The Paradoxes of Allyship
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The Paradoxes of Allyship

In the midst of calls for an end to state violence against Black people, white faculty, staff, and administrators at colleges and universities across the United States want to be helpful, but many of us don’t know where to start. Some of us worry

By Cia Verschelden

August 5, 2020

In the midst of calls for an end to state violence against Black people, white faculty, staff, and administrators at colleges and universities across the United States want to be helpful, but many of us don’t know where to start. Some of us worry we’ll make mistakes and make the situation even worse for our Black colleagues and students. This uncertainty, which steals our bandwidth and makes us even less capable of acting, is understandable. Allyship is full of paradoxes for white people; here is one:

Paradox 1:

  • White people created racism and it is our responsibility to dismantle it.
  • A key mechanism for the persistence of racism is that white people have always been out in front, defining history and making the rules.
  • White people need to step back and do our work from the sidelines so Black people can be heard and control the discourse.
  • Black people are exhausted from talking about this stuff, so sometimes they need us to be out in front to take the pressure off them.

Yes! Allyship is a delicate dance that balances stepping up, stepping aside, and stepping back.

Often, we need to step up to confront injustice and stand beside Black colleagues and students.

Many times, we need to step aside and support the voices of Black people, which have been silenced for too long. We need to make real the phrase “I have your back” and be there for Black colleagues and students when they need our support and practical help.

We can try to pay attention to how much air time we take up in meetings. If your voice is often heard, you can give it a rest and let someone else’s voice be heard. We can use our voices and influence in the background, ceding the foreground to Black people (if, when, and where they want it—and take over when they signal they’re exhausted).

We can ask “How are you? What can I do to help?” and listen with an open mind and respond with love.

Paradox 2:

  • In order to become truly engaged in the struggle, white people need to “feel it”; we need to deeply empathize with our Black colleagues and students by listening well to them.
  • When we engage authentically with our Black colleagues and understand their experience, it’s painful and we can feel angry, sad, and horrified, leading to immobilization and disengagement.

I have close family members who are Black and, through them, have felt the pain and frustration on a personal level. I can get overwhelmed by the emotional pain and feel completely helpless. I know, however, that this kind of self-indulgence doesn’t help me to be effective. I try to practice the Buddhist concept of “detachment”; I can acknowledge my feelings of sadness, rage, and hopelessness and then set them aside and not let them take over my choices. I am no help to my colleagues if I am immobilized with empathy. In fact, I can see those emotions as insights into what others are going through, making the actions I take even more meaningful.

As white allies, we need to act, and much of that acting will be in the quiet, hard work of examining the parts of our culture and practices that result in exclusion and disadvantage for nonwhite people. We need to do the close, reflective work it will take to eliminate the racist and classist aspects of our institutions. This is not easy; higher education in the United States has been, from the beginning, an upper-middle-class white establishment. It is extremely difficult for white people to see what is white about our culture because we’re so at home in it. We’ll need to work hand-in-hand with our Black colleagues and students and those from other marginalized groups so they can help us see what they have seen all along.

To begin, people in every sector of an institution—from recruitment to admissions to advising to classrooms (attendance, grading, deadlines, etc.)—can look closely at policies, procedures, and practices, both official and assumed, and ask:

  • Who do they benefit?
  • Who do they exclude?
  • What systems do they maintain?
  • From what cultural lens are they understood?
  • Are they relevant today or holdovers from an earlier time?
  • If they are problematic, what will it take to change them?

Then, do something. In consultation with representatives from diverse groups in genuine, open-minded conversation, make some efforts to chip away at the things that maintain systems of privilege and disadvantage that are woven into most of our institutions. We’ll make mistakes, but our colleagues will mostly be patient if we are acting from a place of humility and true desire to do better. Get feedback early and often. Apologize if you mess up. Keep the conversations going.

Effective allies are in it for the long haul. This dance will go on for a while, and sometimes we might get tired. When I feel worn out, I think of my Black colleagues, friends, and family who belong to a group of people who have, in US history, been owned, brutalized, beaten, and lynched, and who, still today, are too often victims of state violence. In addition, they have to do things twice as well to be thought half as competent. In comparison, I can freely take a breath and decide to go on for another day as an aspiring ally.

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  • Cia Verschelden

    Cia Verschelden

    Cia Verschelden is author of Bandwidth Recovery: Helping Students Reclaim Cognitive Resources Lost to Poverty, Racism, and Social Marginalization.