Message to White Allies from A Black Anti-Racism Expert: You’re Doing It Wrong

Racism is harmful. Divisive white allyship is harmful too.

Recently, the Dalai Lama called on people to think beyond this tragic momentand reflect on what it teaches us about the nature of existence. Highlighting the interconnectedness of humanity, he argued the “pandemic serves as a warning that only by coming together…will we meet the unprecedented magnitude of the challenges we face.”

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Racism is harmful. Divisive white allyship is harmful too.

Recently, the Dalai Lama called on people to think beyond this tragic momentand reflect on what it teaches us about the nature of existence. Highlighting the interconnectedness of humanity, he argued the “pandemic serves as a warning that only by coming together…will we meet the unprecedented magnitude of the challenges we face.”

As a black man who teaches white people how to be more effective anti-racists, His Holiness’s words resonated. White allies tell me they hear many comments in all-white settings that show the persistent racial divide in this country. Example of these statements include:

  • “If an innocent person just acts respectfully towards cops, they will be treated fairly.”

  • “People of color don’t do as well as whites economically because they don’t have a good work ethic.”

  • “I’m tired of this talk about so-called ‘white privilege’. Everyone gets what they deserve. Racism is just an excuse.”

These statements trouble me deeply. At the same, I am deeply troubled by what I hear from white allies about how they respond to racially-problematic utterances. Examples of these worrying reactions include:

  • Ostracizing (e.g., “I am not going to go to a family gathering with ______ until they stop supporting that racist Trump or when he is out of office”).

  • Vilifying (e.g. “Your position on immigration just shows me that you lack the basic empathy that we have had in this family for generations”).

  • Schooling (e.g. “Your ignorance about structural racism is just a reflection of the patriarchy that harms everybody and that any truly educated person understands”).

  • Shaming (e.g., “Your willful ignorance about white privilege just confirms you are a racist”).

While understandable, responses like these are not only ineffective, but frequently counter-productive. Instead of bringing more people into the effort to meet the extraordinary challenge of systemic racism, these reactions from allies splinter our community — and sadly, white families — into warring factions. And, worst of all, they don’t help people of color.

Racism is an interconnected web in which all people are trapped. To extricate ourselves, we must work together to weaken its strands. Lashing out at those who fail to see the magnitude of the problem does nothing to dislodge the misperceptions of whites, nor does it loosen the bonds that hold us in racism’s grip.

Fortunately, there’s a better way.

What Spiritual Teachers like the Dalai Lama Can Teach White Anti-Racism Activists *

Suppose you’re at a family gathering when an older relation — let’s call them Cameron — says something racially troubling. Maybe it’s something like “I find ‘black lives matter’ disrespectful; why doesn’t everyone know that all lives matter?” Or, “I’m glad that I’m completely colorblind. So when people bring up racism, I know it has nothing to do with me.” Or maybe the statement is as bad as “It’s clear that all this immigration is weakening American culture.” As someone who aspires to be a good white ally, what should you do?

While the exact best course of action depends on many factors, such incidents can be a consciousness-raising moment for Cameron and a time of spiritual growth for you as an ally if you focus on timeless truths articulated by the Dalai Lama.

Quiz: What Kind of Ally Are You? – White Ally Toolkit

This quiz looks at what happens in your heart/mind and behavior when problematic statements or behaviors happen in your presence.

The Five Spiritual Principles of Anti-Racist Allyship

Allyship Principle #1: Clarify your intentions

“The quality or purity of any spiritual practice is determined by the individual’s intention and motivation.” — Dalai Lama

Before you say anything to Cameron, it’s vital to figure out what you want to accomplish. If you are not clear on your intentions, it will be difficult to make good choices about what to do.

Most of the time, your overriding goal should be facilitating opinion change. After all, who besides you — someone Cameron knows and cares about — is in a better position to do this important work? Under this umbrella of change, it is reasonable to consider a variety of goals depending on the circumstances.. For example, you might want to:

  • Reinforce a social norm for a group

  • Move the conversation to a less controversial topic (so you can talk to Cameron later in private)

  • Signal you find someone’s language upsetting

  • Set an example for other people in the conversation, especially children or teens

This is not a complete list, but you get the idea.

Unfortunately, in moments like these it is not uncommon for allies to pursue goals that are indifferent (at best) or hostile (at worst) to the goal of change. For example, allies sometimes seem more concerned with expressing righteous anger, showing their own “wokeness”, demonstrating their moral superiority, or making others feel bad about themselves than they do about making a difference for people of color by changing minds.

It’s also important to know why you’re choosing a particular goal. It’s easy to deceive yourself about what is driving you.

