The following is an excerpt from an essay by Beverly Daniel Tatum, famed teaching psychologist and the author of Why Do All The Black Kids Sit Together in The Cafeteria?: And Conversations About Race, followed by my own takeaways. Dr. Tatum's essay was published in 1994 for the Teacher's College Record by Columbia University. Below, Tatum describes an exercise that she leads her students in as an illustration of the important of teaching young people about historical and modern white allies.
Think of a nationally known white person whom you would describe as a racist. If you are like most of the students in my Psychology of Racism classes and the hundreds of workshop participants I address each year, at least one name comes to mind fairly quickly. The names of past and present Klan leaders and conservative southern politicians are usually the first to be mentioned.
Think now of a nationally known white person you would consider to be an antiracist activist, a white man or woman who is clearly identifiable as an ally to people of color in the struggle against racism. Do you find yourself drawing a blank? Perhaps you thought of Viola Liuzzo, James Reeb, or Michael Schwerner, white civil rights workers who were slain during the years of the civil rights movement. If we add the qualifier “still living,” who comes to mind? If you have managed to think of someone who fits this description, notice that it probably took significantly longer to come up with an answer to this question than it did to the first.
The fact is there are white people who can be named in this category. You might have remembered Morris Dees, the executive director of the Southern Poverty Law Center and a vigorous anti-Klan litigator. The name of Anne Braden, a long-time civil rights activist, might have come to mind. Perhaps you knew the name of Virginia Foster Durr, a southern white woman who was actively involved in the struggle for civil rights in the South and who is featured in the first episode of the documentary series Eyes on the Prize. Maybe you have heard Bill Bradley, a senator from New Jersey, speak eloquently about issues of racism in our society and thought of him.
Other people might be named, but the point is that the names are typically retrieved very slowly, if at all. I have had the experience of addressing roomfuls of classroom teachers who have been unable to generate a single name without some prompting from me. If well-educated adults interested in teaching about race and racism in their classrooms have trouble identifying contemporary white men and women who have taken a public stand against racism, it is a reasonable assumption that our students will not be able to identify those names either.
Why is this lack of information of concern? As I have discussed elsewhere, one consequence of addressing the issue of racism (and other forms of oppression) in the classroom is the generation of powerful emotional responses in both white students and students of color. White students, in particular, often struggle with strong feelings of guilt when they become aware of the pervasiveness of racism in our society. Even when they feel their own behavior has been nondiscriminatory, they often experience “guilt by association.” These feelings are uncomfortable and can lead white students to resist learning about race and racism. And who can blame them? If learning about racism means seeing oneself as an “oppressor,” one of the “bad guys,” then of course there will be resistance. Few people would actively embrace such a self-definition.
But what alternatives do we offer to white students? This article is intended to explore this question and its implications for teaching about racism, using Helms’s model of white racial identity development as a framework for understanding white students’ responses. The perspective I bring to this discussion is that of an African-American female college professor who has been teaching and/or leading workshops on racism in predominantly white settings since 1980. The student voices represented in this article come from journal entries written by students enrolled in my course on the psychology of racism.
While I just read this essay last week, the fact of the absence white-identifying antiracist narratives in our collective American story dawned on me last year. I was mourning the death of Daunte Wright while simultaneously reading Dr. Angela Davis's book, Women, Race, and Class. I was frustrated at the waning energy of those white allies gained after the murder of George Floyd just one year earlier, when I came upon Davis's mention of the Grimke Sisters. She wrote the following:
Of all the pioneering women abolitionists, it was the Grimke sisters from South Carolina — Sarah and Angelina — who most consistently linked the issue of slavery to the oppression of women. From the beginning of their tumultuous lecturing career, they were compelled to defend their rights as women to be public advocates of abolition — and by implication to defend the rights of all women to register publicly their opposition to slavery. (p.40)
In fact, there were several white women that Dr. Davis listed along with Sarah and Angelina Grimke, including Prudence Crandall and Lucretia Potts, who were brave and effective abolitionists. Her words impacted me because, for one, I was still under the false impression that Dr. Davis didn't really care about white people's involvement in the Black Liberation struggle, at least not enough to write about them. Secondly, a lesson I learned as I continued through her book, I learned that whenever there was a struggle for Black Liberation happening at any point in our history, there were white people present and doing their part.
Ally Is A Verb was created not to pat white people on the back for their involvement in collective liberation. Quite the contrary, it is to challenge us all (white people in particular) regarding the narrative we have internalized about white allyship: that it is rarely, dangerous, and usually causes more harm than good. Ally Is A Verb continues the work that experts like Dr. Tatum has provided to her white students to those of us who are adults still in the dark about the true legacy of white allyship. Finally, this is an opportunity for white individuals to see examples of allyship that they can connect with and follow, an important key in healthy race identity development and creating last change in our communities.
As neofascists seek to ban the teaching of race and racism in our schools and colleges and books on such subjects from our libraries, workshops like Ally Is A Verb has become critical to our collective learning and encouragement. Truth leads to freedom, always. Liberate your inner-ally with me at Ally Is A Verb: The Legacy of White Allyship.