It’s a Thin Line between Help and Harm

What if I told you the notion of help is rooted in bias? Would you believe me? Let me explain. As human beings we learn at an early age what it means to be a leader, to help others, and to give back. As honorable as some of the actions we display are, for some reason, the outcomes are not always as gratifying as we envisioned. Especially for those who receive the negative impact of our good intentions. The notion of “help” is broken down in many ways, I’ll do my best to explain it here:

  1. We hear or read a verbal calling for assistance directly from another human being or living thing
  2. We see what appears to be suffering to us and we immediately spring into action to relieve the interpreted suffering (this is where bias is the most prevalent)

Bias is such a norm and determinant in our actions that we don’t understand or even know when or why it’s happening. Hence the term “unconscious bias.” Think about it in this way: most of your life you have been working to define what happiness, joy, and other forms of pleasure work for you. Your default in understanding is, if it works for me it must work for everybody. Nah. Everybody does not have the identities that you have or the needs that you have. We learn the golden rule of “treat other how you want to be treated.” before we learn the platinum rule: Treat others how they want to be treated. I’m creating a diamond rule: Ask others how they want to be treated and act accordingly as long as it does not put you in danger!

In a time of heightened awareness around racism in America, especially how it impacts us as Black people, I can’t help but to constantly think about how historically when allies show up to help, they’ve done more damage than good for underrepresented populations in some cases. Not because they intended to harm anyone, but because they didn’t know what to do or say, but they felt the need to help. It’s intent versus impact.

Whiteness has historically perpetuated the notion of help through assimilation. Everything from our workplace dress codes, standards of beauty, and code switching are forms of helping those who do not meet the White majority way of thinking to “fit in.” I remember during the International Women’s Day March in Seattle, where I watched a group of White women scream at a group of Native American women, who were in their traditional dress, to go back to the reservation. This group was also upset at signs that read “everybody’s pussies are not pink.” If these underrepresented groups had just gone along to get along there wouldn’t have been any issues. We don’t and shouldn’t have to dress, talk, walk, think, eat, shit or act like you in any other way to have access to basic human and civil rights and decency. Here are a couple of areas that really stick out to me as I write this article.

Hiring

When I look at hiring practices in companies there is definitely a presence of a thin line between help and harm. How many of you are familiar with this invisible “bar” that has been used to evaluate a candidate’s performance. What this “bar” does is create a standard for performance rooted in institutional bias and used by people who in many cases don’t understand the perpetuation of systemic oppression. There is no accountability for denial of equitable access to training/educational institutions that have created said biased bar. There is a lack of supportive systems within companies that put human beings on a track towards success because the bar does not account for potential. It creates blinds spots. We believe that to set standards of performance is helping people step up and to the plate, when what it actually does is create a plate of starvation for the underrepresented. It’s part of the reason there is an underrepresentation in the first place.

Allyship

Dear Allies, often when you don’t know what to do or say and you react, you do or say the wrong thing! Instead of telling you how to stop harming us indirectly, I am going to give you some steps:

  1. When you go in to fight a cause ask people what they want. Use the platinum rule and do not assume that everyone wants what you want or need to feel safe. Let us tell you, listen, and act accordingly. This is the responsibility of an ally.
  2. Be willing to share resources and do not expect us to share ours, unless we volunteer to be your ally.
  3. It’s not our responsibility to educate you, and to add a layer our creating awareness is a form of education. To find a solution is a form of action.
  4. Don’t think that if you cry with us that’s an open invitation to pick our brains, sit with your emotions and don’t expect us to hold that space, we have enough shit to deal with.
  5. Stop being so gotdamn reactive and repeatedly apologizing. Y’all are seriously trying too hard to say the right thing. We’re tired of your words, we want changed behavior. I will say it again for the people in the back: often when you don’t know what to do or say and you react, you do or say the wrong thing! You become the trigger in your intent to help us and create harm. You’ve crossed the thin line.

Dismantling systems is hard, it’s even harder when we have to work overtime to fight for our right to be individuals and climb out of this damn melting pot you all have created. We don’t want to assimilate and be more like you, this is harmful. We want sameness in rights and access not in our identities, this is help. Your idea of helping us should not perpetuate the idea of “we want you to be more like us” so you don’t suffer. When instead the approach should be “we want to change systems so that you can experience the same outcomes as us, without having to act like us.” Do you get it? Help vs. harm.

Dr. Cheryl Ingram aka Dr. CI, is a very successful entrepreneur, blogger, content creator and expert of diversity, equity, and inclusion practices.

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