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.