Calling All White People: Are You a Racial Justice Ally?

Being an ally means stepping out and stepping up.

Posted Feb 28, 2021 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

Racial Justice Ally or Just a Bystander?

John, a White person, is sitting in a meeting with colleagues who are also all White, except for Michael, a Black person, who has been with the company for a few years. Bob, a manager, makes a racist joke. A few people laugh uncomfortably. 

Michael says, “You know, Bob, that’s not funny.” The room goes silent as everyone looks down. After the meeting, John approaches Michael and says, “I’m really sorry about Bob’s joke. I thought it was wrong.” Is John being an ally?

Michael has been in similar situations before when colleagues think it is supportive to approach him individually to apologize for racism but don't speak out in the moment.

Michael says, “Thank you, John, but next time you see a colleague being racist, I need you to stand up, support me, and say that’s wrong.” John was not being an ally but rather just a sympathetic bystander.

Allyship Rolls Back Oppression  

Given the vast social inequities between ethnic and racial groups, it is hard to deny that our society is plagued with racism at every level. These issues represent a combination of problematic social structures (including our cherished public institutions) and individual behaviors. Racialized groups often do not have the power of numbers to force change. As our society looks for ways to dismantle problems like racism, the value of racial justice allies becomes increasingly clear.

Johnny Silvercloud/Shutterstock
Source: Johnny Silvercloud/Shutterstock

What Is an Ally?

An ally is an individual from a privileged group that actively makes room for people from marginalized groups and challenges the status quo. There are many ways to be an ally, but in most cases, being an ally is really hard. Meaningful allyship is active involvement and participation in combating systemic oppression. These are deeply entrenched problems, so they don’t change easily.

Although many may consider themselves allies, true allies are a few and far between. Smith, Puckett, and Simon (2016) outline three key elements of allyship: 

  1. Allyship is an act of support and not leadership.
  2. Allyship is a continuous behavior, not isolated acts. 
  3. One’s allyship status is recognized by marginalized group members.  

When someone is truly an ally, this reflects how they see and think about themselves, and it also influences how others see them and what they expect of them. An ally is not merely an intention or a self-defined label. For those from privileged groups, being an ally is a label worn with pride because it was hard-earned and required using their in-group status to benefit others, which is a virtuous act.

What Is White Allyship?

White people who use their status and racial privilege to combat racism would be called White allies. In terms of combating racism, White allyship can be quite impactful in reducing individual or systemic racism against people of color.

Spanierman and Smith (2017) point to both the individual and collective elements of White allyship. As individuals, White allies need to develop an informed understanding of systemic racism, engage in continuous self-reflection, and actively commit to using their Whiteness to promote equity. Collaboratively, allies take action to disrupt the status quo, act in solidarity with people of color, and confront resistance from other White people at multiple levels of society. 

We know that systemic oppression strips individuals and communities of their power, voice, and space. As a journey, being a racial justice ally means giving up power, being vulnerable, sitting with uncomfortable feelings, such as shame, and managing interpersonal conflict when confronting racist individuals and situations (Printz Pereira & George, 2020).   

Being a White ally can create change, but for many, “White ally” is just a feel-good label. At our research lab, we were curious if self-identified White allies would endorse ideas that reflected true allyship and if, given the opportunity, their convictions would translate to allied behaviors. What we found was truly a surprise.

Goodwill Toward People of Color Is Not Allyship 

Although allyship involves active effort, in our research, we found complacency, where individuals thought about engaging in allied behavior, but in real-life did not disrupt the status-quo in an attempt to bring about change. For example, when in a social situation and confronted with racist statements, many White people admitted they would stay silent or even leave the situation. When we looked at the different kinds of allied behaviors White participants tended to endorse, they were more willing to say or do things that did not require much interpersonal risk to address racism. Situations that required allies to openly stand up for people of color were least likely to be endorsed. 

The Illusion of Self-Reported Allyship

We were also interested in the consistency between the allied statements participants did endorse and their behavior when given a real-life opportunity to demonstrate allyship. We found the majority of those who said they would confront racism did not behave in an allied way when the opportunity arose in a laboratory task.

Thirty-one White students were given three opportunities to make allied comments in a one-on-one discussion about racist current events. Each student was paired with a White neutral conversational partner, while a Black observer was nearby. Only one White participant said something racially supportive all three times.

Given the discrepancy between participant thoughts and actual behaviors, it appears participants were more likely to think they would do or say something supportive rather than actually seeing it through. Overall, intentions were present, but meaningful and consistent racial justice allyship was, in fact, quite low.

Five Practical Steps Toward Allyship

Now that we know White allyship is scarce, even among those who think they are allies, what are some ways we can support people in aligning their allied intentions with their behaviors? Although diversity training can improve one’s understanding of systemic racism, education alone is usually not enough to increase allyship behavior. Becoming an ally requires stepping out of one’s comfort zone. There are no private allies.

  1. Self-reflection: White people who want to be allies need to reflect on what that means and if they are willing to actively confront systemic racism in solidarity with Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC). This means questioning what you say and do and the role you play in maintaining racism. 
  2. Having tough conversations and speaking out: To be an ally, White people need to have conversations about racism with other White people, including their family, friends, and colleagues. This also means speaking out against racial microaggressions in all our public spaces, such as classrooms, workplaces, and online. 
  3. Actively supporting BIPOC efforts: Becoming an ally necessitates White people showing up and supporting BIPOC efforts; this includes donating to BIPOC organizations, participating in movements to combat racism, and patronizing BIPOC-owned businesses. 
  4. Amplifying BIPOC stories and voices: Being an ally requires White people to center BIPOC voices. This could mean advocating to decision-makers through writing letters about issues facing BIPOC people, repeating BIPOC voices for greater effect, and endorsing BIPOC participation in decision-making in our public institutions. 
  5. Connection and vulnerability: Allies actually like the people they are aligned with, meaning that they have close BIPOC friends. They also make themselves accountable to other BIPOC and solicit feedback on their efforts.

White allyship is not easy, but White allies are essential in our shared goal of an equal and just society.

Contributors: Muna Osman, Noor Sharif, and Monnica Williams

References

Williams, M. T. & Sharif, N. (in press). Measuring allyship: A novel technique and new insights. New Ideas in Psychology.

McKinnon, R. (2017). Allies Behaving Badly: Gaslighting as Epistemic Injustice. In I. J. Kidd, J. Medina, & G. Pohlhaus (Eds.) The Routledge Handbook on Epistemic Injustice. (pp. 167-174). New York: Routledge.  ISBN-13: 978-1138828254

Printz Pereira, D. M. B., & George, J. R. (2020, September). The ethical obligation of allyship: Why and how White behavioral and cognitive therapy professionals need to foster Black equity. The Behavior Therapist, 43(6), 194.

Spanierman, L. B., & Smith, L. (2017). Roles and responsibilities of White allies: Implications for research, teaching, and practice. The Counseling Psychologist, 45(5), 606–617. https://doi.org/10.1177/0011000017717712

Smith, J., Puckett, C., & Simon W. (2015). Indigenous Allyship: An Overview. Office of Aboriginal Initiatives, Wilfrid Laurier University.