How to be an Ally to People of Color

June 11, 2020


Here's how to be an ally in the fight against racism- M Loves M @marmarAs I mentioned last week, I am committed to learning how to be an ally in the fight against racism. For me, the first step has been taking the time and care to educate myself. One way I’ve been doing that is by having conversations about this important topic which is how I met Kate, the Associate Director at a nonprofit that supports social justice and diversity in the educational sector. Today, she has offered to share her thoughts on how to be an ally to people of color. Welcome Kate!

A commitment to allyship during this time! - M Loves M @marmar

How to be an Ally to People of Color

Hello M Loves M readers,

My name is Kate. I’m a White woman.

Does that sound strange to say out loud? Is it strange to foreground race as the key piece of my identity? Buckle up!

My name is Kate and I’m a White woman. I’m also the Associate Director at a nonprofit that supports social justice and diversity in the educational sector. I’m a lecturer at the University of New Hampshire, where I teach a course on the history of race and racism. I’m also a PhD candidate, working on my dissertation about the experiences of minoritized students at predominantly White institutions. I’m a mom, a wife, a dog mom, an amateur chef, a (very slow) runner, a yogi, a reader, a terrible karaoke singer. But for the purposes of this post, the most important thing is that I’m a White woman.

In recent weeks, White America (and the world, really), is waking up to the violence and systems of oppression that Black people experience every day of their lives. We have been unable to look away at the uprisings that are occurring to demand justice for the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others. These are deaths that- whether they came at the hands of avowed White supremacists or by the very institutions of law and order that swore to protect American people- lay bear the realities of racial oppression in this country.

It is at this point in the post that I want to make clear that I am speaking to White readers. For some of you, I may have lost you already. “I thought racism was solved after the Civil Rights Era!” “I thought racism was solved when Obama was elected!” No, and no. If anything, the past few weeks have shown us all that racism was never solved in this country.

What has been made clear to many White people in America in the past few weeks is that they have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of work to do. Many of us might have spent our lives up until this point believing that we don’t have a racist bone in our body. All of a sudden, we’re learning that only is this not true, but that we’re part of a system that we might not ever have been aware of. In this system, we benefit in very real yet often unseen ways, simply because of the color of our skin. This is White privilege, and it’s real. White privilege means I never get followed around a store. White privilege means that I’m not afraid for my life if a cop pulls me over. White privilege means that I never have to worry about not getting a job, or a mortgage, or a college acceptance letter… because I’m White! White privilege makes itself manifest in small and large ways, and even if you’re only just becoming aware of it, it has been operating in this country as long as our democracy has existed.

So What Now?

The question is, now that you’re aware that White privilege exists, how do you go about unpacking that in order to become an anti-racist ally?

Here, I’m happy to help. Six years ago, I started working at a nonprofit that was devoted to social justice and equity (the Institute for Recruitment of Teachers – look it up!) In my work, I found myself in a position where I was advising students of color and hearing every single day about their experiences with racism. I realized very quickly that there were underlying systems behind the anecdotes that I was hearing… and so I started on a path of my own anti-racist education. I realized that if I wanted to even try to begin to understand the experiences that my students were relating to me, I had to dig deep into the history of race and racism and how it operates in America. This was doubly important because I needed to understand how I, as a White person, was complicit in this system.

I started reading everything I could get my hands on. I read sociological texts and blog posts, I watched YouTube videos and listened to podcasts. I prioritized my own anti-racist education as something essential and important in my life, and I made time for it. Along the way, I enrolled as a full-time doctoral student, published academic articles, joined book clubs, took up running, got a dog, got pregnant, had a baby, defended a dissertation proposal, and moved houses. I was busy as can be, but I still made time for my anti-racist education… because I knew that understanding my own White privilege, and systems of White supremacy, was something that I couldn’t turn away from if I wanted to support and uplift people of color.

I say all this not as shame, but in order to encourage each of you reading this post. I am an average White lady. I grew up in Maine, one of the Whitest states in this country. I will openly admit that I did not have any significant relationships with people of color until I was in my 20s. I, like many of you, thought that racism was a thing of the past… and if it did happen today, it wasn’t something that happened to me. I was White, for goodness sake! But when I realized that racism not only still existed, but permeated almost every single system in this country – economical, legal, educational, political, social, etc.- I took it upon myself to start doing the work of interrogating my own White framework, and therefore, my complicity in these systems. Now I teach a college class on it. And that’s my encouragement to you. Any one of you can also teach yourself about race and racism. Any one of you can start tomorrow, today, in doing the work.

Steps You Can Take In Your Anti-Racist Education

Below, I wanted to outline some steps to begin your own anti-racist education:

1. Recognize that your anti-racist education is the work of a lifetime.

Oh boy. I started out with a big one. Right now, many of you probably feel incredibly overwhelmed by the amount of work that you feel like you have to do. And yes, the amount of work is overwhelming. But what I’m about to say might actually sound immensely freeing: your anti-racist education will never be finished. In that, I mean that, as a White woman myself, I recognize that no matter how much I read, how much I listen, how much history I research, or no matter how much work I do, I will never reach a point where my anti-racist education is “good enough”. Unpacking your own White privilege, as well as your complicity in systems of oppression, is a lifetime journey, and it’s not linear. There are days that you’ll feel like you’re really starting to have a grasp on the stuff that you’ve been reading. And then, there are days that you might say something offensive, and you’re consumed by guilt and feel like you’ve gone back to square one. The work will never be done, and this will be a constant evolution. And that’s freeing, because it means that you just get to keep committing and recommitting to it, over and over and over. And if you screw up, you make amends as best you can, and you learn from it. You get up the next morning and teach yourself to do better.

