U-M Counseling and Psychological Services

An Invitation

In our current socio-political climate, the question of how to be a supportive white ally to people of color seems to be more pressing than ever. However, understanding and knowing what to do can seem challenging, scary or even impossible. A group of white-identified CAPS staff, in consultation with many other CAPS staff wanted to offer this article as a starting point for those who are interested in beginning or furthering their development of supporting people of color. A core component of the work we do at CAPS is helping students develop and strengthen relationships in order to work towards being emotionally healthy. Beginning to explore and understand our identities can have an enormous benefit when engaging with other students in the residence halls, classrooms, work environments and in our friendship circles.

This is not an exhaustive nor comprehensive guide, but hopefully it can be a helpful starting point, an invitation. Like many, we are continuing to grow and develop in this area. Change doesn't happen overnight, it is a process. We want to invite you to be a part of this process, to dive into what it means to be a “White Ally”, challenge some of our previous assumptions and work to build unity and coalitions.  

If this is a journey you are wanting and willing to take, here are some things to consider as you begin:

  • If this is a journey you are wanting and willing to take, here are some things to consider as you begin:
    • 1. We were not born racist. We, as white people, learned racist attitudes in environments as children in which we had no control. Since we learned them, the good news is we can “un-learn” them.
    • 2. Racism is not our fault. We didn’t create racism. Yet our responsibility is to stop perpetuating it.
    • 3. How we continue to carry and demonstrate thoughts and behaviors that might be influenced by racist, biased, or discriminatory influences is our responsibility.
    • 4. Racism is a White person’s issue. We need to work together with other White people to become more aware of how racism interferes with our lives, negatively affects our mental and emotional health, and how we oppress people of color.
    • 5. We need to identify our own racism and do what we can to change our attitudes and behaviors.
    • 6. Guilt is not productive. It will keep us immobile and helps keep the system of oppression alive.
    • 7. Hating other whites because of their racism will not help them be less racist.
    • 8. Racisms hurts us. We need help to identify its subtle effects within ourselves to free us of these attitudes.
    • 9. Racism is closely related to all other ISMS i.e. sexism, ageism, ethno-centrism, heterosexism etc.
    • 10. It is liberating to be able to relate to those who are different than us.
    • 11. Differences can be terrifying, but they don’t have to be.
    • 12. You are courageous. Many White people are unwilling to become more aware of their racism.
  • The goal of being a white ally
    • We will always be “allies in training”. Continuing to do the work to fight racism and oppression using our allyship, will be a lifelong journey, not a destination that we can arrive at and rest. Our goal in being a white ally is to play a supportive role but not take center stage. At times, the best allies join and/or support people of color and movements led by people of color. While we have an important role in condemning oppression we cannot be the main voice or the only voice in enacting change. As white allies, we are striving to be compassionate, socially aware, anti-racist activists for change. But being compassionate isn’t enough, we have to use our voice and our privileged identities to work towards eliminating inequality and injustice in our society.
  • What does being a white ally actually mean?
    • To be an ally is to unite oneself with another to promote a common interest. In an alliance, all parties stand to benefit from the bond or connection they share. As a white ally, this common interest is equality, respect, and dignity. Being a white ally means working towards eliminating racism in our society and using our identity as a white person to enact change (interpersonal, societal, systemic).
  • How to be an ally?
    • This may be one of those concepts/questions that as soon as you think you are "safe," you may realize how much work you have to do. We all want to be safe. Being a safe friend, or ally, who others feel comfortable around provides us with connection and deepens our empathetic ability. When you are connected and empathetic, your overall mental health and wellness has more opportunity to flourish. Here are a few other thoughts on how to be a "safe" person and practical next steps you can take:
      • Being an Ally means knowing you are not 100% safe to 100% of people 100% of the time. This takes humility (an openness to being wrong and a certainty that I don't have all the answers). This may change from day to day or person to person. It may prove helpful to become comfortable with the process of checking in with our peers and those who we want to be safe to. It takes time and needs to develop over several interactions where trust can be built. There is a difference between being told you are safe and thinking you are safe. Next Steps: 1. Take time to ask those who we want to be safe with: "How does it feel to share these things with me" "Is there anything I am missing or don't see in this area?" 2. Keep showing up. Being an ally means you are going to make mistakes but don’t let this stop you.
      • Being an ally means you are recognizing your areas of privilege and power, and doing "your work" often. "Your work" involves looking within before you look outward. It includes self-reflection, asking questions, learning about and living in cultures different from your own, being open to the ways you may unintentionally oppress those with less power and privilege, and exploring how your "whiteness" benefits your life (both personally and systemically). "Your work" also includes showing up and stepping up. Brene Brown said, "Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen." Next Steps: Reflect and ask yourself: 1. In what ways does my “whiteness” benefit me? 2. Read “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh
      • Being an ally means you genuinely approach difference from a "learners” or curious stance. A “learner” listens more than they talk. Admit when you don’t know something. It may take more work, but start by taking responsibility for your own education. This may include speaking with, or listening to the needs of people of color. At the same time, have an awareness of how often people of color may be asked to educate their white peers. Next Steps: Develop a habit of working in this statement into your ally conversations: “Help me understand ______."
