The following post was first published on City’s Let’s Talk about Race blog in early September. We are re-sharing it today as part of our Black History Month Mini-Series. Written by Michael Janetta, it discusses his personal experience of understanding what Allyship means to him.
So, you think you are a good white ally?
To be a good white ally, we all have to do better. Too often do we hear ‘I treat everyone the same’, ‘I don’t see colour’ or ‘I am not racist’. It is not enough for white people to just say they’re not racist, we need people to take responsibility and be proactively anti-racist. In this article, I identify a number of proactive steps we can all take.
Acknowledge your privilege
I strongly believe that in order to be a white ally, it is essential that you acknowledge your privilege. Many people don’t like the term ‘White Privilege’, and I think that this is due to a severe lack of understanding of what White Privilege really is. Therefore, it is important that this is addressed, and we make the effort to develop a greater understanding.
In Peggy McIntosh’s (1989) essay ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’, she described White Privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets and advantages that she could count on cashing in each day. McIntosh also identifies some clear and tangible examples of White Privilege in her life, which I’m sure resonates with many of us, such as:
- Being able to turn on the television or open the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented
- Being able to go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I won’t be followed or harassed
- I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group
- I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my race
- I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systematic racism for their own daily physical protection
White Privilege is the advantage that comes with the colour of your skin, no matter your social status. So, to be clear, White Privilege does not mean or suggest that all white people have lived easy lives without experiencing challenges. It means your skin colour has not been a contributing factor to any hardships you have experienced.
Those who benefit most are more likely to be blinded to the existence of White Privilege, and take these privileges for granted. Reflecting on my own personal experience, I can think of many privileges and advantages that I have taken for granted. To list just a couple of examples, when I attended university as an undergraduate student the majority of my course content only gave attention to people of my race and the majority of my lecturers teaching me this content were also of my race. I have never attended a job interview where the interview panel did not include at least one white man. I have never experienced resentment from work colleagues because they think that I have received ‘special treatment’. I am not repeatedly asked where I am from and when I say ‘Scotland’, I am never met with the response ‘No, where are you really from?’.
Even from just those few examples listed, it is clear that my White Privilege provided me with a number of advantages, particularly in my education and career so far. It is important that we do not ignore that we have White Privilege and that we think about how we can use this privilege to advocate for positive change and educate others in the workplace, at home and in our wider community.
Educate yourself and have uncomfortable conversations
In order to be a White Ally, it is important that we continue to actively educate ourselves about topics such as Racial Injustice, Systemic Racism, White Privilege and White Fragility. It is not the job of people of colour to educate white people about these issues – it is our own responsibility to seek out resources such as articles, books, podcasts and videos and learn from them. There are loads of extremely rich resources on City’s new Let’s Talk about Race hub and I would encourage all at City to make the most of these. I would also encourage colleagues to refer to City’s Covid-19 and EDI Central Repository, a resource which was created to help increase knowledge and understanding of how the pandemic has had a significant and disproportionate impact on different groups.
It is also important to speak to other allies. Talk about how you can do better and discuss what you can do or (even better) are doing to help dismantle racism. A forum where I have been able to take part in these conversations at City is the Diversify your Mind Book Club. This initiative was established to facilitate discussion on culture and identity to promote race equality. The book club focuses on books that raise awareness of diverse cultures and experiences. I have taken part in book club sessions discussing The Good Immigrant, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race and Natives. The book club is open to all staff at City. From my experience, the book club provides an opportunity for people to learn in an informal environment and I would highly recommend attending one of the sessions – even if you haven’t read the book being discussed! You can learn more about how to join the book club on the staff hub here.
Be willing to listen and don’t be a ‘performative ally’
As the saying goes, it is not possible to learn if you are not willing to listen. People are sharing their stories and lived experiences on a daily basis and they have become even more accessible since the prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Listen to what people of colour are saying and make an effort to find out what you can personally do to support the movement – remember the purpose of these conversations are to find out the needs of others, not so you can make a performance out of your allyship.
‘Performative allyship’ is essentially the practice of words and gestures that do more to promote an individual than actually helping tackle the issues the individual states they wish to challenge. An effective ally is not focused on whether they look like a ‘good ally’ and wondering whether they are going to be seen, receive credit or rewarded. For example, we recently saw a huge increase in white people sharing anti-racist posts on social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter following the death of George Floyd. If individuals are not willing to back any statement they support online with action to challenge racial injustice they are not being an effective ally.
Speak up, challenge racism and be an active bystander
If you hear people make racist comments, call them out. It is important to take a stand and be an Active Bystander. An Active bystander is an individual who is aware that someone’s behaviour is inappropriate or threatening, and then actively challenges it. Challenging unacceptable behaviour can be difficult, even more so when this involves calling out family, friends and colleagues, but it is vital that we take an actively anti-racist approach and speak out. City’s EDI team created a toolkit on How to Become an Active Bystander and holds Active Bystander training sessions across the academic year. Details on the Active Bystander training session and how to register can be found here.
Apologise when you do make mistakes
We will all make mistakes, and that is OK! When you make a mistake and this is raised do not react defensively. Remember it is not about your intent, it is about your impact. Ensure you listen, apologise and commit to changing your behaviour going forward. A mistake is a learning opportunity, so don’t be disheartened as this is an example of White Fragility. In her book ‘White Fragility’ Robin DiAngelo defines the term ‘White Fragility’ as the defensiveness and argumentation that often occurs whenever white people are challenged on their racial world views. DiAngelo explains that this defensiveness is not fragile at all and acts as an everyday white racial control by making it so difficult for people to challenge white people on their assumptions and biases that most of the time they don’t. As a result, White Fragility protects the current racial hierarchy. It is therefore extremely important that we do not react defensively and apologise when a mistake is made. Guidance on how you can successfully and effectively apologise in these circumstances can be found in the video Getting Called Out: How to apologise.
To conclude, I have identified just a few ways that we can improve and be effective white allies. It is imperative that we do not sit passively in a system of advantage that serves to help us and continues to hinder people of colour. We must all take responsibility and acknowledge that we have a role to play. As individuals we must learn, listen and be actively anti-racist so we can tackle racial inequalities and racial injustice.