For example, at one of my in-person workshops, an ally told the story of creating an uncomfortable extended moment at a family gathering after an older relative referred to blacks as “negroes”. The ally, who herself was in her sixties, later realized she publicly raked her elderly aunt over the coals because she was ashamed she’d been oblivious to racial issues for so long herself. Reflecting on the incident later, she concluded her verbal assault not only failed to move her aunt’s opinion, but also likely reduced her influence on others at the event who probably saw her as a liberal bully.

Allyship Principle #2: Cultivate Mindful Courage

“Do not let the behavior of others destroy your inner peace.” — Dalai Lama

“Anger or hatred is like a fisherman’s hook. It is very important for us to ensure that we are not caught by it.” — Dalai Lama

Once you know your intention in responding to Cameron, you need to center yourself emotionally. The most powerful allies stay calm as they take action. They maintain sufficient psychic distance to stay relaxed and compassionate while simultaneously pursuing an active strategy focused on creating real change.

Unfortunately, many allies seem to think that “showing up” as an ally when a white friend or family member says something racially problematic means getting as upset as they think a person of color would. Some have even been told “not [to] tolerate discrimination in your inner circle, no matter how uncomfortable the ensuing confrontation may be.” While such advice is well-intentioned, it’s important to make decisions as part of a strategy, not from a place of anger, disgust, shame, or other feelings that tend to lessen empathy.

To cultivate mindful courage, do three things:

1. Commit to letting go of anger.

Staying calm and taking effective action in the moment is almost impossible if you haven’t already committed to doing so.

2. Practice letting go of anger ahead of time.

Many white anti-racism allies have very low tolerance for racially-problematic statements. Just hearing such views from a stranger — much less from a beloved friend or family member — can trigger blinding rage or overwhelming revulsion.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. You can take steps to prepare before Cameron goes off at the dinner table that will make it possible for you to act effectively in the moment. For instance, some aspiring allies have increased their ability to stay calm by listening to conservative media for two minute micro-bursts and then working up to entire 15 minute news blocks. Others have taught themselves small rituals they can do within the time of a restroom trip that helps them find their center.

3. Take a centering break in the moment.

If, despite your advance preparation, you still find yourself getting triggered, that’s okay. Just tell Cameron you want to follow up on what they said in a moment, but first you need to refresh your drink or use the restroom or whatever. Then go find your happy place. When you come back, you’ll be ready to make a real difference.

Allyship Principle #3: Cultivate Curiosity

“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” — Dalai Lama

Once you are calm, it’s time to demonstrate curiosity about Cameron’s point of view. A common myth within anti-racism circles is that allies should respond to racially problematic statements by aggressively schooling people about privilege, whiteness, structural racism, or similar issues. Certainly, bringing people to new understandings is an important goal, but you can’t get there by delivering sermons.

Instead, start by asking questions. Research shows the best way to get someone to listen to you is to listen to them first.

As you talk with Cameron, arc the conversation past their racist belief and toward a personal experience they have had that, in their view, justifies their belief. For example, ask Cameron, “What experiences have led you to this conclusion?” Eliciting stories in this way enhances empathy and connection which, in turn, will make you more influential when you share your perspective.

Allyship Principle #4: Focus on Agreement and Common Humanity

“Our ancient experience confirms at every point that everything is linked together, everything is inseparable.” — Dalai Lama

“If we can cultivate a concern for others, keeping in mind the oneness of humanity, we can build a more compassionate world.” — Dalai Lama

As Cameron answers your questions and shares their experience, you may be tempted to focus on the big gulf between you. And you may also be tempted to speak to this distance by pointing out all the ways you differ and the ways in which your views are superior. Please don’t.

While doing so might feel good — even invigorating — this natural impulse is counter-productive if your goal is to influence Cameron’s beliefs.

A better strategy is to minimize the difference between you by highlighting points of commonality and shared values. Pointing out differences tends to ignite the parts of our brain that scan for threats and primes tribal us vs. them thinking. By contrast, highlighting similarities tends to be unifying. Speaking to points of commonality helps you condition Cameron to see you as part of their group, and increases your chance of influencing them.

There are a number of ways to express your shared humanity and overlapping worldviews, but the best is storytelling. As mentioned above, stories are powerful at building connection and empathy, so I recommend telling them about a time when you:

  • Had a similar experience

  • Felt the same way at some point

  • Had an experience that validates something they said

To clarify this last point, you can usually find something within their view that you can agree with. For instance, while you don’t agree that police always treat innocent people fairly, you probably agree that there are good police officers out there, and can probably tell a story about that.

