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The Problem with White Allyship

This blog was first featured as an article in our zine. It outlines some reflections on the different forms racism takes and what this means for how we measure it. You can download the zine for free here.

Here’s an ‘aha’ moment – see if it relates. A white male manager was talking to a Black female colleague about issues she was having with her staff. People were going over her head to get decisions they wanted from more senior managers. ‘You need to put your foot down,’ he said, ‘let them know you’re in charge’. ‘I can’t speak to them like that,’ came the reply. And she was right, of course: Black female leaders can’t act in the same way as white men. Realising this was a lightbulb moment for the white manager. ‘It’s like having x-ray specs,’ he said, ‘once you realise this, it’s difficult to see the world in the same way again.’

This gets to the heart of what allyship is all about: understanding that the systems, structures, and norms that we take for granted don’t work for everyone. If you’re one of the lucky people for whom they do, it’s like walking through life with a hidden superpower. As we all know, with great power comes great responsibility – and in this case, that means using your privilege to challenge the norms and assumptions that marginalise Black people.

A quick note here. Some white people may not feel particularly lucky and laugh at the idea they have a superpower. We’ll get to that later – suffice to say here, the privilege is relative: life may not be perfect, but it’s probably easier than if you were a Black person in the same circumstances.

White allyship has become a hot topic recently, particularly following the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, and an increased awareness of the insidious nature of racism. And as with any hot topic equity-related issue, there is now a wealth of advice and articles online offering to help people become better allies. The problem, however, is that many of them just aren’t any good.

Here’s what a quick google search throws up in terms of actions a good ally should take. Volunteer with Black-led organisations. Read anti-racist works (Kendi, Saad, DiAngelo, or Dabiri, depending on taste). Read Black writers (Baldwin or Ta-Nehisi Coates, depending on taste). Don’t share clips or news stories that are potentially triggering or traumatic to Black people. Don’t shy away from viewing clips or new stories that demonstrate everyday racism against Black people. Stand up to, and challenge, discrimination. Mentor a young Black person. Become a confidant. Hire diversity. Don’t make this about yourself. Centre Black people. Centre Blackness.

Of course, some of these slogans are headlines and the authors go on to expand on what they mean and why they are important. It’s still nevertheless the case, however, that much that is written about white allyship explains it as a programme of activities rather than a long-term commitment to wrestle with the systemic, ideological nature of racism. This is a huge gap as understanding racism as an ideology is crucial to being an ally.

Understanding racism

A structural understanding of racism helps people recognise whiteness as a ‘default’ in our society and explains why any aberration from this default – a different appearance, way of speaking, cultural background, etc. – is something that has to be explained, made safe, commented on, apologised for, and, ultimately, is in the gift of the powerful to accept or not. Understanding the structural nature of racism allows us to move beyond simplistic notions, such as the idea only ‘bad’ people can be racist or that racism is conscious dislike. As DiAngelo points out, these kinds of beliefs explain why people react to allegations of racism by citing the number of Black friends they have. However, once ‘you understand racism as a system of structured relations into which we are all socialized, you understand that intentions are irrelevant. And when you understand how socialization works, you understand that much of racial bias is unconscious.’[1]

But this is not to say understanding this is easy. People are being asked to get their heads round some complex ideas – the social construction of race, for example; or the way racism mutates and changes to maintain itself; or the different ways power is administered personally and institutionally. There are a number of barriers to accepting these ideas. For a start, they are intellectually demanding and the range of anti-racist material out there doesn’t always do them justice (veering, as they do, from the overly simplistic to the academic and jargon-filled). But this concern is small-fry in comparison to the biggest obstacle facing a would-be ally: emotional defensiveness.

Engaging with racism can invoke a range of emotions – anger, resentment, fear, shame, and sadness. It’s common (natural?) for white people discovering they benefit from or are complicit in racism to become defensive. In our experience, this defensiveness can be expressed as both passive and active resistance. People can become hostile to facilitators, demand more and more evidence to ‘prove’ racism exists, question the motives of their organisation for arranging the training (‘it’s political correctness gone mad’), accuse facilitators of ignoring other identities, or try to run interference in some other way. In many ways, though, these responses at least have the advantage that they can be noticed and pointed out. Another classic response is simply to disengage: to sit quietly and not open yourself to the possibilities you are being challenged to consider.

