I participate in a book club with fellow educators in which we read and discuss We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This group is diverse with respect to race and professional titles: administrators and teachers and support staff share their thoughts openly. Last week’s meeting brought attention to a variety of white ally that I find particularly irksome.
The meeting was facilitated by a young man of color who is equipped with a particularly contagious spirit of humility. He opened with a statement about how he’s relatively new to reading for pleasure and struggled to keep up with Coates’ vocabulary and syntax. He went on to challenge us define and decode a particularly daunting and magnificent sentence from the book, “Having preserved the Union and saved white workers from competing with slave labor, the North could magnanimously acquiesce to such Confederate meretriciousness and the concomitant irrelevance of the country’s blacks.”
From across the table, a white woman eagerly snatches the conversational equator. She is delighted to announce that she knows what the words mean and offers her definitions, without pauses for collaboration or feedback. She’s correct, it’s confirmed by Google. Several people around the table marvel at her content knowledge and the group’s focus shifts toward her. We did not get a chance to examine the craft exhibited by the author or better yet, the sentiment itself.
The discussion shifts toward the Civil War as the facilitator asks, “What were you taught about the war?” It’s a compelling follow up on his part. The question garners participation as group members from the north and south, white and black offer their experiences for consideration. People seem to comprehend that the question was layered, that the rationale behind these forgotten history lessons is the story worth examination.
Not this girl. She begins again with a feigned bashfulness, building up to her opportunity to share major battles, the names of generals, and finally, her proposed three major causes of the war. When she speaks, I can visualize a three-pronged flowchart in a history book she must be referencing. Her level of detail is impressive, even considering the fact that the scope and sequence of the book club is predetermined and that these statements could have been prepared.
Again, the members of our book club dutifully offer her praise. She reels it in and I reflect that emotional intelligence is a curious weapon. She doesn’t have enough to realize the North Star of this discussion but has enough to pretend to be surprised when people are impressed by her recall.
Once again, the tide of our talk flows away from the book and back toward her gravitational pull. It is here that I am reminded of my least favorite kind of white ally, the Wise White Ally. These are the “mansplainers” of privilege politics and in my opinion, the most toxic addition to an open discussion.
I will concede that there are other faults that may seem just as egregious as the Wise White Ally. For example, I have seen white educators state, “I’ll never have to experience racism. It’s something I’ll never be able to understand.” They often state this with a calm contentment, as if they expect others to nod at their figurative and literal white flag. I have witnessed someone say this while holding both their laptop and phone, as if they didn’t have two separate portals to infinite information access. Indeed, people exist who present this idea like a homework pass, excusing them from the work involved in researching and internalizing the experiences of others.
Also, there are self-identified allies who occupy spaces with white tears and white guilt. For my resident white feminists following along, these are the “man-spreaders” of the discussion. Spaces will bend and discussions will break in the presence of these tears. Worse still are the moments when this is pulled away from the topic of race and toward an unrelated fixture such as religion, sexuality, and gender. These are valid concerns but not always timely subjects.
While I acknowledge the destructive nature of other kinds of faux white allies in our race-based discussions, I posit that the worst variety is the Wise White Ally. This ally is armed with an ability to predict and manipulate the outcome of interactions centered around race, as they lean on a resume of texts and experiences that support an affected authority. In short, they have agency in these spaces and use this agency to gain social clout. They have committed to memory a stock of common blunders and are able to avoid these, appearing to many to be a well-versed anti racist. For example, the woman in my book club mentioned that she wrote a second grade ELA unit that incorporated culturally responsive texts. She’s able to hit on a lot of buzzwords as she drops her another hint about her authority. I decided to explore that unit after our book club and discovered that it was titled something to the effect of, “Abolitionists Throughout Slavery.” Can you produce a more white-washed angle?
Whenever I have observed these allies in classrooms with students and families of color, I witness a more authentic portrait of them. At once, the woman who fluidly spoke about oppression in front of adults stutters in the presence of children. Putting an ally at the front of an urban classroom is a tragically accurate litmus test for tolerance because children are not bound to the same standards of professionalism and social graces. Adults respond in euphemisms and, “let’s unpack that.” Children are more likely to speak their truth. The condition of the situation uncovers biases that are hidden when Wise White Allies are able to talk about race in the abstract, in a quiet room of adults. In her own classroom, the woman I mentioned before resorts to expressions of contempt, punctuating each command with a snap of her fingers.
With a Wise White Ally in the room, the conversation swerves away from action and back to reflection. For them, these spaces will always be a place to flex intellectual muscles as they discuss racism in theory. The problem is that racism is not simply an academic notion, but an entity kept alive through combinations of hate and power. It is not enough for a white ally to have the desire to learn or to possess knowledge. Being anti-racist requires a commitment that is beyond cerebral, it is grounded in empathy and humility.