The white ally and the fight for racial justice

Source: Penny Rabiger

I remember several years ago now, I went to hear Reni Eddo Lodge speak at a podcast event in a London branch of Waterstones. This was just around the time of her blog post that led to her long read in The Guardian and later to her book ‘Why I am no longer talking to white people about race’. I cringe when I think back to it, as I think it was me that was that white woman who put up her hand, eager to signal my virtue and readiness to help, and asked a question: “Thank you, I really enjoyed your talk, and can you tell me, what can I do, as a white woman, that would be useful?” To which Reni responded something along the lines of, “Herein lies the problem, if you are asking me what you can do”. I now understand what that was about, but at the time, I felt shame and an intense need to understand why what I had said was so unhelpful. 

Just recently, in the space of the same week, I was asked to join two separate organisations’ inner circles to discuss the concept of the white ally in anti-racist work. One was a union Black, Asian and minority ethnic leaders network grappling with some questions about their next steps in their strategy, and the other was a lunch and learn session for a large education organisation which, in their own words, is not very diverse but committed to changing that. Although I went willingly, I didn’t go comfortably with the notion of the white ally or as someone who would be somehow held up as an example of success in this area. 

I have been on a journey since my question about what I can do, and if there is one thing I think that I can do it is to put learning, listening and unlearning before rushing in with ‘doing’. One organisation which has influenced me in exploring this idea of being a white person developing their understanding and committing action to anti-racist work is WhiteAccomplices.org who have developed a website to support white people wanting to act for racial justice. I find their explanation of the difference between the actor, ally and accomplice really helpful. I will summarise my understanding of their ideas, but do spend some time reading for yourself on their website.

Why should white people care in the first place?

I get asked this question a lot. Many people find it hard to understand why someone who doesn’t experience racial discrimination would be fighting for change. I think that this has become increasingly legitimised in my lifetime, that one only needs to care about things that we perceive to have a direct and immediate effect on us – I hear this a lot when people consider their voting preferences for example, selecting the party which has policies that benefit them directly the most, rather than thinking about protecting the interests of those most affected by inequity.

The truth is, that while any of us are oppressed, none of us are free. But more than this, if you understand how structural inequality works, as a white person, to not act to dismantle racism we are in fact complicit with upholding the status quo. WhiteAccomplices.org explains that there are three states of being:

Actor – An actor doesn’t challenge the status quo, and is more like a spectator in a game. The actions of an actor do not explicitly name or challenge racism, which is essential for meaningful progress towards racial justice to happen. While there is oppression, we all stand to lose.
WhiteAccomplices.org cite an excellent quote by Lilla Watson (the indiginous Australian artist, activist and academic) on the need for actors to shift to accomplices: “If you have come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

While there is oppression, we all stand to lose.

An actor might go to demonstrations, change their profile picture to a black square on social media, release a statement on their website about Black Lives Matter, or do other performative acts of beings seen to be ‘with’ Black people. Actors might even join their workplace diversity discussion group, attend an event or read a book on the issues.

Ally – Being an ally is a verb, it is active. Most importantly, ally is not a title you can give to yourself, you may be regarded as an ally by others through your actions at times.

Your actions as an ally are more likely to challenge institutionalised racism and you will have a good understanding of terms like white supremacy and whiteness. An ally is a disrupter and an educator in white spaces – unlike the actor, the ally sees something inappropriate and interrupts, explains and tries to educate those present. WhiteAccomplices.org is careful to point out that being an ally is not an invitation to do this in Black and brown spaces to be seen to be performatively “good” or “on side”. You would not tell someone else’s story of experiencing racism from your perspective of how you helped them tackle it. But you would disrupt a conversation taking place in a predominantly white space that is inappropriate and take the opportunity to educate those present.
Allies need to constantly educate themselves and do not take breaks from this work.

Being an ally is a verb, it is active. Most importantly, ally is not a title you can give to yourself, you may be regarded as an ally by others through your actions at times.

Accomplice – The actions of an accomplice are meant to directly challenge institutionalised or structural racism, colonisation, and white supremacy by blocking or impeding racist people, policies, and structures. This is where you can absolutely use your proximity to power and your white privilege in your workplace and spaces that you occupy.

This is the stage where you fully understand that our freedoms are intertwined, dwell not only in what people say but are enmeshed in structures and institutions, the way we recruit, develop and retain people, the way people are treated at work, in public spaces, by healthcare providers, and so on. This is where you know that retreat in the face of oppressive structures is not an option. 

