“Hi Will, not sure you will remember me, but you were the first to teach me about white privilege in a way that made me understand it didn’t matter how disadvantaged my background, the color of my skin opened doors that were closed to BIPOC. I wanted to extend my gratitude for your gentle and thoughtful guidance. I hope you are doing well and staying safe during these unprecedented times.”
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer, I have been in countless conversations about racism in America. I received heartfelt notes, like the one above, from many of my white colleagues, expressing their concern for my well-being and acknowledging my value to their lives.
I was so moved by such an outpouring of support that I started to more deeply explore the notion of white allyship. This is personal, so I am not looking for simple “rules” or “hacks” that white people should follow to become an ally. Although well-intentioned, many of these tips are devoid of any substantive understanding of the process of self-discovery and evolution you have to go through before you can “show up” in a more authentic, intentional, empathic and meaningful way in the lives of your Black friends, family members, and colleagues.
So, I started on my journey, and I asked seven of my closest white friends and colleagues to talk with me about their journeys of self-discovery related to their racial identity and how that identity shows up in their interactions with their Black friends, colleagues, and their Black family members if they have them.
These interviews were highly informative and enlightening and became the basis for the podcast I host called Beyond Colorblind. We covered a wide range of topics including white privilege, history of racism, white guilt, and white allyship. These are a few excerpts from my interviews that illuminate critical moments during the journey for allyship.
Acknowledging white privilege
Before discussing what white privilege is, let’s first let’s discuss what white privilege is not. It is not a suggestion that white people have not struggled with the calamity that life brings. Not all white people enjoy the luxuries of wealth, affluence, and legacy capital. Being white does not mean that you do not have to work hard every day to live your best life. So, what then is white privilege?
I recently facilitated a brave virtual conversation related to racism in America with local business leaders in my city. The group was mainly white. I asked the question, “How has the racial unrest in America impact you personally?” Dave, one of the participants looked in his square Zoom box, and said, “Will, you know, honestly, I have experienced this whole thing from afar. I mean, I see the racism. I know it is there, but I have no comprehension of how it feels. I don’t have to think it about. If I discuss it, it is because I am being intentional not to ignore it.”
Baked within this Dave’s statement is the definition of white privilege. “I don’t have to think about it” is the essence of white privilege. The freedom of not having any comprehension of and not having to think about how race impacts one’s life.
Kate, a mid-30-something white woman, born in North Carolina, said, “Of course, we have white privilege. We should not be ashamed of that. I think we need to own that. I think a lot of people are uncomfortable with that thought. For me, whiteness allows for some safety and some security. I’ve never been taught if I get in the car, I need to have my driver’s license right next to me because if I get stopped [by the police] something could go awry for some reason. My parents never had that conversation with me. But I think, white people, we got to get really get comfortable with what that means. Because, if we don’t, we can’t identify when it is happening.”
Kate’s statement reminds me of James Baldwin’s words, “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Recognizing pivotal moments
There were pivotal moments in the lives of my seven colleagues that changed their outlook on race and race relations. For Jon, that pivotal moment was when he rode the bus in segregated Atlanta with his grandmother. He recounted this story:
“My grandmother was a person of grace, a person of love. She took me to downtown Atlanta, she worked downtown in a department store. I remember riding with her and the buses were segregated. All the whites were in the front of the bus and all the African Americans were in the back of the bus. And sitting in the back by herself was a young African American girl, about my age, which was about 11 years old. My grandmother took my hand and walked me past all of the white rows, which seemed odd at the time, I didn’t know what she was doing. And she sat down next to this African American girl, and she said, after some conversation that God loved her and that she could be what she wanted to be. Now whether or not she got that chance, I don’t know, I doubt it, but for that one moment, she expressed possibilities to that young woman. And then she reached in her purse, and she pulled out a book, written about George Washington Carver, the famous scientist, and she gave it to her, which says to me that she normally carried these books with her. And I will never forget, sitting in the back, looking at the whites sitting upfront and how that changed the way I saw the world.”
Paula’s pivotal moment was at the beginning of her freshman year of high school.
“My best friend in my neighborhood, Tonya, was fabulous—we spent all of the time together, playing hide-and-go-seek late at night. Having shared all of the first experiences that you have as you become an individual person in this world. As we got into high school, we began to fall into tracks. You were in the honor track or the college prep track. Or the not college-prep track. I was pushed, perhaps by my over-eagerness and family toward that honors track. And Tonya, a light-skinned African American girl, was solidly pushed into college prep. We didn’t have classes together anymore. Our schedules in high school didn’t align. And all of sudden, our worlds just started to go on different paths.
As I look back, she is an incredibly successful young woman today. But our friendship changed, because the system said, you go this direction white girl, and you [Black girl] go this other direction. And maybe I am making it out to be more than what it is, but it felt like, the world started to say, yeah, that was cute, while you were young, and you were color blind, but the world is looking this way now, so get on and do your thing.”
Earning the title
Although she can’t speak for every white person, Karen, a middle-aged white woman born in the South, shared this nugget about her view of white allyship.
“Know what I am trying to do? I am trying to allow my white privilege to do the work. My business partner said, ‘Karen, thank you for letting me ‘borrow’ your white privilege.’ To me being called an ally is like a promotion from the work I’ve done. Maybe the work I’ve been doing is allyship, I don’t know, but, it is not something I feel like I cannot claim for myself. I feel like it’s something you have to earn.”
For me, as a Black man who is an entrepreneur and academic, I started this journey because I wanted to look into the psyche, soul, and worldview of my white friends, in an effort to gain some understanding of how they use their white privilege to eliminate racism within their circle of influence. I have a deeper appreciation of how these white folks struggle with the impacts of racism in America.
I’ve learned that you don’t just wake up one day and BOOM, you’re an ally, no matter how many books you have read or how many conversations you’ve had with your Black friends. Becoming an ally is a process. Reading books, watching movies, and having conversations about racism are all a part of the process. But the process is much more nuanced and dynamic than these activities. Here are a few lessons I learned about the process of becoming an ally.
- Allyship is not claimed, it’s bestowed
- Self-awareness is the single most important component of becoming an ally
- One can have white privilege and not have economic privilege
But perhaps the biggest lesson that I have learned from these conversations is that racism, like a pandemic, impacts everybody, regardless of race.