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HOW TO How to Think About, Talk About, and Be About Allyship

by Lecia Michelle, Business Librarian at Washington University in St. Louis. Lecia is a long-time librarian, activist, and the author of the forthcoming THE WHITE ALLIES HANDBOOK: 4 Weeks to Join the Racial Justice Fight for Black Women (on sale July 26, 2022 / Hardcover / 9781496738370). This book is a practical, actionable, explicit guide for people looking to not just "start a conversation" but take concrete steps toward equality. on April 11, 2022

Originally presented at the How-To Stage during PLA 2022. See the slide deck from this presentation here.

What does allyship mean to you? It’s a simple enough question, but often, aspiring white allies get the answer wrong. Allyship isn’t about whether you’re a good person. You can be a “nice” person and be a racist. Allyship requires that white people take a personal inventory of their own racism and regularly rebel against a system that prioritizes their own comfort to the detriment of the rest of us.

Should you continuously educate yourself about racism? Of course. But if you’re not looking inward to understand how you contribute to my oppression, you will fail at doing the necessary work of sharing your experiences and knowledge with others to help dismantle a racist, oppressive system. You must fully admit your part in systemic racism to gain the tools to effectively join the fight against it.

Every white person benefits from racism and white supremacy. Every white person benefits from white privilege. Any person who does have some kind of privilege, has a duty to prevent injustices happening to those without it.

That’s why I need white people to understand the part they play in the oppression of Black women. Regardless of the marginalized community you want to support, the ways in which you show up for them have several commonalities. Think about the people you want to help. Consider which characteristics of allyship you must take on to fight for them.

If you want to support Black women, join a racial justice group led by one of us. It’s the best way for you to listen to our experiences while also meeting other aspiring allies who can support your journey. In 2016, I created a Facebook group called “Real Talk: WOC & Allies for Racial Justice and Anti-Oppression.” It’s a place for women of color to talk amongst themselves about issues important to us. “Real Talk” also provides a space where white women can learn how to be allies.

If you want to understand what Black women need from you, you must learn directly from us. That means becoming an active member in racial justice groups that are run by us — or at least advised by us. This can be confusing since we tell allies not to expect a free education. However, there is a difference between seeking out spaces where Black women are speaking their truth and demanding that we teach you. Many Black women, myself included, regularly speak and write about racism. We’re brutally honest about our own experiences. These spaces are a free education, but this is knowledge we’re voluntarily giving you. Take advantage of that instead of demanding we teach you to do better when you harm us. Take it upon yourself to seek out the information you need to be a better person and an ally.

Racial justice groups are the perfect place to meet like-minded white people working toward becoming allies. This work can’t be done alone or in a bubble. You need an accountability partner or group of fellow white people with which you can work through challenges. I’m not going to sugarcoat how difficult this work will be for you. Taking a deep dive into your own racism will make you defensive and angry. Time after time, you will encounter white people who reject the knowledge you’re trying to impart, and it will infuriate you. But that’s the work. You must constantly check in with yourself to gauge your own racist tendencies while also educating other white people. Yes, it should be happening at the same time. You’ve walked through a world of white privilege your entire life. So, it’s easy for you to fall back into the comfort of obliviously navigating a society that caters to you. Fight against it. Instead, I challenge you to find ways to use your white privilege to fight for me and other Black women.

Even seasoned allies will tell you that they still regularly work through feelings of anger and defensiveness. If you’re new to allyship, you’ve already discovered that you easily become uncomfortable and defensive when you’re called out. Instead of defending yourself, sit and listen to these criticisms. If another white person is educating you, don’t discount their words. Take the lesson as a chance to grow as an ally and handle the situation better the next time. Don’t explain your intentions. They’re never more important than the impact of your words or actions. Just sit with the lesson of that interaction and internalize it. You should feel uncomfortable doing ally work. It simply means you’re growing in ways that will help you more effectively educate other white people. If a Black woman is calling you out, never tone police our words. Racism is ugly and violent. We have every right to respond with anger. Again, your job is to listen. We’re the experts on what is and isn’t racist, not you.

Every lesson you learn prepares you to educate other white people. This is the part that intimidates many potential allies. If you’re only taking in information, you’re merely a collector of that information. Allies must use their knowledge to educate others. That is the real work. It’s how we make real change. These conversations aren’t easy, but they’re necessary to the work. Your job is to educate the people around you. Sometimes that means confronting them to stop the violence of their words or actions. Other times, it means engaging them in numerous conversations and bringing resources to help them learn about racism in the same way you have. It means countering all their defenses with questions that might make them think differently about their beliefs, or at the very least pause before spewing their racism in your presence. It’s laborious, and these conversations will exhaust you. Keep going. Black women have been fighting for generations. We’re beyond exhausted at this point. But we can’t give up and neither should you. Change won’t happen overnight. This country was founded on racism and white supremacy, and it will take a long time for true equality for Black women to reign. The work must continue until it does. We must pass the mantle of antiracism and allyship to future generations.

We can’t get lax because Judge Ketanji Jackson Brown Black has been confirmed to the Supreme Court. Don’t get me wrong. Her confirmation is an historic event, and I’m honored to have witnessed her seated on our highest court. That doesn’t mean the fight is over. Black women will be just as marginalized after Judge Jackson Brown’s victory as we were before her historic rise. That’s why racism is most effectively fought at the grassroots level. That means you must educate — and, when necessary, confront — your friends, families, and neighbors. But most importantly, you must always work on yourself and your own racism. That’s how we win this fight.

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