Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing
Allyship v. Partnership: Anti-Racism for White Nonprofit and Philanthropic Staff and Leaders
I teach English Literature at a majority-white liberal arts college, and I am part of this majority. What can I do to ally with nonwhite students and colleagues and work with them to advance anti-racism on campus and in our community? Many things, of course, but chiefly perhaps this: I can help my white students learn to use their imaginations. Lest this response seem naïve, ineffectual, or unnecessary, consider James Baldwin, writing in 1953: “By means of what the white man imagines the black man to be, the black man is enabled to know who the white man is.” In her 2014 book Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine gave this insight an even finer point: “because white men can’t / police their imagination / black people are dying.” On the facing page, Rankine has placed a list of lives lost to police brutality. She has left it open-ended. Were it reprinted today, the list would contain too many names for its page. Rankine’s metaphor is searing, its irony terrible, its point clear: irresponsible white imaginations cost black lives.
Baldwin and Rankine teach us, among other things, that effective allyship works from the inside out. Books like Citizen and Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son can help white readers come to terms with imaginative distortions that so many of us have inherited. Reading them, we can practice listening. Admiring their excellence—theirs is writing for all time—we can remember that not all causes need an ally, however willing. Following their lead, we can enlist in what the poet William Blake once called “mental fight” against a myopia of imagination. In this summer of violence, Americans suffering from this myopia have confused children for hardened criminals, fear for anger, men and women for intruders in their own homes and neighborhoods. How do the white members of our community imagine the community’s nonwhite members? What does this say about us? What changes do we need to make? These are some of the questions I will be asking myself and my students as we embark, in a few weeks, on a semester like no other we have known.