On white allies

1 Oct

[The following query is from an e-mail I received]

Dear Miss “Diversity”,

How do you feel about the term “white ally”?  


Dear Colleague,

Thanks for reading my post on “diversity” 🙂

Let me preface my response to your question by saying that diversity work in the US has been characterized by a “break it and find a new toy” approach to language. We named the work “diversity”… and then seemed to find it too divisive, so we moved on to “multiculturalism”… and then decided it was too oovy-groovy (and still smelled like separatism), so we traded that in for inclusion, equity, social justice… the trajectory suggests that we will completely disembody the work at some point and strive only to speak of it through the most abstract of nouns.

No, we are not kind to language in this movement.

And it really doesn’t serve us to “use it and lose it.” In fact, “diversity” refers to something very different than “multiculturalism” or “equity” (check out http://www.rethinkingdiversity.com/critically-rethinking-lang.html for Blink’s current working definitions). We still need to talk about diversity, and even more specifically than that, we need to talk about race and class and gender and learning styles–not just generic “diversity”–because the experiences, biases, issues, politics and persisting inequities are not the same for all identities. Meanwhile, “multiculturalism” helps us to acknowledge the realities and processes of a diverse community, and “equity” helps us to remember why we’re having this conversation about diversity in the first place.

To your question: “white ally” is one of those terms that came into vogue, was feted as The Answer to Injustice… then was critiqued and now finds itself ushered out the back door with a pocket full of hush money.

I think the term is inherently neither good nor bad. As with all other language, it’s a question of intention and context. I would ask:

When you hear people talk about white allies in your community, does it sound like they have an understanding of just “white”? Too often, we only talk about whiteness in relation to racism. Thus, we talk about white power, white privilege and white allies–but not whiteness as a whole identity and distinct culture of its own. And this seems to be part of what makes “white allies” a tough term for some. When whiteness is always defined in terms of its power to oppress or to save, it actually reinforces the belief that white people are, in fact, superior. Because it’s still about power.

And that’s what makes the idea of a white “ally” suspect. If we’re not really equal, then how can we be allies? Is this alliance really about a white agenda for social justice, wherein outright racism is clearly bad, but well-intentioned whiteness still gets to call the shots?

All this opens up the question of what role someone who doesn’t identify with a group can play in that group’s business. This is the sometimes acknowledged, sometimes danced-around elephant in the room of racial justice movements. And what I say to that is: justice is everybody’s business. Racism may not target white people, but while it affords them very concrete and critical advantages, it also costs them, socially, emotionally, cognitively and practically (see previous posts on diversity enriching group thinking and outcomes).

Perhaps the unease with the term “white allies” has to do with the  emphasis on white. (Let’s face it, allying with white people has a tricky history with some serious consequences for people of color in the US.) I wonder if the term we’re searching for (here I go, moving along to the next toy) is “racial justice ally”?

But whether or not we choose a new term, I think the value is in exploring the struggle over the phrase “white allies” and acknowledging the intentions, connotations and experience of these two words. Then we can choose language that does work for our communities. This is the opportunity to shift from the default meanings that we inherit to intentional meanings that have the potential to transform understanding and action. And always, we need to educate for shared understanding. Otherwise, we’ll just keep breaking and moving on…

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