Similarly, while you don’t think Obama’s election shows that racism is over, you can probably point to some signs of racial progress since you were a child, and you can tell a personal story about that if you think about it.

Telling such a story might feel (temporarily) like you are enabling their racism — and it would be if you stopped there — but one final principle will guide you to your next step.

Allyship Principle #5: Practice Humility

“The more honest you are, the more open, the less fear you will have, because there’s no anxiety about being exposed or revealed to others.” — Dalai Lama

After emphasizing your shared humanity and the ways in which your views align, it’s time to nudge Cameron toward a better understanding and sensitivity for racial issues by sharing another personal story. This time, however, you’ll need to embrace the principle of humility by acknowledging racism within yourself.

The most powerful approach is to forthrightly talk about a moment when you behaved or thought in a racist fashion and how you changed. Here are some examples shared by allies in my workshops:

  • Being surprised that the Latino speaker at your job was very intelligent.

  • Crossing the street to avoid a black person further up the block.

  • Being much more frustrated when dealing with people of color with thick accents compared to folks with thick European accents.

For better or worse, admitting your own racism is hard. But it’s worth it because humbly confessing an the egregious social sin of racist thoughts can be transformative because it:

  1. Creates safety by letting the other person know you won’t judge them harshly.

  2. Models self-reflection that encourages them to confront their own racism.

  3. Provides a concrete example of what racism looks like in the real world.

You can see real examples of this kind of courageous truth telling in public settings here and here. And remember, even civil rights heroes of color are subject to thoughts like this too.

Wrap Up the Conversation at the Right Time

After nudging Cameron with your story of personal change, take steps to smoothly end the conversation before they have a chance to return to their original position. Complete renunciation is too much to hope for. Consider a statement like, “Hmm….I have never thought about this like that,” is victory you can feel good about.

One way to end on a good note is to suggest that the two of you agree on one or two important possible truths that show you can both be right. For instance, it’s possible for there to be a lot of good cops out there and for some to be racially biased. Likewise, it’s possible there has been substantial racial progress and there are still many racial problems that are easy to overlook.

Generally, I consider an anti-racism conversation between a white ally and a person with racially problematic views a success if:

  1. The exchange includes you expressing your perspective about the reality of racism.

  2. The other person leaves the conversation willing to talk about racism with you again.

In the case of Cameron, by wrapping up the conversation with a “both and” frame, you can help them to leave the exchange with the sense they have learned something new, rather than the sense they have been proven wrong.

No Time Like the Present

As with all crises, the pandemic offers us an opportunity along with our pain. Let the Great Pause be a time of spiritual reflection and growth rather than retreat and retrenchment. For white allies, this means digging deep and adopting more compassionate and more effective strategies informed by the wisdom of the Dalai Lama and other spiritual leaders. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “You have little persuasive power over people who can feel your contempt.”

If this time is used productively, anti-racism allies can emerge from shelter-in-place better equipped to do the hard person-to-person work of attitude change that is necessary if we are to unite and create a more just and equitable world.

*To clarify, this article is focused specifically on what white anti-racism allies should do to become agents of transformation in all-white one-on-one or small group conversations.

12 replies on “Message to White Allies from A Black Anti-Racism Expert: You’re Doing It Wrong”

Very useful. Clarifies the times when I adopted an unhelpful approach…trying to school someone I judged as racist with my righteous anger, versus the times when I took time to listen, empathize, and connect before speaking. Thank you!

Thanks so very much for posting this. It has helped me and certainly will change the way I approach others who I disagree with.

Thank you for this! It has put some semi-formed ideas I had into very clear and convincing language.

Thank you for laying this out so clearly. I am aware that conversations with relatives about racism happen in a context of already entrenched family dysfunction, and this approach could be helpful toward healing those wounds as well.

Thank you for the article. Unpacking the generations of trauma that lay underneath this familial conflict is not going to be pretty. It is just complicated period. There is going to be incredible ugliness unearthed in the process. And nobody has to like it. I am not really sure it’s right be asking people to transcend at this point. Anger is sometimes the most appropriate response.

Thank you. I’ve been thinking I need to read 100 books this year and outsmart everyone in my family. I just need to be reflective, vulnerable, and listen.

This is excellent. I have long wondered how to reconcile Buddhist practice with commitment to anti-racism…or any political cause for that matter. This article helps a lot. Charles M.

Many many thanks for this! I definitely have not been a good ally in the past. This gives me a new and hopeful direction.

Excellent analysis and practical tips here! This is one of the best articles I have read that enlightens me on how to navigate testy interchanges– being respectful of others and mindful of my own limitations. This strategy could move the needle toward understanding and real communication!