In the past week, my school has been rocked by racist comments that were circulated on an anonymous social media site. Amidst a student-led protest and demands for curriculum changes and social revisions, a lot of questions were raised about the kind of environment a mostly white liberal arts college creates for students of color, and how it's possible to make those students safer and that community more inclusive. One of the main ways that this is being explored on our campus is in terms of how we as students can hold ourselves accountable for our actions.
Here is a collection of some of the ways that have been explored, in the discussions that have been taking place, that white allies can better support their peers of color, and help everyone feel safe and productive in their place of education.
Please note, before reading further, that this article is a product of personal research I (as a white student) have been doing to explore how I can be a better ally to those around me. I am completely open to constructive criticism, correction, and suggestions as to places and ideas I should explore next.
Becoming accountable starts with a question: what is accountability?
Accountability is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "the state of being accountable, responsible". When we talk about accountability, in this case, it means holding yourself responsible for the privilege you possess as a white person. Do you tend to talk over your friends of color when you're having a conversation? Do you make generalized comments about a certain race? Do you stop to consider, for example, that when you go to buy band-aids, you can almost always be sure that they will match your skin color?
It also means intersectionality: if you call yourself a feminist, your feminism should encompass the struggles of women of color, and should not just be "white feminism". If you're talking about LGBTQ* rights, you should be talking about the rights of black genderqueer women and Asian trans men, and not be using whiteness as a normalized baseline.
Solidarity, Not "Ally Theater"
The term "ally theater" comes from Black writer Mia Mckenzie, who states that " 'allyship' has become more pointless performance than anything actually useful to marginalized people". Being an ally, she argues, shouldn't mean feeling compelled to take up space or to alert people of color that you're trying really, really hard to "help" them. (In fact, I can recognize the truth in her comments in the very fact that I, a white female, am writing this article and sharing it for others to see.) If you need to be recognized for being an ally, she reiterates, you may want to reconsider why you're doing it in the first place.
This is a pretty good strategy for any situation, really. You will not always be the expert in everything. If there is someone who knows more about a particular topic or experience than you, you should be listening to them, not the other way around. If a professor of medieval history was telling you about Anglo-Saxon modes of culture, and your only connection with the period is having read Beowulf in sixth grade, you wouldn't think you were qualified to talk over them, would you? The same holds true for social situations, albeit in a much more serious way: you shouldn't be talking over those with experiences of racism and racial violence that you don't have. Value other people's thoughts, and contribute your own in a way that is additive to other's experiences, not reductive of them.
As with everything in college, holding yourself accountable starts with doing a little research. This means not only learning about Black history but about the history (and continuation) of oppression that you are a part of. It means educating yourself on microaggressions, questioning the canon and the standard narratives you learned in class and making an effort to read Black poets and writers (like Imani Cezanne, who spoke at our school last month). It means if you happen to be in college, demanding a more diverse curriculum, and a more diversified teaching of that curriculum. And, most of all, it means being receptive to ideas you haven't considered, opening your mind to new points of view, and always trying to see things from the perspective of others.