Six ways to be an ally

I’m a white, middle class, highly educated, and cissexual woman. That’s a lot of unearned privilege. I just happened to have been born into a privileged family. I don’t feel guilty about my privilege, because I can’t do anything about it. But I have learned that others continue to pay the price for my privilege.

I hate injustice. And as a woman with a lot of privilege, it’s my responsibility to try to dismantle the systems maintaining this privilege.

Racism is not something that is the problem of people of colour. It’s my problem, too. And I’m part of the problem as long as I close my eyes to the ways I benefit from the racist structures of society.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned about being an ally to women of colour:

Accept your white skin privilege

Just accept the facts of your privilege. Don’t wallow in guilt. Don’t ask women of colour to help you feel better about being white. Don’t try to make up for it by being extra nice to women of colour.

Accept the facts. Then deal with them. Decide what you are going to do about them.

It’s not about you

As white women, we’re used to everything being about us.

I’m old enough to remember what it was like before the second wave of feminism. Women were dismissed, ignored, and invisible. For example, my sister was one of four women in her university engineering program. Some professors who believed women had no business in engineering would refuse to respond to the women in the class. They pretended they didn’t exist.

I wonder if women of colour experience white women in this way. Do we make them feel invisible? Dismissed?

Shut up and listen

Shut up and listen. Bite your tongue if you have to.

I remember running a workshop for graduate theology students on the women’s spirituality movement. I had the bright idea of encouraging male seminarians to attend and learn about this movement.  I explained that this would be an experiential workshop. The first thing the men needed to understand was that they were in women’s space.

But they couldn’t do it. During the small group discussions, the men kept dominating the group. We kept pointing it out to them. One man tried to sit on his hands and his face grew red with the effort of taking a back seat in this setting.

I wonder if women of colour experience white women in this way.

Embrace the discomfort

Deep down, a lot of white folks have learned to feel guilty about being white. We can be really uncomfortable with reality of our privilege and we wish to erase it. But wishing isn’t enough. And wishing can become a reality. In our discomfort, we make women of colour invisible again.

There are no shortcuts to sisterhood with women of colour. There’s a lot of history to undo.

So one of the hard things we have to do is embrace the discomfort. It’s uncomfortable to listen to the anger of women about racism. And even if we can stand to listen to it being expressed, we get really uncomfortable if we have to keep hearing it.

It’s uncomfortable to take a back seat to women of colour. It can be uncomfortable to enter the worlds of impoverished women, many of whom are also women of colour. It’s easy to judge their lives. It’s difficult and uncomfortable to try to understand.

I’m happy when I feel that discomfort. It means I’m uncovering more of my own racism and the ways that privilege manifests in my life. It means I’m getting out of my comfort zone.

Be reflexive instead of reactive

The more you recognize your privilege and the more you listen and embrace the discomfort, the more you will acquire the capacity to be reflexive. Reflexivity means that you make it a habit to reflect on your own social location and the social location of the other person. You reflect about how social power relations shape your reality and the reality of the other person. And, together with the other person, you work to co-construct a new reality.

Do something to create change

Remember — it’s not about you. This process is not about making you a better person. If you stop at the previous point, then you know it’s only about you.

To create change, you have to decide what action you can take in order to be an ally to women of colour.

One of my actions this week is to write this post.

Maybe your action will be to confront a racist joke. Or to join women of colour in an event or protest (if it’s OK with them). Or to read and promot the blogs of women of colour. Maybe it’s to notice that the teachers in your school are all white but the kids are very diverse – and work to change that. Or to make sure women of colour have a voice in your organization and that their voice is truly respected.

I am not an expert in being an ally. I continue to find ugly roots of racism and privilege in myself. But I’m working to heal myself and my world in the best way I know how. I might write a quite different post on this topic next year. This is where I am right now.

I invite your comments and feedback. This post will not be complete without them.

© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2009

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4 thoughts on “Six ways to be an ally

  1. Some great points there. Particularly being reflexive, in my personal experience. I know there is a natural discomfort with privilege and trying to deny it or paper over it does an injustice to those who experience oppressive systems. I tend to think one of the most dangerous stages to be at is to think ‘I lack prejudice’ because in my view, we all have innate prejudices.
    Creating stereotypes (not necessarily negative stereotypes, by the way) is a part of our cultural programming – particularly in Anglo-centric societies. Our culture demands that everything from colours to animals to people.

    We can work against them but only by acknowledging their existence.

    I think the most dangerous route is one of complacency.

    And just by the way, have you come across a book callled ‘Being White in the Helping Professions’ by Judy Ryde. I can’t recommend it because I haven’t actually read it – I was sent a mailshot about it’s publication and was fairly interested though. At some point, I may potter down to a library to investigate further.

    Thanks for the post. Much food for thought.

  2. Pingback: Being Amber Rhea » Blog Archive » links for 2009-02-24

  3. Excellent post! Linked you on my blog. I, too, am a white woman who tries very hard to be aware of but not guilty about my own privilege. This seems like a great list; I always find it really helpful to hear from other privileged people who work against privilege. It’s a strange double-bind to be in, but such an important one to use for the greater good.

  4. As a queer woman, I sometimes get tired of always having to be the one to educate people. I’ve heard women of colour say the same thing: “It’s not my job to educate you.” I’m afraid that not enough of us white women are raising our voices as allies, so it’s good to hear from you.

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