The model of the white ally

TEACHING WHITE STUDENTS ABOUT RACISM: THE SEARCH FOR WHITE ALLIES AND THE RESTORATION OF HOPE, By: Tatum, Beverly Daniel, Teachers College Record, 0161-4681, June 1, 1994, Vol. 95, Issue 4


In fact, another model does exist. There is a history of white protest against racism, a history of whites who have resisted the role of oppressor and who have been allies to people of color. Unfortunately these whites are often invisible to students; their names are unknown.

Think back to the beginning of this article. How many names of white antiracists were on the tip of your tongue? If students have studied the civil rights era (many of my students are poorly informed about this period of history), they may know about Viola Liuzzo and Michael Schwerner and other whites killed for their antiracist efforts. But who wants to be a martyr? Do they know about white allies who spoke up, who worked for social change, who resisted racism and lived to tell about it? How did these white allies break free from the confines of the racist socialization they surely experienced to redefine themselves in this way? These are the voices that many white students are hungry to hear.

This information needs to be provided in order to help white students construct a pro-active white identity. In my class I try to provide concrete examples of such people. White professors teaching about racism who see themselves as allies may be able to share examples from their own lives and in this way might be role models for their white students. As an African-American professor, I am limited in this regard.

My strategy has been to invite a well-known white antiracist activist, Andrea Ayvazian, to my class to speak about her own personal journey toward an awareness of racism and her development as a white ally.

Students typically ask questions that reflect their fears about social isolation at this phase of development. “Did you lose friends when you started to speak up?” “My boyfriend makes a lot of racist comments. What can I do?” “What do you say to your father at Thanksgiving when he tells those jokes?”<

White students, who often comment about how depressing it is to study about racism, typically say that the opportunity to talk with this ally gave them renewed hope.

Today’s class began with a visit from . . . a white woman who has made dismantling white privilege a way of life. . . . Her personal story gave me a feeling of hope in the struggle against racism. [Terri, a white woman]

Now that we have learned about the severity of all of the horrible oppression in the world, it is comforting to know how I can become an ally. [Barbara, a white woman]

What a POWERFUL speaker! Andrea was so upbeat and energetic. I think that her talk really boosted the spirits in our class. I personally have become quite disillusioned with some of our small group discussions of late, and having her talk brought some deep reflection and positive insight on the future–especially ideas and revelations concerning my role as perhaps a white ally. . . . Her presentation was overall very well received, and I enjoyed it very much. There is hope! [Robin, a whim female]

One point that the speaker discussed at length was the idea that “allies need allies,” others who will support their efforts to swim against the tide of cultural and institutional racism. This point was especially helpful for one young woman who had been struggling with the feelings of isolation often experienced by whites in the Disintegration stage. She wrote:

About being an ally, a positive role model:

. . . it enhanced my positive feelings about the difference each individual (me!) can make. I don’t need to feel helpless when there is so much I can do. I still can see how easily things can back-up and start getting depressing, but I can also see how it is possible to keep going strong and powerful. One of the most important points she made was the necessity of a support group/system; people to remind me of what I have done, why I should keep going, of why I’m making a difference, why I shouldn’t feel helpless. I think our class started to help me with those issues, as soon as I started to let it, and now I’ve found similar supports in friends and family. They’re out there, its just finding and establishing them–it really is a necessity. Without support, it would be too easy to give up, burn out, become helpless again. In any endeavor support is important, but when the forces against you are so prevalent and deep-rooted as racism is in this society, it is the only way to keep moving forward. [Joanne, a white woman]

In my view, the restoration of hope is an essential part of the learning process. Otherwise, students, both white and of color, become immobilized by their own despair.

Though the focus of this article is clearly on the process of white racial identity development, it should be pointed out that students of color also need to know that whites can be allies. For some students of color, the idea that there are white people who have moved beyond guilt to a position of claiming responsibility for the dismantling of institutional racism is a novel one. They too find hope in the possibility. Writing in response to the activist’s visit, Sonia, a Latina, commented:

I don’t know when I have been more impressed by anyone. She filled me with hope for the future. She made me believe that there are good people in the world and that whites suffer too and want to change things.