2. If the work is important enough to you, you will make time for it.

This is more practical advice, especially for those of you that feel overwhelmed by just how much you have to learn. I’ve had many friends express over the past few weeks “I want to read the books, I just don’t have time!” I get it. I do! We’re busy. And we’re in a pandemic. And we’re at home with the kids or we’re trying to squeeze in an 8 hour work day or the house isn’t clean or the laundry needs folding. But if you change that sentence to “… the laundry needs folding, so I don’t have time to read about racism”, you realize that it sounds a little bit ridiculous, right? And you realize how privileged it sounds, right? I realized early on that, in line with #1, my own anti-racist education was going to be the work of a lifetime. So, I also realized that I had to engage in it frequently and sustainably. When you declare it as something that is important in your life, you make room for it, just like you make room for nourishing yourself or moving your body or resting. Over the past few years, I’ve made regular scheduled time for anti-racism education so that it becomes something consistent in my life. I read at least one book at month that’s either about race, White supremacy, the history of people of color, or social justice. I have a lineup of six or so podcasts by hosts of color that I listen to every week that keep me engaged not only with stories from history that I might not have heard before, but the current racial climate in the US. And lastly, I try to read an article a day that’s about racial justice or racial climate. When you calculate those hours, it’s not a heavy lift. But it’s something that I intentionally make space for in my schedule, because the alternative is that I don’t engage. And quite frankly, that’s no longer an option for White people if we want anything to change.

3. Talk to the people in your life.

To that end, it’s not enough to just read the books or listen to the podcasts. Interrogating your White privilege is something that cannot be done in a vacuum. So many scholars, activists, and historians have written about race and racism, and this is when you can support them by purchasing their work and spreading their messaging to the people in your life. But more than that, you have got to be able to talk this stuff out. So find your crew. Find friends, family members, or other White colleagues who are equally committed to this work. Start a book club at your office. Start a weekly discussion group. Get together for lunches where you talk about an article you all read. Mostly, hold each other accountable. That means you agree to be brutally honest with each other at times. That means you find people to whom you can say “Hey, that thing you said was super problematic and racially insensitive. Let’s talk about why, and how you can do better next time.” That means you find people who can say to you “Hey, Kate, you’re slacking on your reading. Time to double down.” To many White people in this country, the words “race” and “racism” and “White privilege” and “White supremacy” can feel like scary words. The way that you demystify them and work through the confusion is by talking it out with similarly-minded White allies.

4. Think about the ways that you can support the Black community, and other communities of color.

Let’s do a wild thought experiment. Imagine, for a minute, that you committed for six months to only watching Black content on Netflix, only reading books by Black authors, only listening to music by Black artists or podcasts by Black podcast hosts, or only frequenting Black owned-businesses. Could you imagine what that might be like? Can you imagine what that influx of patronage, support, and amplification might look like for artists and creators and business-people of color who might otherwise not be in the limelight? Can you imagine how much you might learn about the lived experiences and histories of Black people? This is actually not that much of a heavy lift. Instead of making your go-to, head to first. Support Black artists on Etsy and buy books by Black authors. Find Black-owned restaurants in your neighborhood and order frequently. A key part of dismantling White privilege is decentering ourselves – by thinking of White as the default, we continue to ‘other’ the lives of Black people. So work to stop making White the default.

5. Lean into this moment.

I want you to stop, pause, and take stock of how some of these calls to action have you made you feel. Confused? Angry? Defensive? Sad? Sit in those feelings. In fact, swim in those feelings. For many of you who have not thought about race or racism up until now, this moment is particularly painful. Wrestling with the fact that White people are complicit in centuries of racial oppression is painful, especially if you’ve always thought of yourself as “a good White person”. But the alternative is pretending racism doesn’t exist. And it seems like most of you reading this post are not only committed to learning about the history of racism in this country, but also committed to teaching yourself so that you can be better allies and better stewards of racial equity. This is going to be a painful unlearning as you realize how much there is that you don’t know. Growth can be painful; but growth is also essential.

Education Recommendations

There are numerous reading lists and podcast recommendations and “Top Ten Documentaries” lists out there. I would highly recommend starting out with three wonderful books by Black scholars that are specifically about anti-racism. 1) How To Be An Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi 2) Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad and 3) So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. I also think Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility is a fantastic book in terms of conceptualizing your own Whiteness, but please read this book in tandem with the first three recommendations. It’s critical right now that you’re listening to the voices of Black scholars first. I’d also recommend the “Good Ancestor” podcast, hosted by Layla F. Saad, the “Seeing White” series from “Scene On: Radio” and NPR’s “Code Switch” podcast.

I have a zillion more recommendations and in fact, I list all of my anti-racist resources in my Instagram Highlights (follow me at @katerslater!). Start reading. Start listening. This movement towards racial equality depends on sustained White solidarity – we have to show up again and again and again. Don’t just drop into this stuff because it’s important now – commit to your own anti-racist education for a lifetime.

I am also planning on hosting an IG Live today, Thursday, June 11th at 8 pm EST / 5 pm PST. It’s called “Virtue Signaling vs. Allyship: Your Black Square Isn’t Enough” and will essentially discuss what this blog post does- how to commit to anti-racist allyship long term (for a lifetime)! I think it would be a fantastic follow up for any of you who have more questions.

Kate also wrote this article for NBC on “5 Ways to Support Your Black Colleagues Right Now” that is super helpful. Thank you Kate for popping by the blog today!


main image source: Roc Canals Photography