Not enough white people have seriously thought about what it means to be a white ally. Too many white people think they are allies because they “aren’t racist”. “Not being racist” is a passive act that doesn’t make you an ally. You can say you think all people are equal regardless of their skin color and that we live in a post-racial society because we elected a black man as President. These comments are problematic, and they also don’t make someone a white ally.
First off, if you haven’t read it, check out “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack“. Seriously, I think each white person should read this text. It lays out how privilege is inherent in society in very practical terms and that white people, whether they are out and out racist or not, benefit from the systemic racism that is alive and in many ways driving our society.
It’s important to know that being a white ally is an active part of life. It’s not a one-time event or simply being friends with people of color. It’s a way of life. It’s making an effort to be informed on racial events and the racial history of the places in which those events occur. It’s about actively discussing those issues in the correct context and challenging the popular media coverage. It’s about leveraging your privilege as a white person to advocate for marginalized people. It’s about being willing to be “that person” in your social circles on a regular basis, not just when there’s a hot news story. Racism is systemic and constant. If you think otherwise, you’re not a white ally.
It’s also important to fight feelings of defensiveness and the inclination to make the whole thing about you when discussing racism with people of color. What you, the white person feels, when a person of color tries to talk about racism with you, shouldn’t be the focus of the discussion. Listen and try to understand. Remember what’s in your knapsack that the person of color will never have. Do not make the discussion about you.
Finally, don’t expect people of color to do all the work for you. It’s not ok to go straight to one of your friends or acquaintances who identify with a marginalized group and ask them to tell you all about how to be a white ally. That isn’t their burden. Take the time and effort to read on your own. Ask informed questions. Be willing to be told you are wrong and do not understand. Listen and don’t assume that you know what you’re talking about. Learn from reading and learn more from asking based on your reading.
We can put this all into the Ferguson context. Suppose I am a white person whose initial reaction is of disapproval based on the way that some blacks have chosen to react to the killing of Michael Brown. I’ve watched news coverage and have seen several reports about rioting and looting. I may feel as though the reaction of the black community is inappropriate because of this coverage. A friend might tell me I am making the situation about me and my feelings, I am being distracted by one-sided media, and I am not being a white ally. I might be offended for being told this. I would argue that looting and rioting are wrong and destructive, and I am justified in my disapproval. My friend might say that I am still making it all about me, that I need to diversify my news sources, and that if I do some more reading I may start to understand more about what’s happening.
If I want to be a white ally, I should instead do my homework to try and understand why some people are reacting the way they are and be aware of how many peaceful protests are occurring. It is important for me to understand the racial history of Ferguson and what may lead people to act in rebellion before I start judging. If I did my homework from various and diverse coverage, I might start to understand that what mainstream media is portraying as looting and rioting is actually a justified reaction to police terrorization. I may also find out that the violent reactions are sometimes in reaction to police action and that the number of peaceful incidents are far greater than my normal news source may lead me to believe. In my research, I may also learn more about what I can do as a white ally. Taking the time to do this research might change my initial reaction to what’s happening in Ferguson. I might start to understand more of what is happening and why. I may find a variety of news sources I should start to read to get a well-rounded story. I may start to understand that becoming a white ally means that I actively work to understand the racism inherent in this society, that I do my homework from a variety of sources, and that I engage in conversations that might not make me the most popular. Being a white ally means being properly prepared to and acting on opportunities to use my privilege as a white person to fight the system of oppression.
The system is big, and it favors whites. White people who do nothing enable the system to continue to oppress people of color. We need to each be doing our parts. White allies are crucial to changing the system. Do your homework, be vigilant, and leverage your power to help others see the same.