Becoming an Ally
to People of Color
By Joyce and Barry Vissell
I grew up in Buffalo, New York and, from the time I was just a little girl, my parents, without even knowing it, started training me to become an ally to people of color. I shall be forever grateful to them. My mother emphasized that all humans are created equal and that all, regardless of skin color, are children of God.
My parents didn’t just use words, they showed me in practical ways. Their church neighbored the University of Buffalo, and many students came each Sunday. My mother was the official greeter of these students and she loved to invite a few students each week, especially minority students, for Sunday dinner at our house. So most Sundays I would get to listen to people of different races and I learned that there was not much difference, and that all were lovable. There was not even one guest that I did not like. They were all very kind and grateful to be in a home and be served a home-cooked meal.
We had many relatives living close by. My mother was one of eight children. One time, when I was ten years old, I was playing upstairs in my bedroom while my parents were serving coffee to a group of ten relatives downstairs in our living room. I didn’t pay much attention to the conversation until the volume rose. I could hear my parents yelling at the relatives, defending the blacks that were going to move into the neighborhood. The relatives were saying very mean and prejudiced things about blacks and my parents were rising to their defense in a very strong way. The volume rose so high that I got a bit worried and walked down stairs and asked what was happening. The relatives all got up, and one of my uncles said to me in a brusque voice, “Nothing is happening. We won’t be talking about that topic again to your parents.” They quickly left.
After they were all gone, my mother took me aside and firmly spoke to me, “Never miss an opportunity to defend black people. They are good people and need our support.” I can still hear her words within my heart to this day. My relatives continued to come and visit, but they never spoke prejudiced words again around my parents.
Eventually, I grew and left my parent’s home and then married Barry at the age of twenty-two. We both moved to Nashville, Tennessee where Barry went to a black medical school and I was a nurse in a poor black ghetto. I loved my very poor black patients so much and would go out of my way to get them clothing or food, even though that was not part of my job. Barry and I marched in one of the first civil rights marches deep in the south. We were the only whites in the march. It was not a safe thing to do, but it felt right. I almost lost my job because of it. Wherever I go, I hear my mother’s voice speaking so strongly to me about defending the rights of blacks.
Twenty years ago, I had the opportunity to defend a person of color in a stronger way. Five miles south of where we live is Watsonville, which twenty years ago was mostly made up of people from Mexico. Driving to Watsonville at that time, was like driving to Mexico, as mostly Spanish was spoken. Some of these people have very dark skin, just like the blacks. I was at a local 7/11 store that has two gas pumps. There was a long line that day which was moving very slowly. I got in line behind a young man who had recently immigrated from Mexico. After ten minutes, he came up to my window and in broken English said to me, “Me no hurry, you go ahead.” I thought it was such a nice offer, but I declined. Eventually we were at the pumps together and we struck up a simple conversation using the few English words that he knew and me using sign language.
When my tank was full, I needed to go inside the store for change. I said good-by to this nice man, who felt like a friend. There was a line in the store and, when I came out, there were four white policemen and they were hassling my new friend and were about to put handcuffs on him and take him away. He didn’t understand what was happening to him. I went right up to the policemen and explained that I had been with this man for over twenty minutes, and that he was an extremely kind person. One of the policemen told me that they had gotten the description of a dark-skinned man wearing a scarf who was seen not far from here attempting to rob a store, just ten minutes ago. Yes, my new friend had a scarf on, but many people had scarves on as it was very cold. In a firm voice I said, “You have the wrong person. This man is innocent and I will testify that I was with him.”
The policeman stepped away and put away his handcuffs. Without any words, they got in their cars and pulled away. My new friend was shaking with fear and very grateful that I had helped. Though he did not speak much English, he understood the language of their behavior and he also understood that I had helped him. I told my new friend that he was a good man.
I have never seen this man again, but the memory of that experience has stayed with me in great detail ever since. And I felt so good driving away that I was able to help, but also sad for the many that do not have an ally on the scene to help them.
We all can be allies and help people of color. My parents taught me that this is my responsibility as a citizen of the world. And I have tried to teach our three children to be allies as well. In the words of my mother, “Never miss an opportunity to defend and help a black person.”
Joyce & Barry Vissell, a nurse/therapist and psychiatrist couple since 1964, are counselors near Santa Cruz, CA, who are passionate about conscious relationship and personal-spiritual growth. They are the authors of 9 books. Call 831-684-2299 for further information on counseling sessions by phone, on-line, or in person, their books, recordings or their schedule of talks and workshops. Visit their web site at SharedHeart.orgfor their free monthly e-heartletter, their updated schedule, and inspiring past articles on many topics about relationship and living from the heart.