Gender & Identity, Life

I’m learning how to be a better ally as a white woman

I’m realizing that there will always be a limit to how much I understand.

I am a white, upper-class woman. I grew up in a white, mostly upper-class town. The schools I attended were majority white, as was my university. These things don’t make me an inherently bad person, but they are undeniably part of who am I am, and shape what my reality looks like. 

It also means that I need to learn how to be an ally.

My concept of allyship was recently challenged by Trump’s election. I realized that as much I was angered and disheartened and in disbelief by what happened last November, the aftermath wouldn’t really affect me. Perhaps new policies and offensive comments would threaten my womanhood. But they wouldn’t threaten my safety or my right to exist in my country. I realized that my allyship needed to start there: acknowledging that as a white person in the U.S. there is a system in place from which I will always benefit.  

I think one of the major problems the United States faces in terms of race relations is fear of that acknowledgment. As the discourse surrounding racism has gotten more complex, talking publicly is not just about interpersonal racism but about institutional racism in our jobs and schools and government. It has also gotten more defensive. In my experience, white people go to great lengths to let everyone know how not racist they are. After all, it’s not like they’re in the KKK.

But shouldn’t our standards for how we treat each other be higher than not being part of an extremely overtly racist, mal-intentioned group?

The narrative of colorblindness and the idea that racism in the U.S. is over comes from the fact that overt racism is no longer socially acceptable as it once was (that’s not to say that it doesn’t exist). That doesn’t mean, however, that racism went away. Instead, a quieter but equally damaging aversive racism has taken its place. White people are afraid of seeming racist and they deny any prejudice they might have, but they still find interactions with out-group members (in this case, people of color) uncomfortable or uneasy.

Buried even deeper in our psyches is implicit bias, defined as: “the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.” This type of bias might be one that we’re not even aware of and might be one that actually goes against conscious beliefs, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. You can actually measure it by taking one of Harvard’s Project Implicit tests. We learn these implicit biases through the environment we grew up in, through what our parents have told us and what we see in the media. Everyone has implicit bias, whether it’s racial bias or bias in favor or against gender, age, or weight.

Taking all of this into account, I’m realizing that there will always be a limit to how much I understand. At some point, my lived experience stops and empathy begins, but even that can only reach so far. There will be gaps in my understanding. I will be ignorant.

Again, none of these things make me a bad person, nor does it mean that my work is done.

It means I need to listen. It means I need to realize when it’s not my turn to speak. It means I need to advocate. With our nifty little thing called the Internet, it’s easier than ever to do all of these things. There are websites to read and podcasts to listen to, one of my personal favorites is Code Switch, and public figures to follow. There is no shortage of resources to expand my understanding, and therefore no more excuses.

Doing these things involve taking risks. Writing this article definitely feels like one. I’m asking myself tough questions. I’m doing my best to confront problematic beliefs held by family members. I’m learning slowly how to support movements in a way that’s inclusive and not self-indulgent (Women’s March, I’m looking at you).

Listen to understand, not to respond. This is a phrase that I’ve heard, and one that I’m trying to live by. For me, becoming a better ally shouldn’t be about defending personal actions but listening to others’ experiences and validating them.

Becoming a better ally is a process. It takes persistence and acknowledgment that change, both personal and social, won’t happen overnight. I’m sure that as I continue to learn, pay attention, and most importantly, listen, my concept of allyship will continue to evolve, too.