I don’t need a white savior. I need a white ally.
As a person of color working in a predominately white city, state, and region, I’m often asked by my white colleagues “How can I be a stronger ally?” In any given year, those 7 little words would simply bring a smile to my face, but in a year filled with “Permit Patty” and “BBQ Becky,” those words make my soul leap for joy.
Now, I’m fortunate to say that for the dozen or so times that I’ve been asked that question, majority of those interactions have resulted in some of the most engaging and most meaningful conversations I’ve had in my life. These conversations can be so raw, so emotional, so deep that you could see the wheels in people’s heads begin to turn. And if you look intently enough and meet them where they are at, you can witness these individuals begin to uncover some of the privilege and power (both the visible and unseen) they hold. Without a doubt, earnest and courageous dialogue like this makes my position at Hilltop rich and fruitful, and gives me hope as a black man in America. But sometimes, I’m struck with mind-boggling responses, hostile confrontation, or sentences that leave me speechless. Conversations that begin with individuals wanting to be a white ally can ultimately end in them saying something like this:
“I don’t have time to participate, but do you need money? I can write you a check!”
Working at a non-profit organization, I would be foolish to turn down anybody willing to sponsor our Educator Discussion Series, or any of the services we promote. And while I am grateful and appreciative for their willingness to fund some of this work, what I personally would value is their time, their willingness to capacity-build, and their energy – more than their ability to underwrite our work. So, in an attempt to paint the picture in one broad stroke, I’d like to dedicate this blog to what a 5-year-old Mike needed most from my white teachers – and what Mike, 20+ years later needs from you today, and what I imagine other brown and black children need from you now. And that’s not a white savior to come in and save the day…but a white ally.
Equity. Partnership. Equality. Solidarity. Ally.
If there’s a list of words that people within the City of Seattle love to throw around, it would be those words. Equity, Partnership, Equality, Solidarity, and Ally are all buzzwords we’ve heard time and time again in recent years. And even I’ll admit it – I’ve sipped the “kool-aid” and tried to incorporate those words into every conversation I’ve held, but as we’ve moved along the years, it seems to me that these words are holding less and less weight.
With Reflective Practice being one of the core practices at Hilltop Children’s Center, I’ve been taking the time to reflect back on this most recent Educator Discussion Series (EDS) year, in anticipation of next year’s list of workshops. I would like to take the time to bring the focus back on working in tandem, as allies, moving away from the narrative that ‘you will save these children’ and start 2019 off by sharing my words, advice and perspective on how we can all stop being children’s, your friends’, your colleagues’ white savior, and start being their white ally.
Be “Woke” By Creating “Wokeness”
Racism isn’t new. Neither is the unequal treatment of people based on their gender or sexual preference. Being “woke” requires far more than awareness. Being a “woke” white ally requires creating more “woke” white allies. It doesn’t require coming into black or brown communities to enlighten them about the social injustices you saw on Twitter today. For example:
- Use your privilege to confront the racist employee at your local supermarket.
- Use your power to set up structures, environments, and conversations that highlight ways we can thrive together, in multiple learning environments.
- Use your resources to develop and support strategies to tackle this together with your administration, your district, and your community.
Be mindful of your racial rhetoric
Examine the language that you are using, the resources that you employ, and the things you are sharing. The rhetoric we choose, the language we use, and the things we share with others in this digital age are all extremely important, and before you share a post (your digital stamp of approval), remember that people will view what you share as an extension of your voice. Your words (and social media) are your weapons, use them wisely. In today’s fast paced society, many of us consume what’s going on in the world through social media. I’d like to share this video below which has provided me with some concrete advice from leading media experts on ways I can get fully informed about what’s going on in the world, without marginalizing opposing points of views: https://vimeo.com/180771524
Consider the things your textbooks probably never mentioned
Before voicing your opinions, do us all a favor and do your homework. I’ve unfortunately had to listen to many insensitive comments throughout the years, but nothing gets my blood boiling more than when people equate hard labor workers with South Americans, gang members with anyone not born in the USA, and drugs and illegal narcotics with immigrants. There’s many different causes for why someone might engage in these activities, but before we point fingers and say “they are the cause,” take a look at Nixon’s “War on Drugs.” From there, you’ll see how Nixon’s administration made an effort to associate marijuana with hippies, and blacks with heroin, and then criminalized them both heavily – something people of color are still suffering from today.
As for those “drug trafficking immigrants,” the U.S. has had a long history of turning a blind eye or funding countries who engage in these activities. The CIA knew about the drug trafficking happening in Panama in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, and sat idly by. Panama still suffers from our previous actions. My point here is that although we might not be able to control or eradicate problems happening outside our control, we can certainly work to not perpetuate these stereotypes, especially when the U.S. has had a role in creating and deepening these situations to begin with.
Raise the bar
Let go of the guilt, shame, or hurt. I am challenging you to understand what it is to be white, not punishing you for the amount of melanin in your skin. The focus should be on creating a climate of change, and reversing the devastating realities of racism as an engaged white ally. By seeking forgiveness from people of color, you now turn the spotlight on yourself – this only contributes to the continuing inequities of racism. The hunger and thirst for equity and social justice must come from yourself, not because you want approval from people of color.
Remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day
Stay the course. This isn’t a one-year effort. You will not be able to repair the breaches that racism creates by attending one EDS workshop. If you’re committed to this work, then please commit yourself entirely with the understanding that you will not see a sudden transformation in yourself, your colleagues, or the systems and institutions around you. It takes time to help people empathize. It takes time to see yourself grow. How do you know you’re seeing progress? When you look up and realize that the people you are close with are asking you questions, becoming upset with you, or you’re simply losing friends, then you know you’re complicating people’s understanding, challenging the status quo, and you’re truly inching closer towards justice. This work isn’t made for everyone, and that’s alright. You must be willing to give up social capital to achieve social change.
Every situation is different and calls for critical thinking about how to make a difference, but ultimately it is the only healthy and moral human thing to do. There will be gains and losses in the struggle for justice and equity, just like there will be moments of strengths and moments of hopelessness. I encourage you to work each day not as saviors but as allies to dismantle systems of oppression, and to stay the course as if your life depended on it, because for some people of color their life does.
While most anti-bias curriculums begins by focusing on the children and families – creating the foundation for valuing differences – some organizations forget to focus on the staff that represents their programs. By raising awareness about white privilege and institutional racism, programs can implement strategies to create an equitable learning environment to ensure each child is visible, validated, and valued. Join us for either one of our Educator Discussion Series workshops which focus on issues of equity and inclusion in early childhood education, or for a Study Day focused on the intersection of Anti-Bias Education and Reflective Practice. Email Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.