Messing Up As a White Ally

Estimated reading time ~ 3 min
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Being an effective white ally actually means you try hard enough and often enough that you inevitably mess up royally. But when you do, you choose to keep trying. The term “accomplice” or “co-conspirator” gets to what I am talking about. Those terms are increasingly becoming the preferred language because they differentiate what it is in the maturation of becoming an ally. When you choose to be brave enough to try to be inclusive, but still fall short, here are some effective strategies. I've learned many of the concepts below thanks to generous support from my colleagues A.V. Flox, Greg Morris, Susana Rinderle, John Erickson, among many others who help me continually grow as an ally.

Take a deep breath. Shut up and listen.

When a person of color bravely chooses to tell you that you wronged them, shut up and just listen. Sure, every relationship is a two-way street and you may also feel wronged. However, there are some real bad patterns that white people have when being confronted. For example, white people tend to get defensive, cry, or explain “I’m not racist.” These responses further perpetuate the harm you most often unintentionally caused the person of color. Turn on your empathy skills and listen to try to understand the other person. If you already know what you want to say to them before they finish speaking, then you are not fully present with what they are actually saying.

Process your feelings somewhere else.

You’re probably feeling a lot of feelings such shame, guilt, anger, confusion, sadness, etc. When conversing about the conflict with the person of color involved, this is not the space for your self-care. Don’t try to explain yourself and seek to be heard out by the person of color in the situation. This is why you need strong communities of other white people who seek to be allies. Go talk to them about your situation. Or, if you have close friends of color outside the situation, you can ask them. But please be mindful that of course they are your friend, but this additional emotional labor may not be something they want to engage in.

Apologize, be accountable, learn, and act differently going forward.

Don’t just quickly send off an apology message just to do it. Once you have processed your emotions and are in a clear and calm space, reach out to the person of color you harmed. They may feel safer if there is another party involved in this conversation, so be open to this being more than just a private conversation between the two of you. Acknowledge and appreciate them for the courage they had to share their feedback with you. Take responsibility for your words and actions. Be succinct in this and don’t ramble. Show them what you learned from this situation and what you will do differently going forward. Have an open mind and listen to any input they may share.

Don’t give up, but keep trying.

Although you may be hurting after a mistake, please don’t let that discourage you from continuing to act as an ally. According to the Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (SPAN), an ally “...recognizes that their ‘white ally badge’ expires at the end of the day and must be renewed by a person of color.”

I encourage all white people striving to be allies to watch this incredible video by Franchesca Ramsey of Everyday Feminism about how best to respond when you make a mistake as an ally. Below are some additional great resources and recommended reading to build your resiliency when you inevitably mess up.

I identify as a white person, so am writing this article from that racial identity. However, the concepts can be applied to many forms of allyship.

Check out these great resources for when you make that mistake.

Read or re-read these articles and books.

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