      • Being an ally means challenging oppression and hate, whether or not anyone is watching. This may require entering difficult conversations with people you love and respect. Being able to hold both your love for them while also holding the fact that they may have said or behaved in a way that is hurtful. Pushing through in moments of fear or anxiety, all for the purpose of naming oppression and creating an inclusive and loving world. Genuinely standing with those who have been oppressed and "having their back." Being an ally is more than just wanting to not be racist. It is using your voice and influence to impact those around you. Next Steps: 1. In moments when you feel compelled to enter a difficult conversation, ask yourself: “Why is this hard for me?” “What is at stake? What could I lose and what could I gain?” 2. Begin the conversation with: “Are you open to some feedback on what you said?” “I care about you (or our relationship) and I’m having some reactions to what you just said, but I want to make sure I heard you right. I heard you say _______, am I right?”
      • Being an ally means working to create more allies. A large part of being an ally is establishing ourselves within our social and professional circles as people who will not tolerate racism in any form or under any circumstance. Next Steps: 1. Prior to any potentially harmful comment or behavior, let your friends/colleagues know that you have been working (reading, reflecting, etc) to become a better ally and this journey matters to you. 2. Ask your white peers to join you in reflecting and making next steps to become a stronger ally.
    • As you develop in this process you might come upon some common stumbling blocks. Here are a few examples with ideas on how to address them:
      • 1. “I don’t know how, but I want to do something”
      • Striving to be a helpful White Ally can be challenging, especially when we feel the need to ‘do something’ but aren’t quite sure what or how. When working on our white ally identity development, we might not always have the ‘right’ answer or be able to come up with the ‘perfect’ thing to say. In the times when we feel disoriented, or our world has been shaken, and our loved ones are hurt or not feeling safe, we often want things to be simple. We want the perfect thing to say and we want to be able to make sense of what’s happening in order to stop the pain. Despite these desires, we might feel stuck or paralyzed by “not knowing what to do”. This is normal. However, it’s important, that even in theses moments of being “stuck”, we consider action. This is important because while recognizing our “stuckness” is important, it can be a distraction and take the focus off the main goal of moving forward to support those who have been oppressed. Taking action can be simply verbalizing “I’m stuck and don’t know what to do or say”. It might come in the form of seeking support or ideas from others by collaborating with white friends to discuss what can be done. The ‘perfect’ response might not occur in that moment or ever, but we must be willing to respond. Responding in seemingly small ways can be incredibly powerful and can help start the process for more action.
      • 2. “I keep getting shut down or overwhelmed by guilt/shame”
      • Tough conversations, such as those about privilege, having a belief challenged, or being told we offended someone, can often lead to feelings of guilt and shame. While these are emotions we all experience we need to understand how to work through them instead of shutting down once we notice them. “Shame was the evolutionary way of us trying to hide our flaws from others,” explains Kristin Neff, PhD. But instead of being an adaptive strategy, shame clouds good judgment, skews perception, and drives destructive and unhealthy behavior, such as shutting down. The process of shutting down often leads to suppression of thoughts and feelings, which builds into unhealthy coping. While we might not like these feelings, they still have purpose. These feelings can be an indication of our strengths in self-reflection or sympathy. We have to be aware and recognize these emotions when they are present, and use them as motivation to move or act. Brene Brown PhD, LMSW refers to this process as shame resilience, where we recognize feeling shame, disengage from the emotion’s destructive messages, move through the feeling, and ultimately come out the other side with more courage and compassion. While difficult topics can bring about difficult emotions, having these conversations are often what lead to deepening our relationships and greater understanding of self and others.
      • 3. “I feel isolated or alone in this work”
      • Use the buddy system; find support from fellow white allies. Like most things, finding support can be helpful. Challenge and encourage one another to dig deeper, and use each other as sounding boards for when its hard and especially when you feel confused, angry or hopeless. Hold each other accountable to continue to do the work, and expand your thinking by going together to workshops, trainings, protests, etc.
      • 4. “I keep finding myself feeling defensive”
      • “Defensiveness” can be a very normal reaction to difficult conversations or challenging moments. In many ways, it is a response that can feel like survival from a perceived threat in the moment. When considering white allyhood, the “threat” can often come in the form of change, loss, or shame. These are moments when we get “called out” or we “call ourselves out.” Defensiveness naturally “shuts us down” instead of “opening us up” to growth and movement. Being open can feel vulnerable, fragile, and sometimes uncomfortable. However, when being open ends with growth, an ally can feel liberated, connected, and stronger. We wanted to provide a few ways to approach your defensiveness: A. Slow down and understand. Explore your defense mechanisms. Name your “Go-to defense mechanism”: Avoidance, denial, blame, making excuses, etc. B. Reflect. Ask yourself, “What am I a defending myself from?” C. Check your ego. Unhealthy pride, or refusing to admit we may be wrong, can be a significant deterrent in being an ally. D. Make a choice. You can become bitter or better. See the moment/experience as an opportunity, a gift. Choose to become a better ally. E. Keep moving. Defensiveness has a way of stunting growth, or keeping us stagnant in efforts to grow.

Overall, working on our understanding and awareness of our identity has impact for both our own wellbeing and growth as well as those around us and those we are in relationships with. We know that this is a journey that can be filled with difficult times, but that it also can have profound meaning and value. We acknowledge that it can be uncomfortable at times, but that most processes of change are, and that ultimately change and growth are worth it. And that this type of growth is essential for our community. We hope that these thoughts can help begin or further the evolution of becoming a helpful white ally. We urge you to keep trying, keep making mistakes AND to keep showing up. If you commit to continue to learn and grow, to practice compassion and empathy, you will be doing the work of an ally.