The summer of 2020 was a chaotic period of stay-at-home orders and mass exposure to the reality of racism in America. Everyone witnessed the tragic murder of George Floyd by a police officer and the protests in response to this and countless other displays of police brutality. The protesters sought to address the institutional racism that permitted police to get away with harming Black people. Institutional racism is a subtle and pervasive form of racism consisting of misconceptions about race that have led to harmful practices in American culture, government, and politics for so long that they have been normalized, causing many people to support them without knowing that they are racist. One example of a potentially less obvious institutional racist belief is that white is the color of purity and goodness, and black is the color of darkness and evil. An example of an overt institutionally racist belief is that Black people are more athletic, while White people are more intelligent (Systemic Racism vs. Institutional Racism). Ideas like these are fueled by the belief that Black and White people are innately different. Specifically, the belief that Black people are naturally athletic while White people are inherently intelligent influences descriptions of White and Black athletes. An analysis of advertisements including both White and Black athletes found that fifty-seven percent of the Black athletes were depicted as successful because of their physical capabilities, while forty-seven percent of White athletes were represented by their intelligence, leadership, or work ethic (Dufur). Meanwhile, only twenty percent of Black athletes received this same representation (Dufur). In addition, during the 2003 Olympics, researchers discovered that sportscasters credited White athletes’ success to their commitment, while Black athletes were described as intrinsically athletic (Billings and Eastman). Furthermore, this belief also impacts Black models’ job opportunities. When Black people were represented in popular magazines, they were more often depicted as athletes in comparison to their White peers (Sharpe and Curry). As a result of many considering these merely harmless ideas, White people and even people of color are unintentionally preserving racist beliefs and, in turn, harming others.
While George Floyd’s murder brought the conversation to mainstream, White spaces, Black people had been calling attention to these issues for centuries. But an intrinsic quality of institutional racism is that it creates environments of casual and unchecked racism. Stokely Carmichael, a prevalent Civil Rights activist and former leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, described institutional racism by saying:
When in…Birmingham, Alabama, not five but five hundred Negro babies die each year because of a lack of proper food, shelter and medical facilities, and thousands more are destroyed and maimed physically, emotionally and intellectually because of conditions of poverty and deprivation in the ghetto, that is a function of institutionalized racism. (Carmichael)
White people created the monster that is institutional racism and then disregarded Black people when they asked for help fighting it. The events of the summer of 2020 gave White people the opportunity to finally assume the role of a White ally and take a stand to help Black people achieve true equality. Institutional racism is the background noise everyone must work to tune their ears to remedy it. It is never too late to listen to and amplify the voices of those who have been silenced for so long. White people must abandon their prejudices and be willing to learn about racism to be authentic and involved allies for Black people.
In today’s world, we are exposed to so many different viewpoints that it can be challenging to uncover the exact definition of White allyship. The most rudimentary definition of an ally is one who may not be a victim of oppression but actively chooses to help those targeted fight their oppressors (Kass). However, there is more depth to the role than that. LaTashia R. Reedus, a researcher of race and ethnicity, gender, and intersectionalities, states that allyship is characterized by taking a proactive and anti-racist approach to prevent White people from detaching themselves from the plights of Black people (Reedus). In the case of allyship, proactivity could involve participating in protests that call for social change, intervening when witnessing incidents of racism, or even calling on government officials to reform discriminatory institutions. Similarly, Leandra H. Hernández says that White allies must be “noisy and disruptive” and take advantage of their White privilege (Hernández). White privilege automatically places White people in positions of influence and power. That is why they are the key to making a difference in social justice movements. Hernández brings up an excellent point that by taking charge and using the privileges that come with being White, White allies can move ahead in these racist and broken establishments. Instead of continuing to harm, they can bring about reform and create more accepting and diverse environments. Since White people have a spotlight placed on them, they can use this attention to discuss issues Black people face.
Another author whose personal definition agrees with these two viewpoints is Carolyn M. Cross. She defines White allies as people who are not only not prejudiced but who also take the time to understand and take action against situations where there is racial inequality and discrimination (Cross). Action is imperative in adopting the “White ally” role because it can reform these ancient, racist systems and eliminate unchecked and casual racism from spaces. However, Cross’s views differ from Reedus’ views regarding the role that learning plays in becoming a White ally. Cross says that being an ally implies not only protesting but also learning to be more inclusive in the classroom and professional and personal areas (Cross). In comparison, Reedus explicitly calls for action to ensure White people are showing up and working for the benefit of Black people. For Cross, though, action is not enough, but education is what White people need to push their allyship to the next level. While there may not be a perfect definition of White allyship, the one thing that is for sure is that White people must make some effort. This effort can mean attending a Black Lives Matter protest or participating in workplace discussions on how to be more inclusive of Black coworkers. In the long run, what matters most is that Black people can count on White allies to at least help fight against institutional racism, something White people created.
