The writer is a reader in equity and education at Goldsmiths College, University of London
A very privileged white man recently told me with an indulgent chuckle how much he enjoyed his privilege. I was not amused. For people of colour, white privilege and power shape our lives, restrict our success and, as we were starkly reminded in recent weeks, can even kill. No matter how well-crafted an organisation’s equality and diversity policy, the claims of “tolerance” or the apparent commitment to “embracing diversity”, whiteness can crush them all — and often does.
People of colour know this. We do not need the empirical evidence to tell us that black women are more likely to die in childbirth or that black boys are more likely to be excluded from school even when engaging in the same disruptive behaviour as their white counterparts. We did not need to wait for a study to tell us that people with “foreign sounding names” have to send 74 per cent more applications than their white counterparts before being called for an interview — even when the qualifications and experience are the same.
Or that young people of colour, in the UK, are more likely to be sentenced to custody than their white peers. We do not need more reviews to tell us we are not progressing in workplaces at the same rate as our white colleagues. We already know. Many of us spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to work out how to survive the rules that white people make and benefit from.
While many white people seem to have discovered the horrors of racism as a result of George Floyd’s murder, it would be a mistake to overlook the pervasive racism happening around us every day. For the truth is Floyd’s murder sits at the chilling end of a continuum of racism that many of us have been talking about, shouting and protesting about for decades.
Whiteness — specifically white power — sits at the heart of racism. This is why white people are described as privileged. Privilege does not simply refer to financial or socio-economic status. It means living without the consequences of racism. Stating this is to risk the ire of most white people. They tend to become defensive, angry or deny that racism is a problem, despite the fact they have not experienced an entire life subjected to it.
Then there are the liberal intellectuals who believe they have demonstrated sufficient markers of their anti-racist credentials because they have read a bit of Kimberlé Crenshaw — the academic who coined the term “intersectionality” to describe how different forms of oppression intersect. Or, as we have seen on Twitter, there are those who quote a few lines from Martin Luther King.
Liberal intellectuals will happily make decisions about race in the workplace, argue with people of colour about race, sit on boards or committees or even become race sponsors without doing any work to understand their whiteness and how it has an impact on their assumptions and treatment of racially minoritised groups.
There are, of course, white people who imagine themselves anti-racist while doing little if anything to impact positively on the experiences of people of colour. As the author Marlon James and others have stated, being anti-racist requires action: it is not a passive state of existence.
Becoming aware of whiteness and challenging passivity or denial is an essential component of becoming a white ally. Being an ally means being willing to become the antithesis of everything white people have learnt about being white. Being humble and learning to listen actively are crucial, as a useful short video from the National Union of Students points out. This, and other videos, are easily found on YouTube and are a very accessible way for individuals and teams to go about educating themselves about allyship.
White allies do not pretend the world is living in perfect harmony, nor do they ignore or trivialise race. If the only senior Asian woman is about to leave an organisation where Asian women are under-represented and she is good at her job, white allies will flag these points to senior management and be keen to check whether there is anything that can be done to keep her. White allies are not quiet bystanders to potential or actual racial injustice.
Allyship also means letting go of the assumption that white people get to determine what constitutes racism. This is highlighted by the black lesbian feminist writer and journalist Kesiena Boom, who has written a 100-point guide to how white people can make life less frustrating for people of colour. (Sample point: “Avoid phrases like “But I have a Black friend! I can’t be racist!” You know that’s BS, as well as we do.”)
Active allyship takes effort
Being an ally means seeing race and acknowledging that white people have a racial identity. In practical terms, it means when we talk about gender, acknowledging that white women’s experiences overlap with but are different to those of women of colour. White women may be disadvantaged because of their gender, but they are privileged because of their racial identity. When we talk about social mobility, employment, education, health, policing and even which news is reported and how, race plays a role. Usually it is white people who are shaping the discourse and white people who are making the decisions.
This is evident even when white people promise commitment to racial justice in the workplace. It is usually white people who make the decision about who to appoint, the resources they will be given, what they can say and do. In their book Acting white? Rethinking race in post-racial America, US scholars Devon W Carbado and Mitu Gulati argue that white institutions tend to favour and progress people of colour who are “racially palatable” and who will do little to disrupt organisational norms. Those who are more closely aligned to their racial identity are unlikely to be seen as a fit and are, consequently, less likely to succeed.
Being a white ally takes work. It is a constant process, not a static point one arrives at and can say the job is complete. It is why despite equalities legislation, there remains a need for organisations — many of them small charities operating on tight budgets — such as the Runnymede Trust, StopWatch, InQuest, Race on the Agenda, brap and Equally Ours. Their publications offer useful resources and information about racial justice in the workplace as well as in other sectors.
There is, of course, a dark perversity to white allyship that is not often mentioned in most debates about racial justice. White allyship means divesting from the very histories, structures, systems, assumptions and behaviours that keep white people in positions of power. And, generally, power is to be maintained, not relinquished.