Anastacia Reneé: "How to Be an Effective Ally"

“I want you all to judge me.” Anastacia Reneé stood powerfully on the small stage in Seattle’s Gay City venue, beginning her Tuesday-night workshop of how to be an effective ally in the most unexpected way: daring each of the twenty-something audience members to make judgments on her based upon her appearance.

The hesitation in the room was palpable. Many of the audience members were white, myself included; Anastacia Reneé—before we knew her ethnicity—appeared to be black. I was uncomfortable. After a little bit of humorous coaxing, we began.

Many of us had positive judgments to share, commenting on her stature, on her relaxed outfit despite being the presenter, on the way her energy animated the room. Then it shifted to slightly more critical assessments: her cold demeaner, assumptions about religion and race, about her economic status. And then she ended the exercise and gave us answers to many of our assumptions.

Reneé’s point with this exercise was to first ease us into understanding that all of us make judgments, but if we never take the time to truly know the person we have an aversive reaction to, our small reactions can be raindrops weathering away the stone of their emotional fortitude—even if we don’t mean to. We make snap judgments, and they never get the chance to explain themselves. I thought about all the times I’ve judged people walking down the street; I’ve convinced myself it’s profiling for my own safety, but I know that’s not always true.

Reneé framed this in her experience: people assume, when she arrives, that she’s the cleaner, not the presenter.

Sitting in the second row, experiencing Reneé’s fierce, confrontational, no-nonsense attitude all wrapped in a bow of compassion—all within the first ten minutes—I knew I was in for a long and invigorating two hours.

Roughly halfway through her workshop, Reneé, formerly a school teacher, gave us all a very basic lesson on how to be an ally. The way she framed it, you can be a good person, you can be an ally, or you can be an effective ally. There was never a bad option; there were merely a succession of better options. It was okay that I was a good person, but I knew I could be more. When she prepared us for a formula on how to be an effective ally, I had ears open and my pen ready.

“Little ‘a’ plus little ‘a’ equals big ‘a’.” Reneé paused to let us all write down her clever and simple formula. “The first little ‘a’ stands for ‘acknowledge.’ You acknowledge when someone is experiencing discrimination or going through a difficult time. The second little ‘a’ stands for ‘apologize.’ ‘I’m sorry this is happening to you.’ And the big ‘a’ stands for action!” It was simple and I loved it. But her following words are what clicked together for us the distinction between the three kinds of people.

“This isn’t like a regular formula. You can’t subtract from one side and add to the other and have things still work out. I’m a big action person! But sometimes I know jumping to action isn’t what’s helpful in a situation. Some people like to just apologize, but only apologizing is what good people do.”

To illustrate her point, she walked us through a scenario: her house behind her was burning for hours and near rubble, and we only now, after watching the house burn for a while, approach her. To simply acknowledge—“Hey, I saw that your house is burning. I want to let you know that I see you,”—is unhelpful and can in fact be hurtful, because you saw it all happening and didn’t help. To simply apologize—“I’m so sorry your house is burning down. If my house were burning down, I’d be devastated,”—also isn’t helpful because it reinforces their pain and can sometimes feel like you’re trying to pull the attention onto yourself.

Finally, Reneé showed us the formula in action, a way to secure all the elements and be an effective ally in this theoretical situation.

Imagine that you are rushing off to work, but on your way, you see that Reneé’s house is on fire. You’re rushing to work, but you see this crisis right in front of you. You run up to Reneé and say, “Hey, I want to let you know that I see you. I see what’s happening. I am so sorry that this is happening to you. I have to run to work, but is there anything that you need me to do?” You acknowledge, you apologize, and you ask what you can do for them, thus giving them agency. And maybe Reneé tells you to call the fire department on your way to work.

Is that scenario likely? Not really. But does it illustrate the reality of a complicated concept that only appears to be simple? Yes. And amidst Reneé’s humor and engaging attitude, the seriousness and reality-based impacts of what she was teaching us sank through the room like a thick fog.

As the workshop wound down, Reneé began to articulate small ways in which we could approach this journey. She recited back our white history, history she was made to learn although it didn’t apply to her, and then she turned it back on us.

“Can any of you name any important civil rights activists other than MLK, Rosa Parks, and Malcom X?”

Reneé was met with silence, and the disappointment that painted her face made me feel small and ashamed.

“Wow. How can I expect you to be an ally if you don’t even take the time to learn about my history?”

On that note, she sent us off with a challenge to start educating ourselves. Learn the five pillars of Islam. Learn about other important POC activists. Learn about Native American history.

The journey to an effective ally is a long one, but like all journeys, it starts with the first step.