Every human is different. This means that the question of what white allies need to do to support black people has many complex answers. So, while it may seem simple enough to give white people an exact outline of daily actions they can perform, this would not be sufficient to respond to Black people’s various needs. Some believe that White allies must act by forming personal relationships with Black people and addressing institutional racism (Selvanathan et al.). In doing these things, White people could become more active in protests and marches while creating a solid alliance between Black and White people. Others think that the best thing White allies could do is dedicate their lives to listening to Black people and learning about them and the issues they face (Selvanathan et al.). This way, White allies are aware of the more significant issues of race and discrimination in the world, and they do not let themselves neglect the importance of addressing them. However, as mentioned, there is no White ally cookie-cutter mold, and even if there were, that does not mean that each Black person would feel comfortable with actions that White allies perform. Some think that encouraging White allies only to be followers and learners allows them to fall into a loophole of passivity instead of changing racist power structures (Selvanathan et al.). Although there are many ways to be an ally, that does not mean that White people should not bother to make an effort out of apathy or choice overload.
When White people choose to be allies in any way, it has been shown to positively impact Black people’s confidence. Charles Chu and Leslie Ashburn-Nardo performed an experiment involving 477 Black Americans who engaged in a fictional workplace conversation where one White colleague made a racist comment. They were assigned three different outcomes: a different White colleague confronts the first over their statement, a Black colleague confronts the White colleague, or there is no confrontation (Chu and Ashburn-Nardo). When the White ally confronted the racist coworker, there was an increase in the self-esteem of Black people compared to when nobody confronted the aggressor (Chu and Ashburn-Nardo). This research goes to show that any action is better than inaction. For the sake of Black people’s mental health, White allies need to choose to speak up at all times, not just when it is convenient for them. If White people feel uncomfortable confronting racism, they need to imagine how Black people feel as the victims of racism and choose consistent allyship over complacency. At the same time, though, if White people are going to become involved in movements that support Black people, their motives must be genuine. In a second experiment that Chu and Ashburn-Nardo performed, they measured how suspicion of motives of White people’s confrontation impacted Black people’s self-esteem (Chu and Ashburn-Nardo). Black people want to know that the support they are receiving is unconditional and unselfish. When the White ally stated that their desire to be politically correct was their reason for confronting the racist coworker, Black people were more suspicious of the White ally, leading to lower self-esteem (Chu and Ashburn-Nardo). This suspicion is verified in another article that suggests different reasons allies from advantaged groups may support disadvantaged groups. The article states that some allies may only participate in movements to ease any guilt for being a part of the advantaged group or to make themselves look morally superior (Radke et al.). When White allies only defend Black people out of fear of appearing ignorant of today’s social climate, they fail to embrace the inherent humanistic qualities of allyship. They morph allyship into their defense mechanism rather than something meant to reinforce Black people’s dignity. When White allies make an earnest effort to be there for Black people at all times, not just when they are being discriminated against, there is an undeniably positive impact on Black people. Imagine how much more profound this impact could be if more White allies put the work in and showed up for Black people in more ways than one.
It may seem counterproductive to highlight the feelings of White allies in a conversation focused on directing attention to the needs of Black people. We do not want to focus so heavily on White people that we inadvertently muffle the already overlooked voices of Black people. However, when we take the time to consider the perspective of White allies, we can discover why they have chosen to be allies and how they are fulfilling that role each day. As previously mentioned, one way to define a White ally is a White person learning about issues of race and taking action to improve the lives of Black people by reforming racist institutions and ending discrimination. But, if we hear directly from White people as to how they classify an ally, then we can better understand the beliefs that their actions stem from. Following a White person on a journey to true allyship allows us to see how change can realistically be implemented to become a better ally. This is precisely what Leah Baker, a white woman living in Portland, the whitest major city in the country and the only U.S. state with historic Black exclusion laws, did in her article. According to Baker, an ally acknowledges and corrects their mistakes, takes a stand while stepping back to listen, and recognizes that this movement is not centered around White people (Baker). She mentions that being a helpful ally involves listening to multiple viewpoints on specific debated topics and understanding that her job in these cases is actively listening to Black leaders (Baker). One thing that Baker emphasizes is the importance of listening to Black people. Silencing Black voices is the exact opposite of what Baker is trying to do by telling her story of becoming a better ally. Baker states that her journey involved listening to Black people, following their lead without relying on them to give her answers, and doing the work herself by reading and participating in protests (Baker). So, while the worry that Black voices are still being silenced is valid, that is not what Baker is doing. She simply wants to show other White people how they, too, can improve as allies for Black people. Another thing that Baker stresses is that the current world has many issues that must be addressed, and we need to be committed to accepting this change instead of rejecting it (Baker). This call to action from Baker gives us a glimpse into her motivation for being an ally. What she wants is change. She wants to see the world improve. Her story shows how allyship can evolve into something more personal rather than mechanical when one puts effort into growing.
