How to be an anti-racist ally

[Last week we explored allied relationships on Love Isn't Enough. As promised, here is the final post in the series. Here, Julia tackles what it means for a white person to be anti-racist--an ally to people of color. As with the previous posts in this series, many of the ideas have broader implications. We are ALL, hopefully, allies to some group of marginalized peoples. In comments, we would love to hear how you teach your children to be good allies. How do we ensure young children grow up to be anti-racist...anti-sexist...anti-injustice...and supportive of members of marginalized groups outside of their own? What would you add to Julia's list?]

written by Love Isn’t Enough contributor Julia

Broaden your definition of racism

What are we talking about when we talk about racism? Generally, we’re not talking about people in white hoods burning crosses. The KKK is an example of racism, to be sure, but to think of racism ONLY in these terms is to ignore the other types of racism that are perhaps more pervasive in our current society, and are—make no mistake—just as damaging. If we fail to acknowledge the day-in day-out racism that people of color live and breathe, we not only invalidate the experience of people of color but also miss opportunities to catch ourselves and others committing this sort of racism. And if we don’t know it’s happening, how can we stop it?

Most of the time, when we talk about racism we are talking about institutional racism, a system of privilege based on race that “pervades, permeates, and interconnects all major social groups, networks, and institutions across the society” (Feagin, microagressions ( that reinforce racist hierarchies It’s worth noting that both of these forms of racism are often committed UNCONSCIOUSLY by people WITH GOOD INTENTIONS. People like me. People like you.

Acknowledge how racism has shaped you.

Author Beverly Tatum has compared racism to a smog that we all breathe in whether we want to or not. All of us—no matter how well-intentioned—have been polluted to some degree by this smog. It shapes our thinking and our actions, often unconsciously, even if we don’t want it to. A critical step in becoming an ally is accepting that our thinking and our actions—despite our best intentions—are often influenced by racism. We can’t work as allies in the struggle against racism unless we acknowledge that we are part of the problem. Once we acknowledge that, we can begin to explore how we contribute to the problem and what we might do to stop.

Acknowledge your white privilege.

White privilege refers to all of the benefits we get just for being white. Most of us begin this journey with little awareness of our privilege, partly because we are so used to having the benefits that come with being white that we don’t even realize that we have them. But we also aren’t aware of our privilege because the system has encouraged us not to be. Peggy McIntosh, in her famous essay on white privilege, describes this phenomenon: “As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.” Like McIntosh, I think many of us are aware of how racism hurts others, but not aware of how it benefits us. Without acknowledging the privilege we hold, we can’t truly begin to understand the experience of people of color. Nor can we contribute in any meaningful way to ending racism if we don’t acknowledge that the deck is heavily stacked in our favor.

Accept your limitations

Part of white privilege is the privilege of being oblivious to racism, unaware of how it manifests, how it feels, who it hurts. White people can learn to become less oblivious, but we will never have the lived experience of people of color. People of color are experts on racism; white people are not. No amount of reading or learning or activism will get us there. And that can be a hard pill to swallow in a society that teaches us that we can be anything, do anything. To be an ally, you will need to practice being okay with not being the expert, not being sure of the answer, not ever getting to some point where you have magically arrived. This requires considerable humility.

Get comfortable with humility

The more you learn about racism and privilege, the more you’ll realize how little you know, and how many times you have been wrong in the past or done something you now think is dreadful. Enter conversations about race conscious of how little you know. All that not-knowing leaves room for you to learn, and listen, and grow. And it’s a way of giving up power, which we white people tend to have way too much of.

Share power.

One of the things we white people get via white privilege is power. Being humble about how little we know is one way of giving up some of that power. We can also give up power by ceding the floor to people of color, granting authority to people of color by taking their ideas seriously, hiring and promoting people of color in the workplace, …

Educate yourself.

It’s not your fault that you probably have some big holes in your knowledge. Various social forces have conspired to make you that way. But now that you’re aware of the holes, it IS your responsibility to begin filling them in. It is not the responsibility of anyone else—particularly not people of color—to teach you.

So, how might you go about educating yourself? First, read. Read, read, read, and read some more. There are tons of good blogs and tons of good books out there(see “resources” at end of post). Second, engage in productive conversations about race. Do this in person, and do this on the web.

Recognize that it’s not about you.

If you engage as an ally in conversations about race, you are going to hear some extremely unflattering things about yourself and about white people in general. Try your best not to take it personally; it’s really not about you. It’s about the larger system of racism that a white person has just (often unwittingly) enacted in her behavior or speech. If you get caught up in your own hurt and sense of injury, you stop listening, and when you stop listening, you stop being an ally. Concentrating on your injury is also a way that white privilege sneakily encourages you to value your own experience over the experience of people of color. But don’t let it. Because what you’ve just experienced—painful as it is—is small potatoes compared to the numerous slights and hurts that people of color experience all the time. Furthermore, there’s nothing more deadly to a productive conversation about race than a white person who wants their personal hurt taken care of, particularly if people of color are being asked to do the caretaking.

Listen to people of color and accept their truth.

If you really want to learn about racism, listen to the experts: people of color. And when you listen, really LISTEN. Focus on that person’s experience, not on your own, and accept that what this person is saying is what is TRUE FOR THEM. Respond by asking questions that help you understand THEIR EXPERIENCE better. Do not discount their experience or question its legitimacy. Do not attempt to change the subject from racism to something else by using common derailing techniques ( Accept that the experience of people of color may be different than your own, but that their experience is no less legitimate.

Accept that effect counts more than intention.

Sooner or later, you will say or do something racist. Probably you will not mean to. But what you must understand is this: it was racist, whether you meant it to be or not, and people of color have been hurt. That hurt does not magically disappear when they learn that you didn’t mean it. So, if you misstep, apologize. If, instead, you mount a “but I didn’t mean it” defense—and you will be tempted to—you are failing to acknowledge the very real pain you caused people of color. That is not ally behavior.

Speak up and do your part.

Too often, white people leave the job of speaking out against racism to people of color. But that is unfair. We cannot think of ourselves as allies if we are not willing to do a good part of the heavy lifting. As the author of a popular blog on race has written, “As people granted unearned privileges by our own whiteness, and as people who have likely harmed non-white people with our own whiteness, it’s our moral and ethical duty to find ways to combat racism” ( Being an ally means being intolerant of racism in all of its forms. It means speaking up and speaking out. It means taking issue with racist jokes. It means calling people on their racism. It means educating. It means a willingness to be uncomfortable and, sometimes, unpopular.


Racism 101 for Clueless White People, by a Somewhat Less Clueless White Person

Checklist for allies against racism:

Unpacking the invisible knapsack:


Tim Wise, “White like me”

Bevery Tatum, “Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria”

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek,, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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