Leading change...or not

Even people who are more open to being an ally face emotional barriers. Having delivered allyship courses to hundreds of people, we have noticed some attitudes and behaviours that are common in white leaders with responsibility for leading change. First, and most fundamental, many lack the belief they can actually change things in their organisations. Many leaders in the public sector (and the NHS in particular) face a range of issues – an increased pressure to perform, greater public scrutiny, reduced oversight – which impacts on their use of power (or, more accurately, how they feel they can use their power). This is doubly the case when it comes to leading on anti-racism. Most are unsure of how to use their power to tackle racial injustice, and some doubt that, as white-presenting leaders, they are even qualified to lead on this agenda at all.

Leaders who don’t feel powerful will not see themselves as having the ability to solve a problem as difficult as racism. They can feel they lack the clout or credibility necessary to rally others, doubt their ability to succeed, or feel unduly daunted by setbacks. These feelings place further obstacles in the way of white leaders which often mean that:

They don’t see the role they can play in challenging racism: despite the seniority of the people we have worked with, it is often surprisingly hard work to get them to take responsibility for this agenda.

They look to others to make change: following on from the above, ‘whiteness’ makes those who experience racism responsible for fixing it. More needs to be done to help white-presenting leaders places themselves in the driving seat.

They are afraid of failing: racism is a ‘wicked’ problem and as such is immune to quick fixes and long action plans. But a lack of confidence in your ability to make change – or a belief that change isn’t really possible – can lead you to giving up at the first hurdle. Of course, there is a growing evidence base about what works, but this can be difficult to find (although steps have been taken recently to rectify this) [2]

They are happy to settle for less: the way we measure progress on anti-racism is timid. We see slight improvements, against some metrics, for some groups, and take comfort in our ‘success’. And in some ways, this is understandable: once racism is understood as an ideology intertwined within our very belief systems, it can seem too much for an individual or organisation to tackle.

This gets to the heart of our current approaches to allyship. We talk about knowledge and commitment a lot, but we talk about power notably less. But knowledge unsupported by the capacity to act on it is near useless. In the public sector at least, the lack of focus on a leader’s ability to act is one of the main reasons senior leaders have not been able to make progress on racial equity.

Helping leaders (and others) to become better allies doesn’t just mean giving them the power to make changes back in the workplace after they’ve completed a development course (as vital as this is). It means helping them grow their sense of personal power, which means helping them develop the internal motivation they need to challenge racism. Allies need to need to grow their resilience in order to keep going in the face of the inevitable criticism and challenge they’ll face. They need to critically reflect on their power and begin to use it more actively. They need to improve their capacity to sustain and persevere with a deep-rooted problem like racism. Leading an anti-racist agenda requires more than just knowing what: it requires learning how, by growing the inner capacity to take action. Without that personal capacity allies may know what needs to be done, but not know how to do it.

There are no measures of how anti-racist someone is being – ultimately, the only person who knows how hard an ally is working on this agenda is the individual themselves. Did they take the easy way out when they saw racism in the workplace? Did they rationalise away people’s resistance to anti-racist development on the basis that everyone is too busy, so it’s just not the right time? Did they avoid a difficult conversation about the recent recruitment process because they had already raised a concern recently and didn’t want to get labelled a troublemaker? Ultimately, we cannot force people to do the hard work. But we can give them strategies and approaches that will help provide the emotional resources to deal with the feelings underlying these rationalisations and compromises.

Fear. Uncertainty. Vulnerability. These are all barriers to allies using their power effectively. Sadly, our failure to talk about them is one of the problems with white allyship.



[1] DiAngelo, Robin (2015) ‘11 ways white America avoids taking responsibility for its racism’ in Salon, published 16 June 2015

[2] See, for example: Kline, R (2021) No More Tick Boxes: East of England NHS; Warmington, J (2022) If Your Face Fits: exploring common mistakes to addressing equality and equity in recruitment: East of England NHS; and Bolden et al (2019) Inclusion: the DNA of leadership and change: Bristol Leadership and Change Centre University of the West of England


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