourage allies to take in information from as many sources as possible and to not be pigeonholed into one or two sources. Always look for quality information, and if you’re getting information from the news, try to find multiple news sources on the same topic to filter out as much bias as possible.

Take Care of Your Mental Health!

This may sound somewhat counterintuitive, but I still think it’s an important thing to keep in mind. Social justice areas are a LOT of work and can be particularly draining both as a person who faces discrimination and as an ally. Just as people of color and the LGBT+ population are not here solely to help us understand these issues, we too, must try to take some time to do things that aren’t explicitly related to social justice. Taking a few days off to spend time with friends, taking part in a hobby, or frankly doing any non-political thing is a great way to avoid burnout.

In Summation

Put simply, there is a lot that goes into allyship. Looking back at this writing, there was a lot of information that I could have included but couldn’t simply for the sake of time or lack of experience. The good news, however, is that allyship comes in many different forms, and just by searching “white allyship” or any similar term online results in hundreds of thousands of articles surrounding the topic. It could literally take a lifetime to learn all of the ins and outs of allyship, so going slow, trying to do the right thing, and understanding your mistakes are all keys in helping people who face discrimination on a daily basis.

On September 9, 2020, professor Gary Shank from the school of education [at Duquesne University] used a racial slur during his virtual Educational Psychology class. Shank was almost immediately put on paid leave after a video of the incident went viral. This allegedly has not been the first time Professor Shank has used this word, but is the first time he has gotten caught saying it; after months of discussion, Duquesne has ultimately decided that Shank will be reinstated provided he completes several steps towards Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

Before I continue, I wanted to establish that I am neither a student of color nor a student present in his class. That being said, I have had several discussions with my peers, many of whom were either in that class or are students of color. While I cannot speak for every student at Duquesne or even every student in that class, I can outline the general feelings and attitudes of some people who were affected by this incident.

Obviously, it should go without saying that Shank said in that class is unacceptable; it is also disheartening to hear about Duquesne’s approach to the situation, essentially agreeing to reinstate him following alleged training in areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion. By avoiding termination, Duquesne has demonstrated that faculty and staff will not face termination (or any serious consequences, for that matter) following a breach of conduct, especially in a way that actively harms historically disenfranchised students at a historically white college.

Furthermore, testimonies by Shank and those who represent him are equally, if not, more, troubling. Shank said during hearings that not using a slur would have lessened the experience of the teaching and that the criticism boils down to a “disapproval with [his] teaching style.” [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review] Do these words sound like those of a man who’s seen the errors in his ways? Is he aware of the mistake he has made? Clearly, Shank holds firm on his decision to use a word that has hurt so many people in the past and continues to hurt people today. In this way, I think little can be achieved with him and his improvement in taking an arbitrary diversity training.

Similarly, the fact that this is a repeat offense proves that Duquesne either does not take these allegations seriously or that students are afraid to speak up about injustices happening on their campus. Personally, I can speak from experience in saying that the current incident report forms [on Duquesne’s website] have dissuaded me from reporting incidents in the past. The forms in question require the student to fill out their full name, affiliation with the university, and various means of contact. While the intentions may have been pure here, this unintentionally puts a target on students’ backs as the university now knows who to blame for causing trouble; This disproportionately affects students on scholarship or on other forms of reduced tuition as universities could cite some unrelated offense such as “poor moral character,” thus making them unable to receive financial aid because of their report.

Finally, I can’t even begin to imagine how BIPOC students and professors feel about his reinstatement. These students are the minority across campus, and many of them struggle to feel represented in the culture of the school to begin with. His reinstatement shows that the school cares more about his comfort and job security than they do about the safety and inclusion of their students.

I acknowledge that this is a complicated issue. I’m certain that the administration at Duquesne thinks that they are trying to take the moral high ground by giving Shank a second chance. However, by doing so, they are sacrificing the safety of their students for the comfort of one teacher. If Duquesne truly wanted to right the wrongs created by this situation, it would listen to those who are truly affected by Shanks words and subsequent actions and would search to dismantle frames of oppression that caused this situation in the first place.

As a trans student at Duquesne University I faced several difficulties when coming out. If you are a professor or peer of someone in the LGBTQIA+ community and you’d like to help them feel safe with you/in your class, this is a great place to start. 

All my professors and peers had multiple questions for me just after I came out. This is a totally normal reaction, but it should be a controlled one. Coming out is a scary experience while simultaneously being extremely personal. You should keep this in mind when someone comes out to you as it will help you control your response and make them as comfortable as possible.

The first thing you should do is limit questions until you are certain that the person feels comfortable speaking to you. In some cases, there is nothing that you can do to make them comfortable as they’re already extremely on edge. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try your best to make them comfortable though. When they first come out to you start with things like “I’m really glad you felt comfortable telling me” or “Your identity is valid, and I will do what I can to make you feel welcomed and safe”. Opening with these things, instead of something like “Oh what does that mean” or “Yeah I kind of figured” reassures the person that you are on their side. Quickly asking them to elaborate is a great response as well. Try something like “Could you elaborate to help me understand?”.

Often overlooked is allowing the person who is coming out to you to speak briefly about their experience. Just remember not everyone will want to. Personally, it makes me feel better to briefly describe the situation and get some of the frequently asked questions out of the way so that I can move the conversation to a more productive place. 

If you feel the person is comfortable, first ask what you can do to make them feel safe. They will gladly tell you exactly what to do. If you have any other questions past this, be sure to first ask the most important thing; “Is it ok if I ask a few more questions?”. This is a step that affirms to them you are on their side. Anything but aside from yes should be taken as a no in this situation. If they are open to questions be sure to keep the phrasing positive and reassuring. Any negativity or hostility could cause the person to shut you out.

A note regarding transgender people specifically:  While we understand that it can be hard to remember our chosen name at times, constantly using it more than you would other peoples makes us feel singled out.

The best way to make someone in the LGBTQIA+ community feel comfortable is to be reassuring and have basic respect for them.

Best Regards,