What Can White People Do to Support People of Color?
By Amanda Gelender. I wrote this piece for internal consumption at my workplace. In a company-wide discussion on race and racism, an employee anonymously asked the question, “What can white people here do to support people of color?”
As a white person invested in the continual work of solidarity—or what some people call allyship—I put together six action items in hopes that they would spark something for other white folks to run with. Numerous colleagues approached me and asked for the piece in a shareable format.
Below is the adapted piece. Everything I wrote about in this piece I learned over the years from thought leaders of color.
1. Educate Yourself... And Others
Commit yourself to reading one article a day discussing whiteness, privilege, race, and solidarity. Pay particular attention to pieces written by people of color reflecting on their experiences. Lean in to the discomfort you may feel. What comes up for you—Guilt? Defensiveness? Denial? Anger? Anxiety? Helplessness? Shame?
Most white people will shut down at this point in the process. As a majority group in the United States, we are insulated from race-based stress and have a very low emotional tolerance for racial discomfort. As you read, you may have some revelatory moments where you realize, “I have been perpetuating racial microaggressions!” Resist shutting down. Now you know! This is an opportunity to shift your behavior. And as you learn and evolve, share your knowledge with other white people and call them in to this work.
Process what you learn with other white people in your life as you dig into your reading. Avoid the temptation to run to your colleagues and friends of color and spill over with what you learned, asking a series of intrusive questions. Some people of color are open and willing to support white people through the process of unpacking white privilege, but do not assume that it is the job of people of color to guide you through and educate you about racism. It places an undue burden onto people of color and often puts them in the impossible position of needing to speak for their entire race. Our “revelations” about white privilege are typically things people of color have known and lived for many years.
2. Diversify Your Media and Amplify Voices of Color
Our social media shapes our consciousness. Who you follow on Twitter and the pages you follow on Facebook, for instance, can have a radical effect in moving you along in white allyship work.
We live in an incredible time where we have unbridled access to wisdom and conversations about race like never before. As you find and learn from brilliant thought leaders of color, retweet and share their words. Send the articles you read to your teams, friends, families, and colleagues. Amplifying voices of color to your network is an important part of solidarity work. We are not the experts on race, but we have an opportunity to learn from so many experts and boost their influence.
Equally important: follow people who make statements and tweet articles that make you uncomfortable. Sit with the discomfort for awhile. While not delegitimizing what comes up for you, remind yourself that our feelings as white people unpacking our privilege and finding our role in white allyship work can never compare to actual racial oppression faced by people of color. It’s not even in the same universe. Whereas we white people have a choice to engage in this work, people of color do not: navigating white-dominated spaces is mandatory. We can handle a little discomfort.
3. Learn When to Listen and When to Speak Up
This is one of the most important skills you’ll learn as a white person doing solidarity work, and it’s where many white people get stuck in paralysis.
“Is it my place to speak up here?”
“I don’t want to mess up so I won’t do anything.”
As a general guideline, when people of color are sharing their experiences, I try to listen and be aware of my whiteness and how much space I’m taking up. When among white people, I try to speak up about race and name racism.
This work is messy. There isn’t always a clear-cut way to know when to act and when to listen or pass the mic. But as you experiment, iterate, and evolve, you’ll get better at navigating this.
There is never a point at which our work as white people is done, when we’ve figured it all out and we can proudly proclaim that we are one of the “good” white people who “gets” it. Be more committed to the process of solidarity than the end goal of “being a good ally.” The point at which white people mistakenly think “I’m one of the good ones” is a place of dangerous stagnation.
Stay humble, be receptive to feedback from people of color, apologize when you mess up, change your behavior, move on, keep leveling up, and bring other white people along with you in this work. There isn’t a playbook on effective solidarity work—we are all figuring this out as we go with the guidance of thought leaders of color.
The goal of this work can’t be centered on us. Seeking public praise for “being a good ally” is ego work, not solidarity work. Much of what you do may be in private messages to white colleagues or pulling other white people aside to talk about a comment that they made. Start to get comfortable that you will always be striving to do better, that much of your work will not be acknowledged, that you may risk social capital in calling in other white people, and that you’ll still make mistakes. Keep moving forward anyway. It will get easier as you gain more tools, experience, and a more conscious network of people to learn from.
4. Create an Asset Map
It’s too easy to get caught up in all the “shoulds” of white allyship. Yes, it is important to be thoughtful about how we approach this work and always stay open and receptive to feedback from people of color in shifting our approach for better impact. But we need to act.
Asset maps are one way you can identify all the ways in which you can create impact. List out all the ways in which you have influence, at your company and beyond. Are you a hiring manager or recruiter who can deliberately seek out candidates of color to interview? Do you have an extra hour or two a week that you can give to support organizations working for racial justice? Are you someone who speaks at conferences and can bring a racial lens to your talk or encourage the conference organizers to book more speakers of color? Do you have some money that you can give as a monthly recurring donation to organizations supporting people of color? Do you have influence over policies at your company? Do you have people in your life who can make impact in powerful ways? Do you have hundreds of Twitter followers who you can influence in joining you to take action?
5. Bringing Intersectionality Into All Spaces
For those of us who belong to marginalized communities, one way we can make impact is by deliberately fostering race consciousness and cultivating intersectionality (the impact of overlapping identities).
I am white, able-bodied, and cisgender (my self-identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to my biological sex; not transgender)—I am also a queer woman and a neurodivergent person with mental health challenges. Queer spaces tend to default into white queer spaces, women’s groups are often primarily focused on white women’s issues, and mental health meetings are generally white-dominated. As white members of these groups, we can be deliberate about maintaining an intersectional lens that acknowledges how race impacts the experience of group members.
No one should feel they need to check their identities at the door of any space. People’s lived experiences across lines of privilege inform their world views. Even with the best intentions, how might we be discouraging women of color from full participation in women’s spaces? As white queers, how can we be deliberate in centering the experiences of our queer and trans colleagues of color?
Intersectionality is about recognizing that many of us hold privilege in some areas and disadvantages in other areas simultaneously. For instance, while many white women experience sexist microaggressions, many women of color experience sexist and
racist microaggressions, sometimes perpetrated by white women. When we remove race from the women’s group discussions or don’t make it safe and welcoming to discuss race, we default to white women’s experiences and discourage women of color from bringing their whole selves and experiences to the table. Come with humility and prioritize listening to experiences different from your own.
6. Leverage Your Dollars
Another important way white people can make impact for racial justice is with our dollars. Some of us are in a position where we wouldn’t be hit too hard if $5, $10, $20, or even $50 were taken out of our paycheck each month and redirected to a racial justice group. That money goes a long way, especially for community organizations.
These contributions—particularly recurring monthly donations—fuel racial justice work and provide organizations with the necessary funds to expand their impact.
Take this piece as a starting point for your solidarity work. Don’t worry too much about where to start—just start. I’m continually learning and growing in my solidarity work, and I’m always looking for opportunities to collaborate, process, and stay accountable.This piece was originally published on Medium.
Amanda Gelender is the Senior Manager of Social Impact at GitHub, the world’s largest open source community, where she oversees flagship programs in the US and internationally. Amanda graduated from Stanford University and is a writer, speaker, and mental health advocate. She has 14 years of experience in social change work across sectors having previously worked at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the Kapor Center for Social Impact, and as the Director of Strategy & Innovation at Vaya Consulting, a firm dedicated to supporting tech companies with diversity and inclusion efforts. You can follow her on twitter @agelender