Beyond Allyship: Multiracial Work to End Racism

“I’ve started organizing with imams, priests, and rabbis from PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing) who are reaching across lines of race, class, gender, and geography nationwide,” the author writes. Here, PICO members meet for a June 2013 gathering in California. Credit: Heather Wilson (PICO National Network).

Challenging racism is key to creating a just world. Concerned activists already know which institutions and ideologies to target: the prison system, the urban education system, the distribution of wealth, and the value systems that privilege some and put others in peril.

What many of us haven’t figured out is how to create powerful, sustainable, cross-race and cross-class movements for change. Speaking from a place of humility and yearning, I’d like to share some of my own reflections on where I feel stuck in challenging racism and some ideas on how that could change. My sense is that the stuck place for me and other white people in my community involves our activist relationships and our approach to working in multiracial settings to build this movement. How can we be more effective? What is stopping us? What old models need to shift for us to be in powerful coalitions working for change?

The Question of Allyship

The question I’ve been struggling with most is the idea of “allyship”—how to be an ally to people of color in the struggle against racism. Many anti-oppression and diversity trainers talk about becoming allies to people with less structural power in our society, retracting a bit of self to make room for the other, giving one’s all to support the empowerment of people of color. Activists JLove Calderón and Tim Wise explain this idea of allyship in more depth in their “Code of Ethics for Antiracist White Allies”:

As antiracist allies, we seek to work with people of color to create real multiracial democracy. We do not aspire to lead the struggle for racial justice and equity, but rather, to follow the lead of persons and communities of color and to work in solidarity with them, as a way to obtain this goal. We do not engage in the antiracist struggle on behalf of people of color, so as to “save” them, or as an act of charity. We oppose and seek to eradicate white supremacy because it is an unjust system, and we believe in the moral obligation of all persons to resist injustice…. It’s not enough to be in contact with people of color as we go about our work. We also need to be prepared to change what we’re doing if and when people of color suggest there may be problems, practically or ethically, with our existing methods of challenging racism. Although accountability does not require that we agree with and respond affirmatively to every critique offered, if people of color are telling us over and over again that something is wrong with our current practices, accountability requires that we take it seriously and correct the practice. And, all such critiques should be seen as opportunities for personal reflection and growth.

I’m not sure whether the problem is with this allyship framework itself or with the way in which I am engaging with it. I have found that my attempts to work within this model have left me silencing myself on issues that I have passionate strategic energy to address. My self-imposed silence deprives organizations of the experience, energy, and input I could bring to our critically important work. I also wonder whether my attempts to engage in allyship actually reinforce the feelings of superiority that I have been taught to have as a white person. Sometimes I wonder if I am basing my understanding of allyship in a condescending view of myself as more developed than the “other.” If these attitudes limit our work, then they are counterproductive.

I grew up as the child of a white activist in the Civil Rights Movement. I witnessed firsthand the complex mixed messages involved with that work. “Maximum feasible participation of the poor” as an organizing principle coexisted with a dynamic of Northerners showing up to liberate the South. I’m noticing similar paradoxical dynamics in white activists’ contemporary attempts to engage with the idea of allyship. In the pages that follow I will take an in-depth look at both the scenarios of the 1960s and of today, asking how we can break through the relational places in our organizing that keep us from being effective makers of change.

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