Why you shouldn’t call me an ally

I’m a white dude. Start there.

I’m a white dude who was raised in the rural South, steeped in the prejudices and the casual hatred of the place. Sure, I had Black friends. They were always at arms’ length, though; when I got told that they weren’t the people I was supposed to be hanging out with, I didn’t argue.

I was taught the use of slurs, and I was taught how to make them acceptable by explaining what they actually meant. You didn’t use the N-bomb against just anybody, you see. You only used it against Black people who thought the world owed them something because they were black. You’re not against all Black people; you’re just against that kind.

I got out of the rural South into the Midwest, to a college that was exclusively male and overwhelmingly white, with the odd Asian thrown in for flavor. I was educated in the most secure bubble you could possibly imagine. Even when I went to graduate school, and discovered the joys of diversity, of studying with people from literally around the world, one shade of skin was elusive, and nobody really understood why.

So when you look for people to talk to you about how Black Lives Matter, I’m the last person you should be talking to. Precious little in my raising put me face-to-face with racial issues [1]; nothing in my education prepared me to live in this time.

I’m nearly two decades into an academic career. I’ve had multiple advisees come through my supervision, and I’ve been fortunate enough that I’ve been able to serve a great diversity. The same color has been elusive; the same color has started working with me only to disappear and not remain, despite my enthusiasm and interest.

The major I’ve been most responsible for where real change could be affected is chemistry, particularly physical chemistry and biochemistry, where the diversity of graduates is especially low. If I was an ally, I could point you to the ways that I’ve made a difference in that diversity, the ways that I’ve helped bring more Black students along in their study.

Folks, I’ve got nothing. No evidence. No change. The same white faces make it to the other side. No new faces who come through general chemistry and start to believe that there is a place in the discipline for them.

I can’t point to Black work done in my field. I can’t point to books by Black authors in my discipline that I’d recommend. I have precious few names of Black scholars that I’d have students emulate, and I can’t claim that there are any substantial relationships that are authentic and real that would advance a potential young Black chemist.

But, again, like I’ve seen a young Black chemist willingly talk to me. About anything, really.

It’s still clear to me, rapidly approaching a half-century on this planet, that not only do I have work to do, I haven’t even started the real work.

So nobody should call me an ally. I might want the title. I sure don’t deserve it.



The last time I took the times I was living through even close to seriously enough, I did what I thought was preparatory work. I still even remember the exact title of the writing I did at the time – “clearing Ferguson out of my brain”. In retrospect that title’s offensive on its face, as if racial injustice is something I just needed to face one time, be direct about, and then put past me so I could move forward with the real work.

I didn’t take seriously enough the reality that facing racial injustice is the real work, and there are a lot of times to be doing that, and the most important times to be doing that are the times when the world isn’t melting down all around you.

But here I am writing while the world is melting down all around me.

And let me be even more pointed about my privilege – the world might be melting down all around, but it’s not melting down where I’m at. I live in a pocket of peace, isolated by being a white dude surrounded by Trumpists, caring about a place that at once shelters and neuters me.

Another reason I’m not comfortable being called an ally: I know where I live. Racial justice coming to this place would simply mean knowing my Black neighbors and being able to identify with them – if those Black neighbors are anywhere to be found at all. 

Six years ago, when I wrote, I said I just wanted to be someone who helped. The evidence that I’ve helped doesn’t exist. The evidence that I’ve isolated myself away from being in position to help does. I could protest about my intentions all I want, but these matters are results-based, and intentions don’t matter. 



This is a moment where a lot more self-examination should be taking place, and a lot fewer claims of allyship should be taking place. I hope this doesn’t come across as self-flagellation; that isn’t my intent. It’s staring down cold, stark reality. I don’t get to claim  wins for half-hearted attempts to be kind, and if I ever was in the business of trying to claim such wins, that’s my own time wasted. 

This came across my feed this morning:

That’s directed towards employers and institutions, I know. But I think it also is appropriate to ask of individuals working within those institutions as well. There are a lot of us who come up against results and outcomes and find ourselves wanting, and more specifically, find the specific actions we’ve taken to support those outcomes nonexistent.

If we’re really interested in talking about the importance of Black lives? Well, Black lives need jobs. Black lives need representation. Black lives need a place in the practice of our day-to-day work, especially in the academic world, where diversity of thinking improves the quality of outcomes. 

It is completely appropriate and fair to hold my own actions to support Black lives in my workplace to account. I don’t care where I live, I don’t care where I work, I don’t care about the systemic obstacles in the discipline I work in. 

We can talk about my role as an ally when I can point to specific actions I’ve taken and specific results I’ve achieved in supporting Black lives – and Latinx lives, and Native American lives, and lives of underrepresented people across the spectrum. 

I’m hopeful that I have outcomes to share in my next two decades that are more substantial than the outcomes of my past two.

Cover photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash.

 

[1] My mother would tell you different; she would say that it was an invitation to a black classmate that wound up integrating a roller rink in South Georgia for a birthday party in my youth. And my mother stood up for my invitation list in ways that I didn’t understand at the time.
But that’s just it; I was blind to the whole business, and I didn’t understand what my invitation list caused, and my mother thought it more important that a scene not be caused than explaining why this was a big deal. I’m not arguing with Mama. But I’m not claiming any wins, either.

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