The Problem With White Allies And Anti-Racist Education

I have worked in the field of cultural competency, diversity education, and teaching black & brown boys for decades. Every seven years or so, there is new terminology that develops that seeks to better encapsulate the work that so many of us are passionately engaged in on a daily basis. From cultural competency and culturally relevant education to inclusive curriculum and implicit bias, we find ourselves regularly creating new terms that best represent what we do. This is also the case in other spaces such as the corporate, government, and entertainment worlds. Two terms that have gained steam in recent years are “white allies” and “anti-racist education.” While I have used the term “anti-racist” education as recently as this year, I have never felt comfortable with the term and something never rubbed me the right way about the term “white allies” so I will start there.

The term “white allies” has come to define the need for white people to speak up more and directly challenge the racism that exists in America that is specifically expressed by other white people. There is this philosophy that some white people only will receive words that can change their racist views from other white people. I have never believed that but the bigger issue is that the way we insist on the need for “White allies” comes off as if we’re begging for a savior and this is problematic for several reasons, which can indirectly reinforce notions of white supremacy. As Derrick Bell said: “Our actions are not likely to lead to transcendent change and may indeed, despite our best efforts, be of more help to the system we despise than to the victims of that system whom we are trying to help.” To counter this, we should heed the words of Dr. Maya Angelou.

Dr. Angelou is quoted as saying “I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me.” To me, this quotation means that the mentalities of the “ally” creates a belief that white people are somehow above black people and need to descend down from some perch to help us. White people should be actively engaged in finding an end to racism and white supremacy because their fellow human beings are suffering. An “ally” is almost like a sports fan. An ally can come to the “game” so to speak, cheer on the people on the court (black & brown folks) and then go home until they’re called on again. I know this is an over simplification but the main point is that I am seeing a certain level of arrogance developing in the “white ally” movement that is frustrating. I, for example, am not gay but I am not going to call myself an ally to the LGBTQIA community because people in the LGBTQIA are my human brothers and sisters. I’m not going to go somewhere, challenge some people, and then go home to watch my favorite tv show (with possible anti-gay themes but that’s a story for another day). I am actively engaged in the struggle for LGBTQIA rights because it’s the human thing to do, not because “they” need me. The terminology must change, which leads me to anti-racism.

The University of Calgary defines anti-racism as “the active process of identifying and eliminating racism by changing systems, organizational structures, policies and practices and attitudes, so that power is redistributed and shared equitably.” There are other working definitions but I will use for now. I am committed to doing this and that will never change. The words of Mother Theresa, however, ring in my head whenever I hear this terms. Mother Theresa said she would never attend an anti-war rally, only a pro-peace rally. This is extremely important in the era of President Donald Trump. Everyone is caught up in what they are against that we often forget what we are fighting for. Language matters. I now believe in using terms such as “pro-equity” or “pro-equality” education. Again, this may seem like semantics to some but there is serious energy in the language we use and the intentionality of our work.

Several of my colleagues find themselves getting fatigued and frustrated in our line of work. I include myself on that list. Sometimes we are so caught up in the negative that our work risks getting compromised. In order to keep ourselves motivated and focused we need to change our language. We need to refocus our efforts and our energy because there is only going to be more work to do. Human beings working for equity and equality for all is much more powerful than the need for white allies to help with anti-racist education. We need all hands on deck in this movement but we need all hands in, not handouts.


Elevating the Black Male: Strategies to become a more culturally competent teacher

As I look back at my days as a Boston Public Schools student, and as I look at the multitudes of black male students still being excluded from the educational process today, I’m left to believe that we are dealing with nothing short of a tragic epidemic. As a seventh grader in the early 1990s, I remember a white male teacher dragging me to the office telling me: “Do you think I’m gonna put up with your s_ _ _ all year you f_ _ _ _ _’ punk?” Fast forward to 2009 and I’m speaking to a black female principal in DC. She sees one of her students from a distance and says: “He’s really gonna make a great prisoner one day.” Here we have 2 different cities, over 20 years apart, 2 different races, and 2 different genders, but one overwhelming similarity—low expectations towards black male students.

My belief is that if you develop strategies to reach your black males, you learn techniques to reach all of your students. Below are some strategies that will assist you in improving not only the participation of your black males who may be struggling, but ultimately give you a diverse range of tools to pull from in order to make for a dynamic teaching experience for all of your students!

Have high expectations for all of your students and communicate them. Many teachers fail to communicate that they expect all students to succeed in class. By default, there are students who are going to feel as if they cannot succeed. Whether it’s by their placement in the back of the class, their watching the same students get chosen to speak, or even the different levels of discipline for different students, your message will be communicated one way or the other. If you truly believe everyone can succeed, show them!

Increase your knowledge about their history. One game I play when I conduct my trainings is asking teachers to name 10 black male famous athletes, actors, and musicians. In less than 30 seconds, we have the answers. However, when asked to name 10 famous black male (living) doctors, scientists, or authors, the list often is never completed. If you widen your knowledge of black male success, you will not only develop a better picture of what is possible for your students, but you will also help them craft an image of themselves that is greater than what society tells them they can be. What you know is what you’ll show!

Utilize a wide range of equitable practices in order to involve all students. Rather than calling on the same students, utilize random calling popsicle sticks drawn from a cup so every student knows they could be called upon at any time. Students are more likely to be prepared if they believe they’ll actually be asked to participate. You can also have random grouping so students do not get comfortable with the same students. Lastly, remember that every student does not always learn solely by written exams. Develop additional ways that students can present their knowledge be it through oral presentations, musical interpretations, or group projects. Much of these practices can be found in books like The Skillful Teacher by Saphier, et al.

If you make a dedicated effort to utilize the steps above and just have a mindset that, as Donna Graves states, there’s not an achievement gap but a teaching gap, you will turn yourself into a teacher with the ability to incorporate not only your black male students, but all students irrespective of race, creed, color, gender, or religion! Teach on!

I acknowledge my privilege. Why can’t white people?

I recently read an article about a “white privilege” essay contest that caused a bit of controversy in Westport, Connecticut. According to The New York Times, this wealthy coastal town is over 90% white and has an average salary of $150,000. While most of the students did not have a problem with the question, many parents were outraged. The question asked: “In 1,000 words or less, describe how you understand the term ‘white privilege’. To what extent do you think this privilege exists? What impact do you think it has had in your life—whatever your racial or ethnic identity—and in our society more broadly?”

The question sparked outrage by some parents who called it “race baiting,” “offensive,” and “divisive.” As a diversity & leadership educator, as well as an upstander, I encounter comments like this across the country as well as internationally when the topic of white privilege is raised. The idea for some white people that their incredible success could not be derived from anything other than their Protestant Work Ethic mentality that says essentially that “I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps” and nothing else is impossible to conceive. Rather than become offended, I think it is important to acknowledge that most of us have some form of privilege and part of the path to making our privilege irrelevant is to acknowledge it.

I am a black man living in inner city America, I am not wealthy, and I don’t have a “common sounding” name that allows me to easily blend in. I have experienced my fair share of racism, stereotyping, profiling, you name it. Despite this, I have to realize that I also have my own bit of privilege. I am a man living in a male dominated society. My gender provides me with the privilege of not needing to be engaged in certain conversations that disproportionately affect women. For example, I can, if I choose, completely ignore conversations relating to sexual harassment and assault, because this issue generally affects women more than man. If I indeed fall victim to a sexual assault, no one will blame the clothes I was wearing that day or accuse me of seducing my attacker or look at my body development and say “well what did he expect to happen?” That’s privilege.

Being a man also allows me to generally choose any career that I want and not have to worry about passing “my time” to advance my career to the fullest. For example, I have female friends who work for the State Department and the Foreign Service in general. One friend told me that she and her female friends have to decide if they are going to start a family young and risk not receiving certain promotions because of maternity leave for example, or forgo starting a family in order to rise through the ranks faster. I have yet to speak to a single man in the foreign service who has had that problem. It’s still a problem for younger generations too evidenced by a survey I took of my American University students. I asked them how many feel as if they have had to plan out the stages of their lives since the age of 10 with set deadlines based on their age. Only the females raised their hand. One male student was shocked because, as he said, “I never had to think about” an age limitation. That’s privilege.

I also happen to be an American passport holding citizen. In most places around the world, simply showing this passport affords me a certain level of privilege than someone from my parents’ home country of the Congo. This has become even more evident in a Trump administration where even green card holders are no longer guaranteed entry into the United States. As stated previously, I face many forms of stereotyping, racism, and profiling, but generally speaking, my nationality has served as a net plus in the more than 20 countries I have visited to date. That’s privilege.

At the end of the day, if we think hard enough, we can all realize that there are some privileges we do enjoy over others because of our education, race, gender, zip code, nationality, etc. For the people of Westport or other well-to-do white neighborhoods, no one denies that you have worked hard for what you have. But it is also important to know, as professor Tim Wise points out in his film and book “White Like Me” that this government has been set up over a period of centuries for the advancement of white people. We can go back as far back as Slavery to programs of the last century such as the post-World War II GI Bill that provided white military veterans with more opportunities for education and homeownership over black soldiers. Opportunities such as these gave many white families a head start on opportunities to build wealth. There is a racial history of privilege in the very zip codes that most of us reside in and the schools our children attend. To ignore this basic fact is to simply ignore reality.

As Georgetown University professor Dr. Michael Eric Dyson stated, the concept of white privilege is at the heart of many of the challenges we face in America today. White privilege keeps white people who are not part of the upper echelon arguing against their own interests and failing to realize they have more in common with marginalized communities of color. Denial of white privilege allows for those white people who make up the majority of upper class America to deny that they or their forefathers may have had access to opportunities that were often (legally) denied to other communities, thus limiting their pool of competition. I recently came across a picture that shows the difference between equality and equity which is shared below:

The picture says it all. This is a country who, for almost 400 years has never fully approached equality and therefore not even come close to equity. Taking the bold step to acknowledge our privilege will get us closer to equity, if we would only be honest with ourselves, equally.