In addition to inviting Andrea Ayvazian to my class, I try to provide written materials about white people who have been engaged in examining their own white identity and who have made a commitment to antiracist activity in their own lives. However, this information is not easily located. One of the consequences of racism in our society is that those who oppose it are often marginalized. As Colman McCarthy writes in the foreword to The Universe Bends toward Justice, “students know warmakers, not peacemakers.”

As with other marginalized groups, the stories of peacemakers, of white allies, are not readily accessed. Yet having access to these stories makes a difference to students who are looking for ways to be agents of change. A resource list of materials I have been able to identify is included at the conclusion of this article.

Students, motivated by their own need for such information, can be quite resourceful in the generation of this knowledge. Recently, a white woman who had taken my Psychology of Racism course conducted an independent study project investigating the phenomenological experience of being a white ally on a college campus. Interviewing other white women, ranging in age from nineteen to forty-seven, she was able to generate valuable information about the daily implications of being an antiracist? It was apparent that her research was more than an academic exercise–indeed a way to strengthen her own commitment to antiracist action. More of this kind of research needs to be done so that the fourth model of whiteness, that of the white ally, becomes a more visible option for white students.

Though the focus here has been on the provision of white role models for students trying to construct a positive white racial identity, it is important to acknowledge that there is a parallel need for both white students and students of color to see and read about clear examples of empowered people of color. Teaching about racism should not be only a litany of the ways people of color have been victimized by oppression. It must also include examples of the resistance of people of color to victimization. Just as white students are not eager to see themselves as oppressors, students of color do not want to be characterized as victims.

In addition, white students should not be led to believe that the role of the ally is to “help” victims of racism. The role of the ally is to speak up against systems of oppression, and to challenge other whites to do the same. Teaching about racism needs to shift from an exploration of the experiences of victims and victimizers to that of empowered people of color and their white allies, creating the possibility of working together as partners in the establishment of a more just society.

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6 thoughts on “The model of the white ally

  1. Tim Wise names several white anti-racists throughout American history in this article: http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2005-09/12wise.cfm

    I think that one reason some whites need white anti-racist models is because they cling to racists like Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson out of fear that if they relinquish all their racist heroes none will be left — ironic, since many whites have no problem telling non-whites that they have no valid history.

    One of my personal heroes is white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison — his speeches are available free online and they are Malcolm X good!

  2. I loved this article, and am so glad to see that you are doing this work with young people. I especially agreed with your point that

    “white students should not be led to believe that the role of the ally is to “help” victims of racism. The role of the ally is to speak up against systems of oppression, and to challenge other whites to do the same.”

    I am a bi-ethnic woman of African and European descent who is convinced that white folks need role models for anti-racist action. I’ve been blogging about it for a couple of months now at my blog called “Know Good White People. I will definitely add your blog to my links.

  3. Hi Knowgoodwhitepeople — I just visited your blog and it looks so cool. You remind me of one of my elderly Creole relatives who looks totally white but claims his blackness and has worked all his life to fight against white oppression — as opposed to passing for white and taking advantage of privilege.

  4. Thank you for this article. I am also a teacher of color attempting to teach students about identifying and challenging white privilege but I feel that because I am not white, some of my white students think I have an agenda. I am frustrated and could use tips.

  5. I have been reading a book about a remarkable man who was taken from West Africa as an adolescent, brought to South Carolina and sold into slavery. He fought with the British during the American Revolution, lived in Nova Scotia and then returned to Sierra Leone and continued to fight against slavery there. It is written by a man named Kevin Lowther, who is white. I have never read a book like this before and I think it should be required reading for any class on American History. Among other things, the book details the intellectual/physical contributions of West African slaves to the North Carolina economy (they were skilled rice farmers in West Africa and their knowledge was used by plantation owners), it discusses the way in which the revolution impacted people being held as slaves and how they affected the revolution, it talks about people who claimed to be anti-slavery and people who actually were…and…and…and…I can’t quite verbalize everything. And I am only at the part about the American Revolution now. Here is a link to the book. This is very high on my list of anti-racist works. http://www.amazon.com/African-American-Odyssey-John-Kizell/dp/1570039607

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