As our group has been discussing issues like privilege, ethical engagement, feminism, and advocacy, I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the role of white allies. The majority of the students on this trip, our site coordinators, and many of the guest speakers we’ve hosted are white people attempting to engage with and learn more about the struggles of black South Africans. I’ve listened to my peers talk about the guilt, the separation, the tension, of navigating in Cape Town with white privilege. I’ve also listened to Bill, Peter Storey, and other white leaders tell incredible stories of their social work and involvement within black and white communities. I’m appreciative, intrigued, and sometimes disappointed by the attitudes and approaches of white allies, and the weight that their work carries.
I’ve always been rightfully suspicious about white alliances. History reminds us to be wary of the white savior or social justice warrior, and to question their intent – especially at a place like Duke where self-serving, resume-building students often engage in social work in the name of getting ahead.
Even though the position of a white ally is a role I’ve never occupied, I still struggle and deal with the repercussions of white alliance everyday. It comes up when a white group member says something problematic, and I’m unsure of how to confront it or point it out. It comes up when a friend from Cape Town criticizes the shallowness of American white feminism and assumes it’s what I believe too. It comes up at work when I report to white supervisors and higher-ups who are part of organizations which advocate on behalf of many black South Africans.
Every week I write and reflect about my experience in South Africa as a black American woman. I’ve written and spoken about how exhausting, confusing, and empowering this experience has been. I’ve made it a point in group discussions to talk about how my black identity and background has shaped my experience at Duke, and how I’m engaging with my black identity every second of every day. All of the emotional labor and repsonsibility that comes with occupying, voicing, and challenging my identity and perspective is… a lot of work. To then think about the work of my white peers – what I want it to be, how they’re fulfilling it, what they find frustrating, etc – is another form of intellectual engagement that overwhelms me. As I listen to other Duke students who are minorities talk about their experiences of dealing with problematic white peers or problematic community engagement, it’s apparent that nonwhite students on DukeEngage programs often find themselves doing extra and intense levels of navigation through race compared to their peers.
Our experiences are different, and are approaches to being allies should reflect that difference.
Though the purpose of DukeEngage programs may be to fulfill some type of work or service for communities in need, white allies have a lot of extra inward, reflective work to do on themselves before they engage. To educate themselves on the communities, the issues, and the histories they are being exposed to. To question and implicate themselves in the absence of being called out. To realize and utilize their privilege. To sense and see the silent ways minorities are navigating intentionally and carefully around them. To learn when to surrender their agency. To talk to their white peers about racism. To qualify and contextualize their complaints and struggles. To push against good intentions, white fragility, ignorance, and other non-implicative stances of defense. To carefully find the line between spaces they’re needed and spaces they should leave respectfully untouched. To do the work.
This post is not meant to take an instructive or superior stance to tell white people how to be allies. It’s my way of offering my own perspective as a minority and as a peer, and trying to process the difference in our experiences on this trip.