Owning Up: The Unspoken Racism in White Allyship

Owning Up: The Unspoken Racism in White Allyship

June 7, 2020
Dr. Sarah Saska

For the better part of a decade, I’ve been having conversations with white people about racism. In these conversations, I can often determine whether someone has started to do the internal work and engagement with anti-racism by how they react to other white people when they behave poorly.  


White people who are at the start of their learning journey are likely to separate themselves from people like Amy Cooper or Jessica Mulroney or position themselves as different, as better. As white people, we’re often quick to vilify others and—in the same breath—say we’re not like them.  


But we are. Racism is quiet, subtle, and insidious, as much as it is loud, open, and obvious. Racism is a constructed, socialized, and learned behaviour. We learn racism in our homes, schools, and the media.  


Racism is quiet, subtle, and insidious, as much as it is loud, open, and obvious.


As white people, people view us through a lens that honours, elevates, and privileges whiteness. White supremacy is in our institutions, our policies, and in us; we’ve internalized it. But, unfortunately, our racism doesn’t go away when we deny it or simply wish it away by assuring others that we’re not like those white people. 


As white people, we need a radical rethinking of what being white and anti-racist requires of us, and one essential piece is to start owning up. We can do that by asking some of the hard questions: 



If you’re just getting started, you’ll need to buckle up because, as white people, we will find dark, ugly, and unspeakable things that we must reconcile within ourselves when we’re doing the work.  


In my liberal upbringing, my family welcomed my choices of friends, crushes, loved ones, or partners. Except, however, there was an unspoken understanding that it’d be preferable that I not closely befriend or date someone Black. This is an example of one of the *many* things that I had to question, unpack, and re-learn, though it still shows up in me. I remember a Friday night years ago when I arrived late at a club to celebrate a  friend's birthday. The bouncer (a Black man) wouldn’t let me in because it was one minute after the last call. I was angry. And when my friend, also a Black man, and the person whose birthday we were celebrating, came outside to find me and asked the bouncer to make an exception and let me in, he did. At that moment, instead of being grateful that I could join my friends, I was livid. Who was this guy to say no to me? I ruined my friend's birthday, complaining to him about how unfair the bouncer had been to me. I have more, lots more.  


As white people, we need to interrogate the dark corners of our memories and psyches and genuinely start to combat racism, not in the Amy Coopers or Jessica Mulroney’s of the world, but ourselves. If we never name the racism that has been programmed into us by the nature of the world we live in, we will never be able to unlearn it properly and become part of the pathway to a racially just world.


If we never name the racism that has been programmed into us by the nature of the world we live in, we will never be able to unlearn it properly and become part of the pathway to a racially just world.


Part of owning up acknowledges that “allyship” is not a badge we earn that goes unquestioned the rest of our lives but something we must enact daily. We’ll never “arrive” as non-racist, we must continually practice it, and if there is no element of risk or discomfort in our allyship, it is likely hollow. 


We need to put ourselves and our money, friends, networks, and opportunities on the line. As Willie L. Jackson II reminds us, “real advocacy and comfort rarely go hand in hand.” (“Don’t Be an Ally, Be an Accomplice” by Willie L. Jackson II  examines what proper accountability in this work looks like.)


Part of our discomfort must involve actively and imperfectly standing up and speaking out when it counts. No matter where we are in your process to reckon with our contributions and complacencies in racism, we need to keep going. The goal isn’t to be perfect but to be persistent.  

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