The problems with white allies and white privilege

The anti-racist struggle needs to move beyond ideas of white privilege and white allies, writes scholar.

Handout shows former Florida A&M University student and football player Ferrell
"This racist ideology that black men are violent and are to be feared is linked to the unfortunate fate of Jonathan Ferrell – 24 year old former football player," writes Golash-Boza [Reuters]

Writer and anti-racist activist Tim Wise has been called out a few times recently for some of his work and his statements on social media. His reaction has been that he is fighting the good fight.

In general, I am not in favour of personal attacks on people as these attacks are not productive. Instead, I’d like to focus here on two concepts that I think deserve some reconsideration: “white allies” and “white privilege.” These concepts are at the centre of this debate about the role of whites in anti-racist activism. 

The concepts of “white allies” and “white privilege” are problematic insofar as they rely on an individualist-based notion of how racism works when racism is a structural problem and needs to be addressed as such.

Of course white privilege exists. I am not trying to deny that it exists nor that I can benefit from it. I know that, as a white woman, when I go into a store no one follows me around thinking I am a thief. But, is that a privilege, or just how we should behave towards one another?

If I were to take a white privilege standpoint, that would mean that I should feel guilty when the clerk does not assume I am a thief. The white privilege standpoint does not get me very far. It allows me to see my privilege, but does not make it clear what the next step is.

If I see a store clerk following a black man, as a white ally, I should ask her why she is following the black man and not me. Ok. I can do that. But, how far does that get us? My personal experience with calling people out on racism is that they get mad at me and vehemently deny having been racist. I do continue to call people out, because I feel compelled to do so. However, I recognise the limitations of this approach.

You see, I think that calling people out for being racist should not be at the centre of the struggle against racism. I see racism as deeply rooted in structures of power, not in individual white bigots. Racism is structural and has to be fought against from that standpoint. We are not going to win the battle against racism one bigot at a time.

Furthermore, I don’t fight against racism on behalf of my black, Latino, Asian, and Native American brothers and sisters. As Andy Smith pointed out on Twitter yesterday, people of colour are fully capable of fighting on their own behalf. Instead, I fight against racism because I want a better society for all. For me, it is not a privilege to live in a racist society.

Racist Ideologies Are Harmful to All

The United States is a deeply racist society.

Racism is an ideology and a set of practices. Racist ideologies justify the racist practices that are predominant in our society. For example, the racist ideology that black men are dangerous creates a situation where most people in the United States are not up in arms about mass incarceration of black men.

This racist ideology that black men are violent and are to be feared is linked to the unfortunate fate of Jonathan Ferrell – 24 year old former football player. Jonathan Ferrell, seeking assistance after crashing his car, knocked on the door of a nearby house. The homeowner called the police when she realised a black man was at her door. When the police arrived, Ferrell, who was unarmed, ran towards them. Police officer Randall Kerrick shot him several times and Ferrell died on the scene.

It is true that a white woman in the same situation as Jonathan Ferrell would almost certainly not have been shot at by the police. Is that white privilege? Perhaps. But, another way to look at is it not a privilege to not fear police. That is how things should be. No one should be shot when seeking help from the police. That is not something that should be considered a privilege.

The racist ideology that black men are disposed to violence that is behind the death of far too many black men has deep historical roots. Ideas of black male propensities to violence were used to justify Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and slavery. Today, these ideologies justify mass incarceration. These deeply rooted ideologies are not going to disappear because I declare myself an ally or come to terms with my white privilege. It is going to take a lot more than that.

It Is Not a Privilege to Live in a Racist Society

Racism is also a set of practices that ensures white dominance. For example, in Washington, DC, black men are eight times more likely than white men to be arrested for marijuana offences, even though blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates.

High rates of black male incarceration are the current manifestation of a racist system of control that goes back to Jim Crow and slavery, as Michelle Alexander eloquently argues in her book The New Jim Crow. Alexander further points out that the War on Drugs in the United States is largely responsible for the explosion in incarceration rates since 1980. Whereas 41,000 people were behind bard for a drug offence in 1980, the figure in 2010 was about half a million. In 2005, 80 percent of drug arrests were for drug possession.

It is outrageous that millions of people are in prison because of marijuana offences. Many Americans, nevertheless, accept mass incarceration because of deeply embedded racist ideologies. Mass incarceration of minor drug offenders, however, is devastating to our society. 

Mass incarceration involves billions of dollars of expenditures that are not going to our schools and our communities. You don’t have to be a white ally to see that.

Racial divisions between blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans are harmful to all of these groups. We all need to develop a better understanding of how racism works and how it harms us all. If you are white, you don’t have to worry about how you can be a good ally or how to come to terms with your white privilege. Instead, you can look around you and see how racism is a scourge on our society. And, you can fight against racism by working to change the racist ideologies and racist practices that are omnipresent in our society.

You can fight against mass incarceration, mass deportation, drone warfare, school closings, and predatory lenders. You can fight against the fear and loathing that render these problems so widespread. And, you can fight this fight because winning it will create a better society for all.


Tanya Golash-Boza is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Merced. She is the author of: Yo Soy Negro Blackness in PeruImmigration Nation: Raids, Detentions and Deportations in Post-9/11 America, and Due Process Denied: Detentions and Deportations in the United States. She blogs at: