Sheena Griffiths - Becoming a white ally - Reflections from a work in progress

Many of the Black Lives Matter protesters both in the UK and the USA have commented on the importance of addressing not just racist incidents but underlying, or structural racism.  Commentators have also pointed out that racism can only be addressed by white and BAME people working together and talking openly and honestly about race and racial injustice.

I know how difficult this can be: I grew up in a white family in Essex in the 1960s and 70s and throughout my life my extended family, workplaces and friendship groups have been predominantly white. I have certainly been hesitant to discuss race: afraid of saying the wrong thing and of what I might reveal (to myself as well as to others) about my underlying ignorance, assumptions and prejudices.

Working as part of the University’s Race Equality Charter self-assessment team has convinced me of the importance of people like me facing up to and overcoming this hesitancy so that we can start to become white allies. It has also offered me a way of learning more about race inequality and how it manifests itself in Higher Education. Although I am still very much a ‘work in progress’ I would like to offer some reflections and advice from the journey so far:  

Be prepared to learn. It was an article by Peggy McIntosh, (White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies) which really opened my eyes to understanding white privilege. I instantly recognised her description of  white privilege as an “invisible package of unearned assets”, that I could “count on cashing in each day”. Other great resources are available! Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book; “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” has also been made into a film. Professor Kalwant Bhopal’s book “White Privilege: they myth of a post racial society” and the work of the Centre for Research into Race in Education on critical race theory are two examples from our own research community.

Join a network. Our fabulous BAME staff network welcomes white allies to join and support their work. 

Be brave. We live in a society in which it is considered impolite to mention race, yet we cannot address race inequality solely through talking about “diversity” or “unconscious bias”. 

Be respectful. Discussions about race are sensitive and it is quite likely you will get things wrong; perhaps by something that you say, or by making an underlying assumption. If you are fortunate enough to have a colleague or friend who points this out, swallow your defensiveness, say thank you, apologise and move on. 

I certainly don’t claim to have all of the answers, but I do believe that it is important that we keep asking the questions both of ourselves and each other. 


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