In the past week, as we discussed the Orlando atrocity and the response of faith communities to it, we had good discussion here of the role that straight allies play in the movement for LGBTQ rights. That discussion has had me thinking about the decade and a half I spent working in historically black universities — as a white ally in the struggle for rights and justice for people of color. To be specific: I've been thinking about lessons I learned in those years about being an ally in the struggle of another group of people for rights and justice.
When I chose in 1984 to accept a full-time teaching position at Xavier University in New Orleans, an HBCU, I made that choice quite deliberately. At the same time that Xavier offered me a contract, I was also offered a position at a noted, highly ranked liberal arts college in Minnesota, where I'd have had a considerably higher salary, a far less onerous work load than Xavier offered me, and top-notch students.
Admittedly, this was a replacement position, while Xavier's was a tenure-track position. But it was my commitment to the Civil Rights movement, which had shaped my understanding of myself and of the world around me — not to mention, my understanding of churches and religion — that caused me to take Xavier's offer. I had undertaken the study of theology at the graduate level not just to understand, but to do. It was important to me to take what I had learned in my graduate program and to apply it through action of one sort or another — action designed to build a more humane world. And because I grew up in the South and my own family history was intimately connected to the slave system, I felt a strong obligation to act quite specifically in the arena of civil rights for African Americans.
Here are some lessons I learned working as a white ally of African Americans struggling for rights at three different HBCUs for a decade and a half:
1. It's not easy. Being an ally of a minority community struggling for rights and justice is not easy, because the stance of solidarity, if it's meaningful, throws you into that struggle too. You will find yourself being treated as members of that minority community are treated — as a colleague of mine at Xavier learned when she was barred from voter registration because she was told she had failed the literacy test, though she had a Ph.D. in English from Sophie Newcomb College, a prestigious women's college in New Orleans affiliated with Tulane University.
2. It's not easy because minority communities have sensitivities particular to their history and status as minority communities. Allies who come from the priviliged mainstream into any minority community will naturally be expected to demonstrate that they are sincere and ready to learn — not to dominate. This makes for uncomfortable experiences in which the ally will often find herself challenged by the minority community with whom she stands in solidarity to recognize her privilege and think about how it affects her attitudes.
3. Listening and learning are key virtues. The ally who enters a minority community imagining that he has lessons to impart to the minority community, which that community sorely needs to hear, is off on the wrong foot from the outset — and wildly so. His primary role as an ally is to listen and learn, to respond to the lead of the minority community about where his talents may be put to the best use.
4. Allies are not messiahs and saviors. Ditto to what I just said in #3: the messiah complex of many allies from majority cultures who step into minority cultures imagining they will save the poor wretches in the minority culture is one of the biggest impediments of all to effective solidarity.
5. The best lessons come through hard experience. For allies who come from a privileged majority-culture position into a minority community struggling for its rights, there will be painful learning experiences in which she will experience pushback from the minority community and will be invited to confront her mistakes. There will be times in which he is used as a kind of pincushion by the members of the minority community he had thought he was loving so freely — in the same way his own culture has often used members of the minority culture.
In the final analysis, all of this is very much worth the effort. Those of us who choose to share in the struggles of vulnerable communities seeking rights and justice will frequently find that we've learned more from participating in those struggles and listening carefully to members of the vulnerable community than we learn in many years of school. We'll often learn that people who might be expected to resent us due to our history of privilege can cherish us despite the shortcomings of our perspective due to our years of privilege, and can teach us to think, love, and relate to the world around us in rich new ways — again, in ways we'd never learn in any other kind of classroom.