However, the concept of White allies is not new. So, while Leah Baker is an example of a contemporary White ally, White allies have been present for many years. Elijah Lovejoy, a Presbyterian preacher and newspaper editor, is one example of a White ally from the abolitionist movement. As the editor of a Presbyterian newspaper, the St. Louis Observer, Lovejoy wrote that slavery was a sin and called for enslaved Black people’s emancipation (Boyd). Also, he tried to form an antislavery group in Alton, Illinois, but this, combined with his writings in opposition to slavery, led to the formation of a mob that fought Lovejoy, and he was shot five times, cementing himself as a martyr for the abolitionist movement (Boyd). Lovejoy took his allyship to new heights by not backing down from his anti-slavery beliefs. For White allies today, Lovejoy can be an example of laying down one’s life to fight for Black people’s rights. Similarly, White allies were also crucial during the Civil Rights Movement. One example of a White ally from this period is Walter Reuther, the former president of the United Automobile Workers Union. He was very powerful, yet he still saw the necessity of joining Black people as they fought for equal treatment. As an activist and ally, Reuther gave many speeches supporting Black people. At the 1963 March on Washington, Reuther called on Congress to enact civil rights legislation (“Americans of All Colors”). Reuther perfectly illustrates why White people in positions of power are needed to help those with less influence make gains.
At the same time that White people like Leah Baker are trying to become better allies, many White people are also hesitant or reject this role entirely. Research shows that people think racism has decreased since the Civil Rights era. Because of this belief that racism no longer exists, people are less accepting of movements or political actions that seek to work toward racial equality and the end of discrimination (Miller et al.). Since these White people do not believe that there is an issue to be remedied, they think they have no reason to support any such movement. To them, the idea that there are people experiencing discrimination is unfathomable in today’s day and age. Also, nationally representative samples show that American White people believe racism is an individual problem caused by a few people with harmful beliefs, not a systemic issue (Miller et al.). This ignorance inhibits White people from assuming the role of an ally and prevents necessary change from happening to help Black people. However, plain ignorance is not the only factor that stops people from supporting social justice movements. Of course, racism still exists, which is a key factor in explaining why there seem to be so few White allies.
Following the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests, it became apparent that while some recognized the issue of discrimination in America, many opposed the protests and believed they were violent and extreme. So, three researchers conducted a study to examine how different beliefs on the existence of racism and white privilege, different definitions of racism, and worries about appearing racist impacted support for Black Lives Matter. In the study, higher levels of modern racism were associated with less support for Black Lives Matter, fewer beliefs that White and Black people need to address inequality, and less support for anyone protesting inequality peacefully or calling representatives (Miller et al.). Though the answer to where true White allies can be found may be complex, at the end of the day, plain, old racism will always be the first place to start. Racist beliefs allow White people to remain passive and maintain their status in the social hierarchy while Black people struggle under the oppression of this system. For this reason, education is critical in creating allies and teaching about the reality of racism. Carolyn M. Cross stresses this sentiment. She believes that using Intergroup Dialogue, or IGD, within her classroom allows her students to recognize better what daily encounters with racism look like and gives them some things to look out for so they might intervene (Cross). The teaching of race and initiation of conversations that seek to inform White people how to be better allies must start at a young age. This way, the possibility of adults unaware of racial issues and indifferent, or even against, working towards improving racial issues is reduced.
As previously stated, this cycle of ignorance can potentially be remedied by educating White people on the realities of racism during their formative years. White allies need to rewire their thinking patterns, which will feel uncomfortable but bring real change. However, White allies are not alone in this process because they can use many resources in their re-education. To learn more about how to proactively reshape the racist society they live in and how to challenge their racist beliefs, White people can read Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist. Also, Layla F Saad’s Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor can help White people better understand their privilege and how they and other White people can stop harming all minorities.
Attempting to define a White ally is not an easy task. While some describe allies as people who take action to right the wrongs that institutional racism has created, others see allies as those who need to step back and follow Black people’s guidance. Others believe that allies must dedicate their lives to learning about racial issues. Not only that, but the approaches that White allies can take are also a topic of debate. Some want to see White allies protesting at social justice marches. Others would prefer that White people form bonds with Black people. While the definition and practices may be debated, they have one thing in common: the reality that all allies work for. The larger purpose of White allies is to bring positive change to the world. This may seem impossible in a world where some think that racism is a thing of the past that a few people perpetuate rather than being rooted in well-established institutions and thought processes. However, White people must recognize that allying with Black people will bring about more peace and less division between people of all races. Considering that White people are the ones who created these structures that discriminate so heavily against Black people, it is only fair that White people help destroy them, as well.
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About the Author
Miranda Babiuk Martinez is a freshman at Fordham University’s Rose Hill campus. She is on the pre-law track with an undeclared major. However, she hopes to major in English and eventually go to law school to study medical law. She loves spending time with her friends and family, running, and reading in her free time. Some of her favorite books are The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, andThe Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.