Accomplices actions are informed by, coordinated with, and sometimes even directed by, leaders who are Black, brown, minoritised, or who identify as people of colour.

An accomplice listens with respect and understands that oppressed people are not all the same in their needs, tactics or beliefs. 

Accomplices are not emotionally fragile or motivated by guilt or shame.

Accomplices are not emotionally fragile or motivated by guilt or shame. They recover fast and reflect, aware that they have been socialised into structural racism and the unlearning process is iterative, constant and consistent. They need to be accountable, will build trust through consent and act collaboratively for that accountability.

An accomplice might do much of their work without fanfare or seeking public recognition. They will be looking for opportunities to amplify and elevate their Black and brown comrades’ good works and to challenge and dismantle structures and systems that uphold inequity. There is a personal cost to this. Some spaces will no longer be open to the accomplice because of their perceived disruptive nature. Similar to, but not at all the same as, the fact that some spaces are not open to people from Black, Asian, and minoritised backgrounds because of the colour of their skin. Once you see, you cannot unsee. It’s not about being ‘comfortable with the uncomfortable’, or about “diversity” as a broad catch-all term – it’s about being absolutely unable to accept or condone the status quo and acting to dismantle it.

So how do I move forward?

It should already be clear that there is no formulaic way to ‘get there’ and ‘there’ isn’t a destination but a constant journey. But here are some things you can think about that can take you beyond the actor, towards something that is meaningful for your own awareness and action:

  1. Educate yourself – Read, listen, watch, develop a critical mind and commit to change your habits so that you are not consuming things that uphold racist stereotypes, or that exclude voices from a range of backgrounds. This might involve giving up on a lot of things that you consume on screen! Join a reading group, or set one up.
  2. Change your view – Do an audit of your LinkedIn, Twitter, social platforms, actual friends and acquaintances and you will probably find you live in an echo chamber of people who look, sound and have had much the same experiences as you. Seek out and follow people that perhaps work in the same field as you, share the same interests as you and that don’t share the same worldview or background as you. Listen to what they have to say.
  3.  Change your spending – Raise money and donate to causes that benefit people of colour. Seek out and use your economic capital to support businesses owned and run by people of colour. Use your privilege and access to capital to channel that towards people of colour and grassroots organisations that benefit people of colour.
  4. White communities – Start the conversation with white family members, colleagues and friends about racism and whiteness. Encourage others to engage with the issues. Encourage your workplace to engage in training and anti-racist action. Disrupt white spaces and create discomfort where white people and whiteness would otherwise remain a pillar of white supremacy.
  5. Advocacy – Make calls, send emails and sign petitions advocating on behalf of policies being advanced by racial justice campaigners. Amplify voices of colour. Attend meetings, hearings, public events and add your voice in solidarity. Bring other white people with you.
  6. Your work – Make sure your job involves organising internally or externally to fight against institutional racism. Use your job position to actively seek out people of colour to interview for a job, for development opportunities and promotion within the organisation. When seeking external people, employ people of colour to provide services, training, as speakers.
  7. Volunteering – Consider volunteering as a mentor, a tutor, at a food bank, for a local racial justice focused organisation, join an organisation with the explicit aim of naming and disrupting racial injustice.
  8. Confronting injustice – If you see violence, intimidation or harassment, stand close and watch, interrupt and film confrontation, engage white people in conversation about their actions when you see or hear racism or microaggressions (focus on the intent vs the impact), call for help where necessary.
  9. Vote – Use your voting powers for the benefit of anti-racism and policies that will make a difference. Support candidates of colour, donate to campaigns, actively fundraise and canvass, use your energies to mobilise white communities to get behind candidates and policies that will make a difference to people of colour.
  10. Your children – Educate your children about power, privilege, race, intersectionality. Send your children to state schools where they are in the racial minority if they are white. White children need to see people of colour in positions of power and leadership as much as children of colour need to “see themselves”. Take your children and their friends to events where people of colour are speaking about racism, their lived experience and things of cultural importance to them. Talk to your children explicitly about the issues and what they can do to disrupt and be change makers. Talk to your child’s school and get involved in parent committees or the governing board with a view to disrupting and reframing deficit narratives and moving towards inclusivity.

For more resources, information, support and involvement, you are warmly invited to visit The BAMEed Network website 

4 thoughts on “The white ally and the fight for racial justice

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